TAMPA — "Forty-five minutes."
I stood there bug-eyed, my feet rooted. It has finally happened. Tampa had tipped over into the kind of place where, on a Tuesday at noon, a restaurant could be so buzzy, so delectably hip, that business people and ladies-who-lunch alike were willing to cool their jets for close to an hour.
The hostess, thinking I was slow or hard of hearing, repeated herself. It would be a 45-minute wait, she said. Too long for me.
Thus, my first visit to the Oxford Exchange had to be postponed.
Not that there weren't plenty of other things to do in this historic building, dating to about 1910, a couple doors down from Mise en Place on Kennedy Boulevard and not far from another new and hot place, Jeannie Pierola's Edison. Vacant for decades, it was originally a horse stable. If the horses could see it now: marble and brass, soaring ceilings, flickering gas lamps and a black-and-white checkered floor that attract hungry souls like moths to a flame. It's straight-up gorgeous, with a kind of retro-chic that is nearly impossible to calculate just right. Owner Blake Casper, who owns 52 other restaurants, all of them McDonald's, has spared no expense on the Oxford Exchange, which is indeed reminiscent of some of London's poshest cafes (Casper, 39, got an up-close look in the mid 1990s when he attended the London School of Economics). He and his sister, Allison Adams, have put together a series of interwoven elements unprecedented in Tampa.
There's a tiny bookstore, the kind there are too few of these days. It's a cherry-picked collection of reads, grouped under categories like "Trenchant" and "Complicated Women," and displayed to maximize the caressing of spines and riffling of pages. There is a Buddy Brew coffee stand and a TeBella bar, both boons to the city in their own right, but working seamlessly as the beverage program at Oxford Exchange. Upstairs is the "Commerce Club," rentable office spaces like those you'll find in New York and San Francisco, reminiscent, Casper says, of the Crown Room in airports.
And there's a shop that could only be categorized as a "lifestyle boutique." It's an assemblage of giftwares, housewares and tchotchkes that could best be described as aspirational, as in, "I aspire to be the kind of person who whips out these adorably whimsical ice tongs for the stunning craft cocktails my husband will make for an impromptu Friday night gathering where I unveil my house-made prosciutto as my friends cast off their effortlessly hip jackets and shoes to lounge more comfortably by the crackling fire."
Forgive me, I got lost in that reverie for a moment. The 24,000-square-foot Oxford Exchange serves only breakfast and lunch, with no alcohol (a condition of sharing a parking lot with the church across the street). This model is a tough one, business-wise. Dinner is where the big money is, and alcohol often seems an essential way to offset high food and labor costs. But Oxford Exchange seems to be a labor of love, a box of chocolates proffered affectionately toward Tampa's dining public.
The fanciest chocolate in the box goes by the name chef Erin Guggino. I first wrote about her in 2003 when her last name was Van Zandt and, as a fresh graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, she was the chef of the super-hip Water in South Tampa. It was a unique vision of sushi — Japanese, but rolled with rice paper, not nori, and paired with dynamic East/West fusion sauces that made wasabi seem so 20th century. From there, she went to Mad Dogs and Englishmen and renovated the British-ish menu. Some years later she reinvented the restaurant at the Tahitian Inn with the Asian-Latin mash-up Kon Tiki, the Tampa Bay Times enthusiastically awarded three stars. And now she's been tapped for the breakfast and lunch menus at Oxford Exchange.
The food is solid, much of it very good. But I wonder if Casper and his management team have given Guggino too narrow a window in which to strut her stuff. At breakfast, it's omelets, pancakes, waffles and such; at lunch it's mostly salads and sandwiches (with fries that are suspiciously McDonald's-like, although Casper resolutely claims otherwise). In a setting with the capacity to shock, awe and (depending on your sensibility) intimidate, the menu isn't as apt to wow. There are a few pitter-pat-worthy items: the crispy, salty fried chickpeas ($5.50), the delicate filigreed sheets of fried kale ($7.50) served with two dipping sauces, one of Asian-inflected vinaigrette and one a pimenton-spiked aioli.
There are sophisticated salads, such as chopped spinach ($11.50) elevated by mint, farro and a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds, and a gorgeous seabass-like branzino ($15) elegantly served with sides of lentils and a sweet-spicy roasted eggplant.
But big sellers like the ground chicken burger ($11) to my mind lacked "oomph" and need the volume turned up on the seasoning and the diced jalapeno. Same goes for a carefully made omelet of bacon, scallion, cheddar and potato ($10, all omelets served with a small ramekin of sliced citrus fruit, toast and housemade preserves). When the setting, as well as the coffee and tea service, are so exceptional, you want the menu to come with some surprises, something that says "sure, it's breakfast, but this ain't your standard egg sandwich."
Oxford Exchange's club sandwich ($10) is worthy, its grilled cheese with side of vinegary gazpacho ($7.50) suitably gooey (all right, maybe overly gooey). But Guggino has the chops to compete ably with some of the area's other notable newcomers, especially given Casper's evident deep pockets and attention to detail (the bill comes in a used book, mine one day a charmingly abused copy of Death of a Salesman; and then the receipt is returned with a printed quotation from a famous writer).
Less than a month old, this newcomer has knocked Tampa for a loop with its sheer style. It has already shown it can juggle diverse elements, from bookstore to private parties in the evenings, with servers who are adept at managing some serious crowds. Now the key is to give Guggino and the kitchen the license to stray from the script. With McDonald's as his proving ground, Casper comes from a tradition of a narrow idiom. It will take faith and courage to allow Oxford Exchange's kitchen to fulfill its potential.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter: @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.