Halloween decorations back in the attic, thoughts turn to the holiday season before us. On many people's wish list is a holiday party venue — someplace intimate and memorable that's not going to break the bank. For a large party, hotel ballrooms or private banquet venues (Louis Pappas Riverside Restaurant in Tarpon Springs now does big private parties, and Nova 535 in St. Petersburg is a great space for a gala) are obvious, but what about for the smaller gathering, somewhere between 12 and 40 people?
It has been a rough year for restaurants and as a result many are actively courting private parties and catering. Still, weekends in November and December fill up quickly, so begin your search soon. Many restaurants are willing to work with you on the details, but you need to have your ducks in a row: How many people; what's your budget; what's your target date (with a backup, just in case)?
Says Ocean Prime dining room manager Rhonda Woida: "The most important thing is to convey what the event is and what the customer is trying to get from the experience. Is the event a straight business sit-down dinner, or would it be better with an hour of appetizers and cocktails?"
Beyond an appropriately sized space, a party host needs to think about how the restaurant's culinary focus meshes with the party's vision.
"The most important thing to find out is how reputable the restaurant is and how consistent the food is," says Sam Shah, owner of Mangroves in South Tampa. And in terms of cost, many restaurants offer either a per-person price or a per-item price. A cash bar can keep costs down, as can before-party selection of wines, bringing your own dessert or ordering a dessert tray instead of individual plated desserts (according to Shah, there are fewer takers these days on dessert).
Here are 10 Tampa Bay area venues that offer nice spaces for smallish holiday gatherings.
. Luna at Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park
950 Lake Carillon Drive; (727) 540-0050
Luna's private dining room is available for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily and can accommodate 12 in a sleek, masculine, boardroom setting, says John Fraser, director of food and beverage. Because of its proximity to HSN headquarters, the Hilton and its restaurant play frequent host to Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Todd English and Emeril Lagasse, which certainly speaks to the refinement of the menu.
Wow factor: Its location makes it accessible from the business district along Ulmerton Road, but also with easy access to Tampa.
. The Table
539 Central Ave.; (727) 823-3700
New owner Andrew Wilkins is in the process of changing the Table's culinary focus from Atlantic Rim cuisine to French brasserie staples such as steak frites and cassoulet. There are two private dining rooms adjacent to the main dining room, a boardroom-style space that seats 14 to 16 people, and a second, larger room that seats up to 40 people with booth seating. Parties can have cocktails in the main bar before dinner, with a range of menu options including a three-course set menu for $30 per person.
Wow factor: Wilkins has brought prices down significantly at the Table, and brings great flexibility to special-event menu planning.
. The Venue
2675 Ulmerton Road; (727) 571-2222; thevenueclub.com
When the Venue opened in 2008 there was a whole lot to write about: 27,000 square feet with eight themed areas including an "ultra lounge," martini bar, outside deck bar, champagne lounge, cabana deck and a couple of restaurants. The private dining space is lovely, a wine room that displays 1,100 bottles and is available for an intimate dinner for two or up to 25 for a small party. There is also a second banquet room that seats more than 25 with a boardroom table, remote access to the Internet and full A/V capabilities.
Wow factor: Chef Robert Uzzillia, who oversees both the on-site small-plate restaurant Viaggio and the hip sushi bar called Takara, is extremely talented, with an aesthetic that is resoundingly contemporary and visually arresting.
At the beaches
. Five Five One
551 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater Beach; (727) 447-5200; prime551.com
It's new and slated to open the week after Thanksgiving in the location that used to be Shells at the north end of the Clearwater Pass Bridge. The 14,000-square-foot facility includes a beachfront restaurant and bar, banquet facilities, a casual dining venue with entertainment, raw bar, tiki bar and a beach club with swimming pool and cabanas. One private dining room seats up to 20 and another, called the Venetian, seats up to 60 people with waterfront and sunset views.
Wow factor: A project of Martin Smith, director of the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club & Spa, Five Five One's slogan is "Five venues, five menus and one great beach." The culinary focus is a Northern California/Floridian fusion, heavy on the seafood and steaks. In the smaller private room there's a tableside cooking option.
. Marlin Darlin Grill
2819 West Bay Drive, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 584-1700
Several months ago, Tom Pritchard and Frank Chivas converted Marlin Darlin's front room into a cozy private dining space that comfortably seats 40 people. According to banquet manager JoAnne Konczal, special-event menus range from $19.95 to $29.95 per person, although the staff is willing to custom-design a suitable menu.
Wow factor: As with all of this team's restaurants (Salt Rock Grill, Island Way, Rumba), the wine list is exceptionally well conceived and the kitchen's skill with seafood is manifest with every dish.
. BRIO Tuscan Grille
2223 N West Shore Blvd.; (813) 373-2597; brioitalian.com
Brio, opened last month in International Plaza's Bay Street, offers the entire second floor of the venue as indoor and outdoor private event space, with six private rooms and two outdoor patios. Three of the private rooms are adjacent to an outdoor patio and three private rooms are attached to outdoor patio space allowing various opportunities to configure space to accommodate parties from 16 to 225. The upper-level event space has a separate kitchen and bar area as well as private restrooms to service events. A 19-page banquet menu gives a range of party possibilities, from appetizer platters and continental breakfasts to multicourse luncheons.
Wow factor: A $10 gift card will be given to all guests attending holiday parties booked Sunday to Thursday until Dec. 15, and through Dec. 31, for every $50 gift card purchased, guests will receive a $10 gift for themselves for use from Jan. 1 through March 15.
. Mangroves Bar & Grill
208 S Howard Ave.; (813) 258-3302; mangroves- restaurants.com
Two private dining rooms include one that seats up to 20, sequestered from the rest of the dining room by a drawn curtain, and the other on the mezzanine level, seating up to 65 more privately. The upstairs option has its own bar, making it amenable to a cocktail hour before a sit-down function. The Web site offers a full banquet menu with per-person menu pricing as well as per-piece pricing.
Wow factor: Its SoHo location puts it at the epicenter of hip South Tampa nightlife.
. Mitchell's Fish Market
204 N Plaza Lane; (813) 289-3663; mitchellsfishmarket.com
This chain seafooder's Ocean Liner's Lounge is an entirely private room that seats up to 12 people; offset from rest of dining room, the semiprivate Normandy Room holds up to 40. Patrons can utilize the regular menu and banquet menus are available online. Prices are per person, and menus include a choice of soup or salad, a choice of entree and a slice of key lime pie and complimentary coffee, soda or tea.
Wow factor: If you book before Sunday, a current promotion gives credit back: Spend $400 to $799 and receive a $40 gift card, spend $800 to $1,199 and receive an $80 gift card, spend $1,200 and above, get $120 back.
. Ocean Prime
2205 N West Shore Blvd.; (813) 490-5288; ocean-prime.com
The most glamorous opening in 2009 near International Plaza, the Ohio-based steak-and-seafood concept has a glass-enclosed private dining area for 15 called the Board Room just off the main dining room, as well as a curtained, semiprivate table for up to eight guests. Another private dining room accommodates 50 but can be partitioned in half for smaller parties. Ocean Prime offers per-person preset menus but is flexible in party-planning menus.
Wow factor: According to dining room manager Rhonda Woida, the gorgeous outdoor patio lounge area is suitable for parties, especially cocktail-and-appetizer gatherings.
. Cantina Laredo
The Shops at Wiregrass, 2000 Piazza Ave., Wesley Chapel; (813) 907-3068; cantinalaredo.com
A private dining room is separated from the main room by sliding glass doors and seats up to 30 people. It has functioned equally well as a business meeting venue (full A/V hookups) and for small weddings and family gatherings. General manager Jason Pratt works with party hosts to design menus of upscale regional Mexican food for different budgets.
Wow factor: The Shops at Wiregrass goes nuts with the Christmas decorations (last year there was a 50-foot tree, "Symphony of Lights" and recorded holiday music performed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra), so a holiday party is especially festive in this setting.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.