Chains are born here. There are multiple reasons for this, some involving the demographics of the area. But this is one crucial part: Businesspeople launch restaurants with the intention of replicating them, either as multi-unit or franchise concepts. Put another way: A second location isn't merely the result of a successful first one, it's by design.
An independent restaurant, usually the vision of a single person, family or partnership, operates by fundamentally different imperatives than a chain, even a would-be chain. The founder of a chain concerns himself with how easy it is to replicate the menu and streamline training and whether or not it will "play in Peoria."
For a chain, successful food is often accessible food that plays to the lowest common denominator, put together in a menu that tells a story but doesn't push the envelope or spook the horses. That's what Carmel Café does.
The fourth location of this concept spearheaded by Outback co-founder Chris Sullivan opened in August in South Tampa in a drop-dead gorgeous building designed by Alfonso Architects (who also designed Grille One Sixteen, which Carmel's exterior strongly resembles). The 4,000-square-foot interior is lovely, with a long and dramatic mural painted by Alberto Alfonso, founding principal of the architecture firm.
Already waits are long and the valet parkers seem perpetually in a lather.
But what's on the plate? It's the Olive Garden of Mediterranean small plates. Several dishes are actively poor, but much of the menu is merely bland. In a city that has sizzled of late with exciting new restaurants (look for a review of the new Oxford Exchange in a couple weeks), it's perplexing that people are lining up for such anemic Caesar salads ($3.69) and flavorless edamame hummus ($3.79).
But I think I know why. Carmel Café is stylish but affordable. And more than that, it's novel. In its first locations, it used iPads in the service of the wine program, but it has graduated to a full iPad ordering system with patrons scrolling through menu categories and looking at photos, firing their own orders when they feel ready. They can pay directly from the iPad, order more wine, check their subtotal — in true 21st century style, it obviates the need for much conversation at all.
And therein lie some problems. In several visits, servers were reduced to holding up a dish in the hopes of finding an owner. The ambitious wine program was undermined when a server couldn't tell the difference between a red and a rose. And because servers don't know what you've ordered, if the iPad ordering misfires (as it did when we ordered a salad and a burger at one time, which was recorded amusingly in the system as "Caesar salad, medium rare"), you're out of luck.
Glitches in the system and service can be ironed out, but the real problem is what's on the plate at Carmel Café. A Moroccan lemon chicken ($9.79 for small, $12.99 for large) was dry, unattractive and swimming in a flavorless broth. A plate of "roasted vegetables" ($7.59) brought virtually raw cauliflower, squash and such, utterly unseasoned. A pistachio apricot quinoa ($2.49) was a back-to-the-drawing-board pile of sweet sludge.
With traditional meze options like baba ganoush ($3.99) or warm olives ($4.99), virtually any mom-and-pop Middle Eastern restaurant in the area could run circles around the Carmel version. Where Carmel manages to rise above mediocrity is with more American fare: hearty meatballs in a lively tomato sauce ($6.49), a solid Meyer beef hamburger with fries ($8.79), soft braised short ribs over creamy polenta ($9.49 small, $13.99 large).
The wine list is the high point at Carmel Café, a mix of Old World and New World wines offered in pours of three sizes as well as by the bottle. Interesting stuff, fairly priced. A case in point: A St. Suprey Estate, 2006 Napa Valley cab is listed at $48 per bottle; it retails for around $33 — not a bad markup. And Michael David's 2009 petite sirah/petit verdot blend sells for $37; retail you may be able to find it for around $15. Still, with so few staffers able to speak intelligently about wine, you're left to hunt and peck on the iPad.
This review may do little to discourage the hoards of Tampa Bay diners who are already fans of the growing number of Carmel Cafés. They are lively and hip, with a see-and-be-seen glamor. But, to be the kind of chain concept the Tampa Bay area claims with pride, service and food need much more attention.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.