By most accounts, it was an exceptionally strong spring for Hillsborough and Pinellas County restaurants, great weather and big tourist numbers bumping up sales all over. But now that we've settled into what traditionally is a slower period, take a drive by Manhattan Avenue and El Prado Boulevard in Tampa and I double-dog-dare you to find a parking place. Lots of nights, even traditionally dead nights like Mondays, this place is booming.
And that's because the owners of this newcomer, opened in December, have a novel strategy. Building owner Scott Wetmore has teamed up with Becky Pease (formerly a manager at Hops) and Lovie Hudson (former owner of Rain Lounge), with the help of Becky's husband, John, to bring South Tampa a special-event venue with an emphasis on live music. John Pease, who has done marketing for Floyd's at the Hard Rock, the Kennedy and Hyde Park Cafe, explains that the restaurant works with different charities and fundraising groups, especially on what they're calling "Miracle Mondays," to book parties, with 50 percent of the evening's sales going to the charity.
The clubby dining room has a wide open area surrounding the bar in which it's easy to congregate, as well as good audiovisual equipment and live entertainment most nights from 7 to 11 p.m.; and happy hour twice a night (5 to 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.). There's a covered patio for when the music indoors gets too noisy, and a menu of easily shared small plates that have a loosely Mediterranean spirit and wallet-friendly price points.
Head cook Rob Kelly and sous chef Rob Squires have a cheery aesthetic, easily appreciated in the regular menu or the short list of $5 happy hour dishes. From the latter, we sampled a chicken Caesar, its juicy, hot chicken breast fresh off the grill, piled atop nice crunchy romaine with a kicky dressing and accompanied by several Parmesan-crusted toasts. A good deal, as was a plate of composed short rib nachos (meaning, each red tortilla chip was heaped individually with soft shredded beef, queso fresco, onion and sauce drizzles). Add to this a plate of salted edamame ($5) from the regular menu, or a lovely arranged tomato-mozzarella salad ($8), and you've got yourself a satisfying dinner.
The only fly in the ointment on event nights is that if you're not part of the event, it's hard to get servers' attention. Service can be spotty-unto-absent, with the lion's share of effort going to shuttling drinks to the assembled partiers ($4 beer/wine/cocktail specials and skilled mixologists seem to increase demand). On a couple of visits, there were long lags between waiter visits, and dishes would arrive without silverware or without dirty dishes being removed. It made me less enthusiastic about all the well-dressed, charity-minded young professionals networking to beat the band all around me. But then I can be misanthropic when I'm hungry.
Main dishes are served "tapas style," and by that I mean that a protein is sliced into shareable pieces, sauced and garnished, but plates don't come with the protein-starch-veg lineup of a regular-style entree. There are plenty of good dishes, from the panko-crusted chicken roulade ($12) twirled around a filling of moz, prosciutto and sun-dried tomato, to roasted pork medallions with a dusky cherry demiglace and a few fluffs of Gorgonzola ($12). For the vegetarian wanting a hot dish, a portobello marinara ($10) the only option, but it's a tasty mushroom stuffed with chive-dotted goat cheese and served alongside asparagus spears.
Hudson and Pease's vision for desserts is ambitious (thus the "Dolce Bar" in the name), with a big list of liquor-amped coffees, cordials and break-the-caloric-bank cheesecakes, tortes and other confections. I wasn't charmed by a gargantuan bowl of banana fritters with ice cream ($6); a more sparing and careful presentation would have yielded a more appetizing dish. But it's certainly good to see a new concept get up and running in a less restaurant-intensive part of South Tampa.
With some tweaks to the ebbs and flows of service during special-event nights, the new Manhattan Bistro will be dolce indeed.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.