Mention bar food and the usual images come to mind: wings, nachos, sliders. But two South Tampa eateries known for reaching higher are rethinking the meaning of bellying up to the bar.
SideBern's is evolving. The edgy, self-aware young sister to the buttoned-down Bern's down the street still flirts with cutting edge but with the confidence to show it off in different guises, even bar food. The bargain-priced cocktail hour — cocktails and wine $5, beer $3, appetizers $6, 5 to 7 p.m. daily — is a welcome-home of sorts for those of us struggling with $15 cocktails and $36 entrees.
The bar menu was introduced in July along with a refreshed cocktail lounge. The harp-shaped, tulipwood-topped bar is still there, framed by booths on one side and a buzzy stand-up area on the other, the colors warmer and more natural.
Resident cocktail maestro Dean Hurst is firmly planted in the current cocktail reawakening, veering toward finely crafted classics like an old fashioned (Old Overholt rye and not too much ice) or a well-balanced gimlet with gin (of course) and fresh (naturally) lime juice. The Raspberry Up, with Tito's Handmade vodka, is pucker intensive. The six beers, microbrews all, included Tampa's highly regarded Jai Alai India Pale Ale by Cigar City Brewery. Wine choices included a 2008 Cotes du Rhone from France and a 2007 tempranillo from Oregon.
Six appetizers, or bar bites, rotate among a dozen dishes on a chef's whim. A three-piece cheese platter is drawn from an extensive artisanal selection; a recent platter included Cypress Grove Purple Haze with house-made candied olives. Other choices include fun, two-bite tuna tacos, squared crab cakes enhanced by sweet Peekytoe crab from Maine, and goat cheese arancini (small risotto balls; tasty but forgettable). A highlight was beef tartare from Deep Creek Ranch in DeLand and a bit of Bern's aged Delmonico, topped with shavings of dried Spanish cheese and hair-thin strands of Japanese chili. And, because executive chef Chad Johnson loves to challenge: lengua. This taqueria standard is given the Chef Chad treatment: highly refined beef tongue — Deep Creek again — thinly sliced, brined for days, poached in spices and served in a thin, white champagne sauce with sweet onions, sugar, rosemary and aleppo pepper.
Technically this is bar food, since you are sitting at a bar, but evolved and reimagined.
Pane Rustica is growing up. Born a humble bakery, it grew into a swanky lunch spot known for inventive pizzas, sandwiches and salads, and then a lively, casual spot for fine dining. A full-bloom transformation this summer brought more dining space and — here's the grownup part — a cocktail lounge.
Situated just to the left of the entrance, the lounge has an inviting U-shaped, quartz-topped bar, with a few cozy booths along one wall, high-top tables along another. It's a relaxing place for a drink that also offers — finally — a comfortable perch to wait for a table.
Adding the lounge meant pushing beyond the limits of beer and wine. It's still a work in progress, having been opened only a few months. Owners Karen and Kevin Kruszewski are developing some specialty cocktails and expanded the list of bottled microbrews. But the real fun is the bar food, priced as if it were happy hour all the time.
Some items are twists on classic bar items, like truffled potato chips ($5), fresh, house-made and enlivened by a warm caramelized onion dip. A trio of crab cakes ($8) was serviceable, but don't expect lumps of crab for that price. Other choices are more ambitious: a duck confit cassoulet ($7), cracked pepper tenderloin sate ($9), Mediterranean calamari salad ($6).
The best dish for sharing — the best dish period — is a hearty braised cheek duo ($13). Velvety veal with mushrooms paired with equally fork-tender pork with pearl onions. The rich sauce will make you want to lick the plate.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at (727) 893-8312.