It is a quiet Friday night at Walt's Seasonal Cuisine in Dunedin, and sisters Melissa and Rachel Mita are tucking into sauteed soft shell crab, with hogfish and scallops on the way. They could be at a quiet corner table but instead are perched at the counter and bantering with chef-owner Walt Wickman about the crab.
"I usually sit at the counter,'' says Rachel, 36, who is so dedicated to dining that she collects menus from her visits to some of the best restaurants in the country. "If we have a big party we'll sit at a table, but I prefer the counter.''
"Here you can have a conversation with the chef,'' says Melissa, 38.
And it's more social, Rachel points out. "You meet so many different kinds of people, and that's always fun.''
The chef's counter was part of the original design of Walt's. "We figured people dining alone or people who enjoy watching people prepare the food would enjoy sitting up there,'' Wickman says. "It runs the whole gamut, from young people who want to be chefs to older people who like to watch the Food Network and enjoy watching people cook.''
San Francisco claims the first chef's counter, and perhaps the most famous is L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris, where there are no tables, just seats around the counter.
Food-centric diners like the Mita sisters seek out the chef's counter because it gets them closer to the action. Others wind up there by default — they didn't want to wait for a table — and find an entertaining alternative to the traditional four-top. It's like a sushi bar without all the raw fish.
Chef's counters vary depending on the restaurant. Unlike chef's tables, which are tucked in the kitchen and often feature splurge-worthy tasting menus, chef's counters usually have no more than a dozen chairs at the edge of an open kitchen. Counter devotees tend to ask a lot of questions — How's that sauce made? Where's that fish from? What'd you just sprinkle on that calamari? — and might apply what they learn at home. Sometimes they're rewarded with a sample.
The chef's counter is not for every diner or every chef. Diners have to enjoy the clang of pots and pans and the frenetic energy of a restaurant kitchen, and the cooks need to be engaging. "You have to make an experience of it,'' says Kevin Kruszewski, owner of Pane Rustica in Tampa.
It sounds like Jeannie Pierola plans her own version of a chef's counter at a new restaurant called Kitchen Bar. Pierola, former executive chef at Bern's and Sidebern's, begins a slow reveal during six dining events at existing restaurants, starting at Pinky's Diner in South Tampa on Nov. 8.
The personal touch
Sitting at some chef's counters is like having a personal chef.
At the Pearl Restaurant (163 107th Ave., Treasure Island; (727) 360-9151), regulars put themselves in the hands of chef-owner Karim Chiadmi. "They want to talk to me,'' he says. "I talk to them. I say, 'What are you in the mood for tonight?' '' If he's got it, he'll make it, whether it's on the menu or not.
He has many regulars who prefer the counter so much they will leave if they can't sit there. With only five stools, it can be hit or miss, so some people will reserve a spot. Mondays are popular because of the 20-item, $5 tapas menu. It's fun to let the chef choose for you: some blue cheese pate followed by some garlicky hummus, roasted red peppers, a bit of fish tangine with mako shark. On Wednesdays, the counter becomes a classroom, with hands-on demonstrations in which you can cook or just watch; at the end of class everyone eats.
Wickman takes a similar personal approach at his eponymous Walt's Seasonal Cuisine (1140 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 733-1909). The Dunedin native is the owner, chef and primary cook. He builds his menu around whatever's fresh at the market that day, though he has his standby dishes, such as hogfish or a buttery beef tenderloin. Mondays draw crowds to the counter for all-you-can-eat mussels of various kinds.
It's an intimate place, just 40 seats at tables and eight at the horseshoe-shaped counter — or chef's bar, as Wickman calls it — so it tends to be a little less frenetic than at larger restaurants. Wickman is happy to explain what he's doing or tell stories about his uncle running the fish house at the Dunedin wharf.
"He's pretty engaging,'' says Rachel Mita, a teacher at Dunedin Elementary. She especially likes it for solo dining. "You don't feel like you're alone,'' she says. "It's very personal.''
Class at the counter
Food instruction is more central to the chef's counter at Datz (2616 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-7000). Detached from the kitchen, next to the entrance, the Datz counter has been there less than a year and serves multiple functions: informal lunchtime cooking classes, happy hour bar for street food like pulled-pork arepas and shrimp tacos and the pricier seven-course tasting menu at night ($85 to $125, reservations required).
A recent lunch-hour cooking class featured a mesclun salad with wild hibiscus, goat cheese and chives and hibiscus-glazed roast beef.
"The goal with Datz was always to be a foodie place,'' says Heather Anne Stalker, the gastropub's director of fun.
The U-shaped counter has about a dozen stools, with a calm pace that leaves more time for conversation with the chef. Or straight-up instruction. Tuesday nights are devoted to beer classes, Thursday is for wine, Saturday is for cheese.
The art of pizza
Kruszewski won't let just any cook work the chef's counter at his South Tampa restaurant, Pane Rustica (3225 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 902-8828). "There has to be that interpersonal relationship'' with the customers, he says. Chef's counter cooks must be on their best behavior — no yelling or throwing of f-bombs. You can't just put your head down and cook, either. You have to be willing to entertain.
Pane Rustica's counter is five stools directly in front of the pizza station, so it's popular with kids — and parents looking to keep their kids busy. "Sometimes the whole counter will be filled with kids,'' Kruszewski says. Other times it's couples looking for a diversion. "They've had a long week and they don't want to talk to each other. They just want to be entertained and relax,'' he says.
For real pizza geeks, nothing beats the counter at Wood Fired Pizza in north Tampa (2822 E Bearss Ave., Tampa; (813) 341-2900), especially if you happen to get some face time with chef-owner Peter Taylor. He requires no prompting to recall his 20-year quest to make the perfect pizza, or to talk about the oven he built himself, or the local strain of yeast he captured for the handmade crust.
It's like a graduate course in pizzamaking. Taylor also will set you up a flight of excellent microbrews or glass of wine that pairs well with your pizza. Technically it's more bar than chef's counter, but the pizza station is so close you get a good view of all the pizza love going on nearby.
Be a part of the action
Every chef has a similar explanation for what draws diners to the chef's counter: the action. At Roy's Hawaiian Fusion (4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697), the action seems a little more intense because of the sheer size of the kitchen, with a half-dozen or more cooks working the line, steam rising, flames shooting up.
"If you're looking for a quiet, intimate dining experience,'' says Kiel Lombardo, corporate chef for Roy's, "the chef's counter is probably not the place to be.''
But if you're a devotee of cooking shows, it can be very entertaining.
What started as a way to handle the overflow on busy nights has turned into prime seats for many. "It's extremely popular,'' says Lombardo. Part of it, he says, is the Food Network effect: Cooking looks fun on TV, and people want to see it in person.
The counter makes a good setting for cooking classes, and a new lineup of classes will be rolling out in January, Lombardo says.
With more than 230 locations across the country and a moderate price point, Roy's sister chain Carrabba's is a good way to see if you are a chef's counter candidate. Carrabba's calls it the pasta bar, but the concept is the same. They tend to be slightly bigger than most chef's counters, with a dozen or more seats spread in clumps across the open kitchen near the pasta, pizza or salad station, or the grill. "You can see all of it from most seats,'' says Vince Kassay, managing partner of the Palm Harbor Carrabba's.
Like many chef's counters, the pasta bar draws many loyalists who won't sit anywhere else.
"There are often times when the counter is full and tables are empty," Kassay says. "I have one lady who comes in every Monday and hands Kit Kats down the line.''
Tom Scherberger can be reached at (727) 893-8312.