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Tampa Bay area arts halls offer a bite to eat before the show

It's the oldest one-two punch in the book. A bite to eat, a bit of entertainment, and, voila, it's a night to remember. As the performing arts season gears up, we take a look at the dining options at some of the bay area's arts venues.

Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center

Chef Rusty Evers has big plans. In January she aims to take Maestro's Restaurant, the top offering at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, from a buffet format to a la carte, giving downtown Tampa another much-needed high-end dining option. For now, though, Maestro's is open for the Broadway series and other big shows (mostly those in Carol Morsani Hall), with a buffet that is often themed to a particular show (for The Lion King, Evers researched African recipes and served wild game; for Mamma Mia! there was wedding cake), served from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., for $27.50 per person. Most frequent theatergoers will also be familiar with the casual cafe in the Morsani Hall lobby (also offering a dinner buffet for $24.50), but what seems to be one of the center's best-kept secrets is the charming outdoor On the River Cafe. On a recent evening, the wide patio's cafe umbrellas riffled in the slight breeze from the Hillsborough River while diners enjoyed cheeseburgers and crusty Cuban sandwiches al fresco. On the River is open for lunch and dinner to diners with no tickets, making it another fun option on the scene for downtown workers.

St. Pete Times Forum

There's something incongruous about throngs of people in hockey jerseys tucking into lobster tails and king crab legs, but no matter. Medallions Restaurant is the top dining option at the St. Pete Times Forum, offering a $42 all-you-care-to-eat buffet in a vast room banked on one side by windows that look down onto the Times Forum's broad entrance courtyard.

On a recent preseason Lightning game night, action stations set up around the room offered a range of salads (the best of which was a BLT version packed with bacon and sweet cherry tomatoes), a carving station of rosy prime rib served with horseradish cream or simple roast turkey, then more gastronomically ambitious stations featuring tiny lobster tails sauteed in garlic butter while you watch, or thin-sliced filet mignon seared quickly and ladled with rich mushroom marsala sauce.

The center of the room is given over to more traditional covered chafing dishes — the most successful of which were those that can sit a spell. Braises or simple steamed dishes fared better than grilled salmon or blackened chicken, which can get dry while waiting for takers.

Servers are quick to whisk your old plates away and tend to your drink needs, quickly readying you to head down to the game or concert. While Medallions is the "splurge" offering at the Times Forum, Icons Lounge has a similar buffet option, and Shots Sportsbar serves up Westshore Pizza along with your favorite quaff.

Ringling Museum of Art/Asolo Theater

Opened in March 2006 in the new John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Treviso is a lovely post-museum or pre-Asolo Theater option. A museum admission ticket is not necessary to visit the restaurant for lunch or dinner, and the room itself is an artsy, high-ceilinged affair with a long, black-and-white cityscape mural of an ancient map of the namesake Italian city.

Unclothed tables make the room a little stark and echoey, but the service is warm and short menu appealing.

It's loosely Italian and modestly priced, with a special offer running through Oct. 25 where, Wednesday through Saturday, a dining duo can pick two starters, two entrees, a dessert sampler and a bottle of wine for $50 for two.

On a recent evening, this was a striking bargain. We started with a simple baby greens salad dotted with shaved Parmesan and cherry tomatoes, napped in a balanced balsamic vinaigrette ($7 a la carte), and a pair of Maryland-style crab cakes with a frizzle of mixed greens and a heap of papaya salad ($13 a la carte). We followed with grilled miso ginger prawns with coconut mango rice ($22 a la carte) and a simple lemony sauteed chicken breast dotted with capers ($18 a la carte), and finished with a trio of tiny desserts, the best a lush vanilla creme brulee.

Add to that a pleasant bottle of chardonnay and the knowledge that Treviso is the first Sarasota spot to be a Certified Green Restaurant (they have an extensive recycling program, use no chemical cleaners or Styrofoam and are committed to other efforts to preserve the environment), and it's an easy call on curtain-call evenings.

Ruth Eckerd Hall

Performers at Ruth Eckerd Hall are treated backstage to a sit-down dinner or buffet that is thematically tied to the evening's concert or show. Alas, for ticket holders the options are more limited. According to Gabe Impemba, food and beverage director at Ruth Eckerd, this Clearwater venue is considering offering a pre-performance dining schedule.

Until such a time, concertgoers can choose from Angus beef hot dogs ($3.50, offered at pop performances only), grab-and-go roast turkey, chicken, ham or veggie wraps ($8, they come in a plastic, octagonal container with fresh fruit and pasta salad), cake slices from Creative Cuisine in Tampa ($3.50 to $4, from chocolate raspberry to a sinful Empire State chocolate cake) and a range of chips, candy and coffee drinks. Ticket holders in search of more substantial sustenance may head nearby to Tio Pepe's on Gulf-to-Bay, Vincenzo's on McMullen-Booth Road or an array of nearby chains.

Mahaffey Theater

The Mahaffey Theater has a formal dining arrangement with bay area restaurants. Though it has no public dining room of its own, its location downtown in St. Petersburg allows for a range of appealing options, the venue pairing specifically with a number of restaurants in its Mahaffey Gourmet Program. Bella Brava, Cafe Alma, Central Avenue Oyster Bar, Gratzzi Ristorante, Marchand's Bar and Grill at the Vinoy, Pacific Wave, Parkshore Grill, and Tangerine Restaurant at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront offer a meal discount or free glass of wine when diners show their Mahaffey Theater tickets. An added benefit of this program is that servers are alerted to the fact that they've got to feed guests and get them out the door before the lights dim and the curtain goes up.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center

1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa

(813) 222-1000

St. Pete Times Forum

401 Channelside Drive, Tampa

(813) 301-6926

Treviso Restaurant

John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art

John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion

5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota

(941) 360-7390

Ruth Eckerd Hall

1111 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater

(727) 791-7400

Mahaffey Theater

400 First St. S,
St. Petersburg

(727) 892-5798

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Tampa Bay area arts halls offer a bite to eat before the show 10/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 8, 2008 5:32pm]

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