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Tampa Bay restaurants took roller coaster ride in 2009

The New York Stock Exchange has nothing on Tampa Bay area restaurants. Last year was one of volatility, marked by crashes and rallies, death knells and unexpected rebirths. One could work up a serious appetite trying to recap all the goings-on in 2009. • It was a heady year in which restaurants lived their whole life cycle within months (Edyth James' cute Jamaican Callaloo's in Clearwater opened in June and closed in November). It was a year of remarkable quick-changes and "reconceptings," mostly upscale ventures going more affordable (the Table turned into St. Pete Brasserie, Tierra Verde's Crazy Conch Cafe became WineBurgers). It was a year in which leases switched hands at a breakneck pace (Limey's became Three Little Birds, L'Olivier became Oasisand then changed hands again) and in which old favorites were saved from the brink (Bill Edwards and brothers Tommy and Vagelis Varlas took over the historic Garden). Here are some of 2009's other highlights.

Laura Reiley, Times food critic

MOST IMPORTANT RESTAURANT OPENINGS

400 Beach Seafood& Tap House: At the site of Robert Irvine's aborted Ooze and Schmooze, Steve Westphal's ambitious new project may have cemented Beach Drive as St. Petersburg's restaurant ground zero. 400 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-2400; 400beachseafood.com.

Aquaknox:A mid-century modern fantasy, this E-Brands concept, the third of its kind, opened at the base of the new Westin Tampa Bay Airport with stylish global seafood. 7627 W Courtney Campbell Parkway, Tampa; (813) 675-8700; aquaknox.net.

Blufigs: Launched in a strip mall in Carrollwood in June, Blufigs introduced hold-your-own Mediterranean small plates (not pass-'em tapas), courtesy of starting chef David Burton. Burton moved to Texas in August, but sous chef Alex Knezevic has kept pace. 15463 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 963-3447; blufigs.com.

Cities at Savant: Audacious young David Miller of Savant Fine Dining annexed the space next door and turned it into a showplace for monthly changing cuisines, plus his signature chocolate creations. 2551 Drew St., Suite 108, Clearwater; (727) 421-9975; citiesinsavant.com.

Datz Delicatessen: Roger Perry modeled his gutsy deli after the greats, Katz, Carnegie, et al. In addition to the stacked corned beef and glorious half sours, you'll find hipster waiters, gourmet grocery goods and fabulously priced beers and wines. 2616 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-7000; datzdeli.com.

Divino: Dmitry Lisovitsky took a chance on downtown Clearwater, converting an old movie theater into an Italian piazza. Already it has gone through some changes, but a new Neapolitan chef and live piano and tenor performances bring something fresh to the table. 22 N Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater; (727) 446-3075; divinorestaurant.com.

Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe: Winning funkiest opening of the year, Ernie Locke and Melissa Deming's Seminole Heights charmer gets kudos equally for its outsider-art decor and its idiosyncratic, yet healthful, menu. 5119 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 234-1000; ellasfolkartcafe.com.

The Queens Head Eurobar and Restaurant: It just keeps getting better. The outdoor cabanas are done, and now Darren Conner and Paul Smith's cheeky British pub with a gay-friendly vibe is a Grand Central favorite, many patrons drawn by Chris Greer's chic small plates. 2501 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 498-8584; thequeensheadbar.com.

Red Mesa Cantina: The Red Mesa crew took over the faltering De Santo locale last January, and it has brought new life to the glamorously reinvented McNulty Station space downstairs from Push Ultra Lounge. Best roast duck taco far or near. 128 Third St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-8226; redmesacantina.com.

The Living Room: Dunedin dining saw major changes last year, the most exciting newcomer Sarah Johnson's redo of the Deli News Cafe. Like a good living room should be, it's inviting with the right amount of formal panache. 680 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 736-5202; thelivingroomonmain.com.

SADDEST RESTAURANT CLOSURES

Big John's Alabama BBQ: Its longtime space on 40th in Tampa was leveled this past year, but word is that Big John's will rise again at the same site early this year.

Diner 437: After Grillside Central drew its last breath, Domenica Macchia (MJ's) and Greg Pugh (Ringside Cafe) joined forces at the Central Avenue spot for some postmodern diner fare (duck-fat fries). Macchia moved on to BellaBrava, and the economy did the rest.

Fred Fleming's: More bad news for barbecue fans, with both the St. Petersburg and Tampa Fred Fleming's locations going dark.

Gratzzi: A hard year for BayWalk, to be sure, with Gratzzi, Grille 121, Banbu and Johnny Rockets giving up the ghost. Gratzzi owner Domenic D'Angelo, however, is looking at spaces (including the defunct Pacific Wave) for a new Gratzzi.

La Maison Gourmet: After 12 years, John Lewis, above, called it quits in September at his cooking-school-turned-restaurant in Dunedin, partly because of the economy, partly for health reasons. He kept the space for special events and classes. (See the events calendar on Page 3E to discover what's cooking there this month.)

L'Olivier Restaurant and Cabaret and the Nest: Both opened and closed in 2009 in Ybor City, part of a brief flurry of optimism that the historic neighborhood would be the next Key West or Provincetown, Mass.

MJ's Martini Jazz & Tapas: The most exhilarating St. Petersburg opening of 2008 shut quietly in April, an off-the-beaten-path location behind an empty Bennigan's the main culprit (although the departure of chef Domenica Macchia didn't help).

Pacific Wave: One of downtown St. Petersburg's most reliable date-night spots called it quits in October after what owner Dan Smith called "an absolute tailspin summer." Its elegant sushi and Pacific Rim-inspired cooked dishes are missed.

Valencia Garden: Reverberations were felt all around the bay when the padlocks went on the doors in June. After 82 years its Cuban food wasn't necessarily the draw; its magnetism was as the longtime place to see and be seen for Tampa's power set.

BIGGEST LOCAL FOOD NEWS

• In January the food community mourned the passing of Hook Atsavinh, owner of the popular Hook's Sushi Bar and Thai Food in St. Petersburg. His friendliness and vitality are sorely missed.

• In the category of Best Chef in the South, Zack Gross of Z Grille in St. Petersburg was named a semifinalist for the 2009 James Beard Foundation Awards, and Bern's Steak House in Tampa was named semifinalist in the category of outstanding restaurant. Ocean Prime, left, opened in time for the Super Bowl, followed by Brio Tuscan Grille in October and Kona Grill in November, with a Seasons 52 to arrive in the first quarter of 2010. All are in Tampa's WestShore/International Plaza business district, increasingly a high-end dining playground.

MOST OVEREXPOSED FOODS AND HOTTEST TRENDS

• As in the rest of the country, bacon was the new black. It began cropping up in everything from ice cream to brittle (I still dream of MJ's bacon brittle).

• The cupcake fetish was fueled by Nicole Rogers, who opened her Cupcake Spot (whose treat is pictured) in downtown St. Petersburg in January and moved her Tampa location in June from S Dale Mabry, near Plant High, to S MacDill.

Sriracha sauce surpassed ketchup and just about everything else as the go-to condiment for local chefs (you've seen it: the red Asian chili sauce in the squeeze bottle made by Huy Fong Food with the rooster on the label).

• Tampa Bay chefs committed themselves to thinking global and acting local, or vice versa. More restaurants opted for biodegradable to-go containers, and many developed relationships with local farmers like Gateway Farms in Clearwater or Cahaba Clubs Herbal Outpost in Odessa. Spearheaded by Fabrizio Schenardi of Pelagia, a Tampa Bay chapter of Slow Food — a self-described eco-gastronomic member-supported organization founded "to counteract fast food and fast life" — will launch this year.

• We caught the molecular gastronomy bug in 2009, with Tampa's Chefs on the Loose, right, teaching classes on the subject and numerous local chefs dabbling in sodium alginate and calcium lactate to make mad scientist spheres, foams and powders.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.

Tampa Bay restaurants took roller coaster ride in 2009 01/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 4:36pm]
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