Three new Tampa Bay area restaurant projects show economy's growth

Three ambitious new Tampa Bay restaurant projects with high-profile chefs point to improving conditions.
Published April 20 2013

Unemployment is down and the Dow is bouncing back, too. But want another indication that the economic picture is getting sunnier?

New restaurants are popping up all over the Tampa Bay area.

And even more heartening is this: A lot of these new projects are the work of seasoned industry veterans ready to wade into the fray again to try something new. A trio of the area's most high-profile chefs are bringing new ventures to South Tampa, Tampa Heights and Madeira Beach before the end of the year.

The property at 1502 S Howard Ave. in Tampa has tales to tell, all of them a chapter of restaurateur Gordon Davis' life. The first chapter was Le Bordeaux, a 15-year French country run, followed by a shorter chapter as West Indies-inspired St. Bart's Island House. Then came a period as Ceviche, and finally a super short chapter, nearly a haiku, as Samba Room. The story continues, with Davis' CopperFish opening in May.

"Samba Room wasn't doing the numbers we wanted it to do," says Davis. "We took on some new partners six months ago to expand on the farm-to-table concept."

By this Davis alludes to his nearby restaurant Boca Kitchen Bar Market that opened nearly two years ago. He brought on twins Chas and Kyle Bruck for this new project, with the aim of launching a seafood restaurant that, like Boca and his other restaurant Ciro's, relies heavily on craft cocktails and organic, locally grown produce. What will make CopperFish stand out from, say, Ocean Prime or the just-launched Eddie V's, both on Boy Scout Boulevard, is a focus on fish from the Gulf of Mexico.

"We will have a list of about 14 to 18 different fish that changes every week, half of them locally caught," Davis said. "We'll have yellowtail snapper and grouper, and we'll bring in line-caught sheepshead and hogfish speared here, as well as cobia. We'll be bringing in line-caught swordfish and black cod, no farmed fish."

According to Davis, CopperFish will be of the "less is more" school, grilling fish simply over pecan and fruit wood. There will be grilled oysters and an expansive raw bar. To fit the local theme, executive chef Richard Pims, who most recently worked at Sea Fire Grill in New York, will bring in pork from Palmetto and other locally raised meat as well (beef is the tricky one, according to Davis).

To suit the new concept, the Samba Room space is undergoing a renovation, with natural woods and old brick on the walls.

Meanwhile, Ybor City's best-known restaurateur, Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia, is embarking on something altogether new of his own. He has teamed with Keith Sedita, who was with OSI for 13 years and helped develop the Carmel Café concept. At the site of a Tampa Heights steam-powered pump house that dates to 1902, they will launch Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits. Leasing the space from the city, they will preserve the historic exterior while the Beck Group reimagines the interior space.

The name requires a little back story. In 2006, Tampa Eagle Scout Chris Longo petitioned the city to rename Magbee Spring near the Hillsborough River behind Stetson Law School on Florida Avenue. Its namesake Judge James T. Magbee had been a scalawag by many accounts. Instead, how about calling it Ulele Spring, named after a 16th century Timicuan teenager who helped save the first European settler in North America? Okay, said the city.

This new restaurant pays homage to the Timicuan girl with its name, and also its cuisine. According to Sedita, Ulele will serve food inspired by early Florida Native American fare, but also that of later Florida pioneers. With a target opening date in the fourth quarter of this year, the large restaurant (6,800 square feet in the first phase, with a microbrewery to follow) will celebrate smoked mullet, the beauty of blue crab and a raft of other indigenous foods.

Slated to open around the same time in Pinellas County, Gulf Grill of Madeira Beach is the new project of veteran restaurateur Steve Westphal (Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House, the Pub, the Hangar Restaurant).

"Right now it's a stretch of sand at 140th and Gulf Boulevard," says Westphal. "It's facing the gulf and the beautiful sunsets, so you better believe we're going to have a good sunset special."

Beyond that, a lot is still up in the air.

"For now we have a general direction, but we very much need to feel out what will be proper for the neighborhood."

As with all his restaurants, Tyson Grant will be assisting with the menu, and as with Davis' new project, there will be a focus on farm-to-table produce and sustainable seafood. Westphal also envisions retro-classic cocktails like mai tais and Planter's punches (very sunset appropriate) at what he calls a "casual upscale" concept.

Why a new restaurant to add to his already crowded lineup? Perhaps Westphal's sentiment is shared by all three restaurateurs: "I get the most enjoyment from the creation process. This is a clean palette to work from. I like to dream, and dream big."

Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.