A few hours into the battle that had local restaurants competing for the distinction of best macaroni and cheese in town, Heather O'Reilly already had a favorite in mind.
She liked the jalapeno mac and cheese from Holy Hog BBQ. Judges liked it too, naming it Best in Show.
But the dish from Jazzy's BBQ was another strong contender for O'Reilly, 34, of Tampa.
"It's gone," she said with a laugh, pointing at her and her friend's plates. "We ate it all."
More than 20 area restaurants brought out their best mac and cheese concoctions for the hundreds gathered at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday for the inaugural Mayor's Mac & Cheese Throwdown.
Food has become an important part of getting people downtown, and not just in Tampa.
Other cities like Los Angeles, Albany, N.Y., and Austin, Texas, have their own versions. Mayor Bob Buckhorn got the idea for Tampa's after visiting Aspen, Colo., and seeing a similar event.
"I got on the phone right away and said, 'We're going to do that in Tampa,' " he said.
It's another step in trying to build off a growing foodie and craft beer culture. He wants to see downtown Tampa become an "18-hour-a-day city where people live, work and play," he said.
"Each of these is a small piece of a much larger mosaic," Buckhorn said.
The city began the Mayor's Food Truck Fiesta in 2011, bringing to town a trend Buckhorn first caught on to during a trip to New York City four years ago.
Fast-forward to 2013 and Mobile-Cuisine.com, a website all about how to successfully start a food truck, named Tampa the second-best city in the country in which to open a food truck.
Atmosphere matters as much as the food does. JP Phillips, 40, and Shauna Phillips, 36, of Tampa don't go downtown often on the weekends, but events like food fests or the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival draw them there.
"Downtown is nice. We look for events to come to, to bring the family," Shauna Phillips said.
O'Reilly and her friend Jessica Smith, 31, of Tampa go to a lot of food events around the city, like the Tastes of South Tampa and New Tampa.
"We're foodies at heart," Smith said.
They go to look for local restaurants they haven't heard of so they can try them later.
"We try to look for things that aren't chains," Smith said. "It's something different to do, and it helps local businesses."
Andy Salyards, owner of Urban Brew and BBQ in St. Petersburg, has noticed that attitude since opening the restaurant 11 months ago. He took part in the throwdown to start building some buzz in Tampa, too.
"People are starting to appreciate small businesses more and things made from scratch," he said. "We work in the neighborhood, we live in the neighborhood. Eating something from your neighbor instead of from someone you've never seen, it makes a difference."
Judges on Saturday also gave honorable mentions to Mott & Hester Deli Co. and Ulele Restaurant & Brewery. Ulele took home the People's Choice award, and Fynn's Bar & Grill was named Children's Choice.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected]