They were once crowded out by golden arches, countless Asian-themed take-outs and those American grills where bric-a-brac covers the walls.
Their cuisine ranges from spaghetti and meatballs to stuffed grape leaves. Some serve crisp Kobe beef or creamy curry and offer heaping, homemade helpings or minimalist plate presentations.
Their increasing presence likely reflects a change in residents' tastes, which is characteristic of maturing suburbs. Make room chain restaurants, independently owned east Hillsborough eateries are on the rise. They are cropping up in a region long dominated by chains and franchises.
"A chain gets stale," said Lloyd Gordon, president and founder of Illinois-based GEC Consultants, a firm that advises aspiring restaurateurs. "There's always something that's lacking, and a new place can go in and fill that niche."
Half of the 17 restaurants that joined the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce in 2008 are independents, a chamber spokesman said. But opening a small business — let alone a restaurant — remains a challenge. Statistics from the Small Business Administration show that only 31 percent of new businesses survive after seven years.
But aspiring restaurateurs in the Brandon area say they're undaunted. They believe they've set up shop in a utopia because they say the market craves variety.
Husband and wife Sergio Arce and Maribeth Hernandez moved to Riverview about a year ago. They decided to open an eatery after chatting with neighbors and friends about the dearth of dining variety in the area.
"Everybody was like: 'It'd be great if there were a new restaurant,' " Hernandez said.
Now, they run Rock N Pineapple Restaurant and Bar in Valrico, where diners can cook meat and seafood table-side, on hot granite stones. Cuisine from the Pacific Rim and Latin America inspires the dishes, with sides such as yucca fries and jasmine rice. The owners are confident that their strategy — uniqueness and personalized service — will help them survive the recession in which fewer people dine out.
"I think that it gives us a little different edge than a chain," she said.
In Apollo Beach, the owners of a tennis and racquetball club decided to expand by opening Apollo's Bistro in November. They aimed to tap an unaddressed market.
Apollo Beach has always had take-out Chinese restaurants and fast-food haunts, said Logan Sultenfuss, who runs the restaurant with his mother. But there was more than enough room for mixed-menu locales like the bistro, whose menu boasts a range of foods from personal pizza to seared tuna.
Despite the economic downturn, business continues to improve, Sultenfuss said. On dinner theater nights, some 170 people fill the banquet hall.
"It's refreshing to a lot of people to be able to get a fresh meal that just doesn't come out of the fryer and still get out the door for under $16 a person, including drinks and things," he said. "We're priced to where people can afford to come once a week, once every other week, so it doesn't have to be a special event to come out to dinner."
Topp Saenngarm opened Chai Yo Thai Cuisine in Riverview to seize a different facet of culinary opportunity: a developing market.
"I was looking for a community that was just growing," he said.
Diners from suburban areas such as Fishhawk Ranch typically make enough money to afford fine dining, he said. But their preferences would often lead them to South Tampa, for want of local options.
He's mixed classic Thai fare with a simple, urban aesthetic.
There's none of the wood wall paneling present in many Thai restaurants. Instead, Saenngarm opted for simple and chic. Color comes from saffron tablecloths and flashing flat screens tuned to the news.
"Being here, we have a greater chance because we don't have a lot of competition," he said. "We just want to make you feel kind like you're sitting at home."
The local restaurateurs' reasoning makes a lot of sense, Gordon said.
Chain and franchise-saturated areas are ripe for aspiring independents, Gordon said. That's because big companies have already conducted expensive, demographic surveys and decided to set up shop because of the strength of the market. Independents can also get customer overflow from chains.
The lack of corporate bureaucracy also lets independents add and remove items from menus quickly and change prices to reflect real-time economic needs, Gordon said. But some local entrepreneurs said the franchise route is just as viable.
Mike Freid and his wife, Doreen, have owned smoothie and juice bar Robeks for six years. The franchise, which is based in California, was a great fit when he decided to start his own business. The product matched the area's active, health-conscious population, he said. Marketing the products and constructing the store was also easier using the franchise model.
"It avoids a lot of the startup mistakes and other issues," he said.
Still, Riverview resident Larry Mattacchione thinks the influx of independently-owned restaurants is perfect for this region, as it gives residents a reason to stay close to home rather than travel to Tampa for food.
"I think the area needs that," said Mattacchione, who's favorite local dish is Green Iguana's Lava Burger. "It adds a little bit more culture."
Victoria Bekiempis can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.