Wesley Chapel is said to be one of the fastest growing areas in the country, due to the perfect cocktail of available and affordable land, broad but upwardly mobile demographics and easy access to other parts of Tampa Bay. And while malls and brick-and-mortar retail centers have taken a big hit in the past couple years, largely failing to stem the tide of online shopping, the Shops at Wiregrass is booming.
As in, I-had-to-troll-for-parking-for-20-minutes booming.
TJ Thielbar knew this, and banked on this, when in July he and partner Will Perez opened the second location of Noble Crust in the sprawling outdoor mall.
The first Noble Crust opened at the beginning of 2015 at the corner of Fourth Street and 83rd Avenue N in St. Petersburg, in the former spot of the Haymarket Pub and the Hideaway. It was an instant success, and still regularly runs at capacity, would-be diners spilling off the patio. Thielbar and partner John Mays, both previously operations managers for Bonefish Grill and executives at Hops Grill & Brewery, seemed to have a sense for what St. Pete diners were looking for: A funky, industrial ambience; full bar and lots of appealing seating options; a fair bit of noise and good cheer; and a menu that marries Italian and Southern food.
Overseen by Rob Reinsmith, a Pinellas County native, the menu features charmers like pimento cheese arancini and a pizza that paired Italian sausage with slow-cooked collards. It worked, the bar quickly matching the kitchen with skilled and innovative cocktails, and brunch becoming one of the most beloved in Pinellas.
Rob’s brother Colin Reinsmith is the chef at the new Wesley Chapel location, which looks a good bit like the flagship, industrial light fixtures juxtaposed with crystal chandeliers, open duct work, good use of brick in the bar and the wood-paneled front with "Noble Crust" emblazoned in a really cool lowercase font. Thielbar and team hired early for the Wiregrass location, training at least 10 people in the St. Pete shop before shipping them off, three Wiregrass managers having gotten their start at the original location.
Menus are nearly identical, with a couple of salad tweaks and a steak introduced in Wesley Chapel — and for the most part the quality is fairly analogous. I would say that in a couple of visits the pizza crust isn’t quite as good yet, the toppings sometimes heavy and a little wet, as in one evening’s Noble Pig ($18.50), something of a fetishized pie in St. Pete, crowding on pepperoni, sweet fennel sausage, spicy soppressata, pickled peppers, caramelized onions, tomato sauce, fontina and parm. Less of all of that would have been more, the crust struggling to stay crisp.
Some of my favorite dishes were the little ramekin of herb-topped whipped ricotta with wedges of olive oil-glossed baked pizza dough flecked with rosemary ($7); the cast-iron skillet of tender little veal and pork meatballs in a pool of lively tomato sauce and capped with a flurry of basil and parm, ricotta enriching the whole shebang ($12); and a simple side of fried green tomatoes paired with an oddly logical lime yogurt ($6).
With family-friendly Pincher’s Crab Shack right next door and sports-and-beer-centric Irish 31 across the way, Noble Crust seems to have emerged as a girls’ night destination and date-night spot, the food conducive to sharing and mix-and-match. This may also be a reflection of the bar’s strengths, with well-chosen wines on tap, silly-fun cocktails (a watermelon smash and a creamsicle slush with St. Pete Distillery Tippler’s Orange; both $9), and suavely executed classics like old fashioneds (High West Double Rye with candied pecan-infused vermouth, $12), rickies and brambles.
Waits can be long, especially for brunch, and occasionally there are service stutters where dishes pile up or coyly take a while to show. That’s just par for the course at a new restaurant, even one with a more established sibling to the south. Noble Crust is clearly a boon to a town that’s booming.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected]bay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.