Do you have this debate? "Florida is not in the South." "Um, look at a map." I guess I am in the former camp: It seems Florida gets more Southern the more north and west you go, accents only creeping in as reliably as boiled peanuts up on the Panhandle. This may explain why Tampa Bay has not had many Southern restaurants that have been long-standing or resounding successes. I’m a fan of Southern Fresh in Safety Harbor, Noble Crust has some nice Southern offerings in an Italian mashup, and Ella’s and Cask Social Kitchen send out some solid Southern fare.
I was excited a few months back when I heard a newcomer called the Local would be diving into Southern food (tagline: "Southern roots, locally refined") in the space that housed the now-defunct Square 1 Burgers & Bar. I’d been a Square 1 fan but recognized that the premium burger space was absolutely saturated in South Tampa. But Southern? Plenty of wide open range there. (There’s Roux, but that’s all about Louisiana, which I consider its own thing entirely.)
The new ownership team didn’t have to do much to the space in the transition. It has a long bar backed by a stylish pebbly backsplash and lots of reclaimed-looking wood, some long, hanging Edison bulbs, a shaded patio out front carpeted with AstroTurf. It’s attractive but family-friendly and casual, with service that follows suit but isn’t precisely diligent about check-backs or menu explanations.
In a couple of dinners, my takeaway is that I wish they had the courage of their convictions. It’s not a Southern restaurant, rather a restaurant that hits all the trends and cliches of 2018, with a few Southern dishes studded throughout. Boiled peanuts with Cajun seasoning (mine was brothy, but I saw another bowl of them walk by that seemed dry; $4) was a promising way to start, soft and salty and sweet and spicy. And the single best dish on the menu, the deep-fried deviled eggs studded with bacon and a round of jalapeno ($10) — crunchy outside, bouncy interior — certainly gets you in the mood. (Although if they’re going to bed a dish down on mesclun mix, it should be dressed or seasoned in some way if they expect anyone to eat it.)
A low point was the house cheese and charcuterie board, very generic grocery store cheese lacking the range (something splintery, something creamy, something stinky) that makes a great cheese board, the meats unremarkable except for the only one that was house-made, a salty/slimy cured duck breast that really needs to be rethought. For $18, I can think of dozens of boards in Tampa Bay that deliver more personality and innovation at that price — shouldn’t a Southern-inspired restaurant include some Kentucky ham, or some house pickles or preserves? Actually, the real low point was a peach cobbler dessert served in a cold cast-iron skillet in which it clearly hadn’t been cooked, with peach wedges that seemed almost spritzy, a sign they were going bad.
That’s not to say that there aren’t several strong dishes. There’s a perfectly pleasant burger, a toothsome short rib and brisket blend on a nice bun with lettuce, tomato and onion, impaled by a skewer along with a spear of double brined (too-vinegary) pickle. It comes on a rustic wooden board with one of those mock deep-fryer baskets of fries lined with waxed paper. Fries could be crispier, but the burger is solid ($10, but as I said, there are a lot of $10 burgers in these parts) and can be taken the Southern route with a slather of pimento cheese (and extra 75 cents) or pork belly or fried green tomato ($1.50 each). And the beer cheese fondue ($13), savory with smoked Gouda, bacon and cheddar, comes accessorized with roasted Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, rounds of sausage and wedges of apple, plus some pretzel bread, a good range of flavors and textures and a nice shared dish especially if you’re watching your carbs.
The Local, as the name implies, wants to be the kind of place South Tampa goes routinely, bellying up to the bar (decent cocktail list, mostly familiar beers and wines, fairly steep markups) and ordering the usual. For me, that’s not going to be the flourless chocolate torte ($7), a wedge of which had clearly been hanging out in the reach-in next to something garlicky. For now, from the espresso-rubbed ribeye ($29) to the wild salmon paired with quinoa ($26), dishes lack enough distinguishing features to have the Local stand out from the local fray.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.