It's a savvy greatest-hits menu. There are burgers ranging from black-and-blue to veggie; there's a Bonefish-like chili-sauced tempura-fried shrimp, a daily flatbread, the dynamic duo of grilled salmon and kale, and the ubiquitous ahi tuna poke accessorized with avo and wonton strips. The menu says 2015 the way the Farrah Fawcett shag said 1975. Marlow's Tavern, the fourth one in Florida but the first one in the Tampa Bay area, is a slick rendering of precisely what the average American diner hankers for these days.
It shouldn't surprise: Executive chef and co-founder John Metz has an impressive resume. Graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he has spent time in heavy-hitting kitchens: the 21 Club, Tribeca Grill, Park Avenue Café and Montrachet in New York City and Della Famina's in East Hampton. After that he developed restaurant concepts for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide (Samba Room, Timpano and others), and then the entrepreneur bug bit. He wanted to dream up concepts for himself — in 1996, the first one, Hi Life Kitchen & Cocktails near Atlanta, in 2001 Aqua Blue and in 2004 the first Marlow's.
A tavern for the 21st century, it suits the Carrollwood area, tucked in a shopping center adjacent to Melting Pot and just down the street from Panera, Moe's and First Watch. It feels hipper than a chain like T.G.I. Friday's or Ruby Tuesday (alright, the early 1980s pop soundtrack on a couple of visits verged on cringe-worthy), but even if you are unfamiliar with the chain (15 strong in Georgia), you sense that it is one. For comparison's sake, it feels like a Stonewood Grill & Tavern but a little more casual and with slightly more affordable prices.
If I'm sounding unenthusiastic, it's because this food feels so familiar to me it's hard to find something fresh to say. These are well-conceived dishes, competently made and served in a pleasant setting by servers who are eager to please. (They're a little green, which is to be expected in a restaurant only a few weeks old.)
One night I had a very appealing starter of battered asparagus with a ramekin of citrus aioli ($6); another night we shared a plate of Parmesan and truffle-oil fries ($4.50), crispy, greaseless and with creamy centers.
The Tavern Burger ($9) is a solid entry (but hey, is meat that is "fresh, never frozen" really such an anomaly these days for a $9 burger?), elevated by its housemade tangy-sweet-smoky tomato bacon jam. Really, some of the most interesting stuff on the menu runs up the side in tiny print as "side bars." The planks of chickpea fries ($4.50) are quite good, stacked like Lincoln Logs, and the white cheddar grit cake ($3.50, but it forms the base of a spin on shrimp and grits, $16.50) is a crispy-exteriored bit of lusciousness I'd like to reproduce at home.
Overseen by Harold Phillips and chef de cuisine Scott McFadden, the Tampa location has some autonomy to cater to the local market, with area craft beers represented and a smart lineup of cocktails. (There's a "Left Coast" negroni with gin, Giffard Pamplemousse, Grand Poppy, Bittercube Jamaica No. 2 and grapefruit juice that feels edgy and very Florida.) Metz chose Carrollwood because it's a "year-round" area without the ebbs and flows of snowbirds and tourists. That seems especially smart this year as loads of restaurants that depend upon tourists are reporting very weak numbers for August and September.
From a critic's perspective, it's tough to wax rhapsodic when dessert is limited to a classic creme brulee or a workhorse chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream (both $6). Still, Marlow's Tavern seems to have been embraced nearly immediately by Carrollwood residents, whether for date night or just a casual evening out to watch the game in the bar. "New, but familiar" is a 2015 formula that's working.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.