Peel your eyes at Tampa International Airport, and you might just see the Rolling Stones boarding a private plane. You might see Debbie Harry lounging in a terminal. You might see Jimi Hendrix and his band striding across the tarmac.
You can spot them all, and many more, when the airport's new Hard Rock Cafe opens to the public today, its walls festooned with more than 30 rock and pop artifacts. Many document the air-faring adventures of traveling rock stars.
For the Orlando-based chain, this Hard Rock Cafe is unique among its 160-plus siblings around the world. It's the first Hard Rock Cafe inside a North American airport, and the second in Tampa, a rarity in any city. At just under 5,100 square feet inside (an outdoor patio is still in the works), it's smaller than most Hard Rock Cafes — but what it lacks in display space, it makes up for with distinct frequent-flier flavor.
"Every single Hard Rock is individually a music museum and something really special that you're not going to see in other restaurants or hotels or casinos," said Jeff Nolan, the Hard Rock's music and memorabilia historian — or, as he puts it, "designated music nerd." "Clearly there is a traveling musician theme here that we try to maintain throughout."
For each new Hard Rock property, Nolan and a team of designers pluck a variety of items from the company's collection of more than 80,000 artifacts, many of which are warehoused in Orlando. They always aspire to "tell the wide-ranging story of the history of popular music," Nolan said, but often try to weave in local and regional elements, too.
At Tampa International, the air-travel theme arose "instantaneously," Nolan said. "This is such a specialized environment that it lends itself to that incredibly specific theme."
In the cafe, located on the main terminal's third floor between airsides A and C, you'll find not only airport photos of acts like the Beatles, Elvis Presley and John Bonham, but airline tickets and boarding passes signed by U2 and Albert King. There's even a suitcase owned by guitar innovator Les Paul.
Almost one entire wall of the restaurant is constructed from custom road cases, the type used to transport gear on tour, faux-stamped with the names of cities, airports and A-list rock bands.
But every Hard Rock property needs to have a few showstoppers, Nolan said, and so it is at the airport. By the entrance, you'll see a light blue suede jacket from Prince's personal wardrobe. In the middle, you'll find elaborate outfits worn by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus — but also the skimpy black bodysuit Cher wore in her 1989 video to If I Could Turn Back Time.
"We always have cool stuff," Nolan said, "but there's always a few pieces that are mind-blowingly iconic, and that is definitely one of them. If you have any kind of remembrance of that era, you remember that video."
Hard Rock corporate trainer K.T. Bloedorn, who has traveled the world training cafe staffs and has overseen the Tampa buildout for weeks, couldn't stop geeking out about a pair of late-'60s snakeskin boots worn by the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones. She first saw them sitting on a table while a crew installed the display case.
"I had like a panic attack, because they were just sitting out," she said. "Even though I can't try them on, I took like 50 selfies with them, like Oh my god!"
For Nolan, the piece de resistance is the Rickenbacker 4001 bass used by the Knack's Prescott Niles to record the 1979 hit My Sharona, particularly its unforgettable opening riff: bom-bom BOM-BOM bomp BOMP bomp BOMP bom-bom BOMP …
"That F-sharp riff happened on that 4001 right there," Nolan said. "He's holding it on the album cover, he's playing it in the video. I get chills telling you about it. I've been doing this for 11 years, and I can't believe it sometimes: That's the frickin' My Sharona bass! Everything about that song is perfect! The entire world of power pop exists inside that song. It doesn't stop being catchy. And now it's stuck in your head for a week, I guarantee it."
While the intimate and unique space did present a few installation challenges — such as ensuring items displayed in the bright, airy cafe were adequately protected from sun damage — most items went up in about a day. And they may change in the months to come, as Hard Rocks often rotate out their collections.
"We do traveling exhibits a lot," Nolan said. "The Tampa airport cafe is really kind of a perfect spot for a temporary exhibit, because you're going to be able to share it with a lot of people. We'll see. All in good time."
Just keep an eye out. You never know which rock star will walk through the terminal next.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.