A little sunlight, a nice breeze, a bustling corridor of restaurant patios, and some fine cocktails and food to match the scenery. That's the scene at International Plaza's Bay Street, a group of restaurants, bars and nightclubs nestled into an outdoor extension of the upscale Tampa shopping mall.
One of the newest additions to the Bay Street landscape is Doc B's Fresh Kitchen, a small chain of restaurants founded in Chicago. This new Tampa location is the first outside of Chicago — where there are currently two Doc B's — and the plan is for a second Florida location to open in Fort Lauderdale this year.
Doc B's doesn't scream Chicago to me; it's much more Florida, or maybe even California. It's quite possible that the Chicago branches have a different vibe altogether, but if I had to characterize Doc B's Tampa in one word, it would be "sunny."
That's not just due to the ample sunlight that bathes the sidewalk cafes of Bay Street for much of the business day, or the fact that Doc B's is bright and breezy on the interior. It's built into the business itself, from the cheerful staff — not an anomaly particular to my visit, online reviews confirm — and open kitchen, to a menu focused heavily on fresh ingredients, as its name suggests.
The layout is clean and simple: a roomy interior and open kitchen with a bar in the center. Out front is a small patio with a few shade umbrellas. The picture windows and steady traffic of servers to and from the patio give the indoor dining space a laid-back, open-air feel.
The food is excellent, by the way. I sometimes get emails from readers asking why I don't write much about the food at the places I visit, and I often explain that a) There's already a legitimate and excellent food writer on the newspaper's staff, and b) I'm vegan, so my perspective likely would not resonate with a large reader base. That said, the food was so good that I would eagerly return, even without the promise of a high-quality beverage list.
But wouldn't you know it — the folks at Doc B's have put together quite the drink selection. There's a tidy wine list of around two dozen varieties, primarily of West Coast origin (namely California and Oregon), as well as a beer list that heavily features local breweries, including exclusively Florida beers on draft.
The draft beers are also unique. Doc B's is the only place outside of Bradenton's Motorworks Brewing that serves its aromatic, complex Lavender ale. It's also the only place you're likely to find Hawaiian Lion, a coconut-and-coffee porter from Sarasota's Big Top Brewing Co.
The cocktails are the reason I visited. There are 10 house drinks, with some very colorful and creative options, including cocktails made with fresh vegetable juice. One of the popular picks is the "Beet"lejuice, which blends Tanqueray with beet juice, lemon and a fresh sprig of mint. And there's The Dangler, which combines Traverse City Whiskey Straight Bourbon with carrot juice and maple. Even simple drinks like The Natural (a tall drink made with Bacardi and strawberry) are given a touch of culinary flair — fresh mint, and cracked black pepper, in this case.
With the amount of money surely required to open a restaurant on Bay Street, it's not surprising that Doc B's gets most of the details right.
But there's some extra heart and finesse applied to every element of the menu that puts it firmly into slam-dunk territory. I'm not sure where the Chicago-to-Florida idea originated, but it's looking pretty smart.
— [email protected]; @WordsWithJG.