In the last month, makeovers have given two old landmarks and the bar scene along Tampa's SoHo restaurant row new life into the wee hours.
Whiskey Park sits in the center of the historic oasis and beer lick that has become Soho, where a cold one at the Chatterbox and the like has been replaced by hot ones at Starbucks.
Whiskey Park is in the old Hideaway, last seen as Bacchus, a high flash sushi bar, sports bar, bar-bar and pool hall. Refashioned by a trio of nightclub impresarios, Whiskey Park aims to be the strip's high-end meet mart.
The food isn't as dramatic as the banzai handrolls of Bacchus, but the owners did enlist the talents of Mise en Place's Marty Blitz. The menu shows solid quality for munchies. A black bean burger was the meatiest meat-surrogate I've had, with good texture and a bit of spice. Cole slaw is fiery, and the fries are close to the crispness standards of state fairs and bistros.
A more serious entree with a New/Old Southern flavor was catfish. The fryer gave its cornmeal crust good edge, but the buttermilk-soaked fish was mushy.
The best bite on my visit was a bar staple, nachos updated with house-made potato chips and a pulled barbecue with a mild North Carolina accent. You don't want these on the table with fewer than four eaters to help.
Drinks include martini silliness, a modest, fairly priced wine list and espresso that had crema and good heat.
Despite the go-go name, Whiskey Park's decor is toned down from its predecessor. It's more open with lots of clean, natural wood tones, although pool tables are purple and the fiber optic skylight and a full lineup of TVs remain.
There's one disturbing note in the restrooms. I am not keen on valets for a generation that cannot walk 100 feet in a parking lot, but I'm appalled at restroom attendants armed with perfumes and servility. This does introduce an element of class _ in the worst sense. I like service, not servants.
If food is still evolving, service in general is already trained and doing a good job. It's a big staff, casual but efficient, prompt and congenial.
Business is off to such a good start, Whiskey Park plans to crank up the menu and expand the entree portion. Good for them as long as they remember Southern can be hip _ and good potato chips are a lovely thing, especially in a bar when the game's on.
ST. BART'S ISLAND HOUSE
My first meal in Tampa almost 15 years ago was at Le Bordeaux, a French restaurant meaty enough to feed ladies who lunch and the menfolk of the Cigar Roller for the World. It was also the first place where waiters recited endless blackboard specials in French and English.
Under various owners and chefs, it had good years and bad.
It is no more. Or is it?
This month, owner Gordon Davis reopened the place as St. Bart's Island House, after the most fashionable of the French Antilles.
The changes are subtle enough that some of the customers and staff (and the $100 dinner checks) remain. The decor is planter colonial refreshed with bright colors and glossy rattan but still formal. Background music has a world beat, and the live schedule includes souk.
The menu from Jon Eric Kern (Boca, Carlino's and Le Bordeaux) remains upscale, more New American than French, and sweet on the tropics. It's not spicy enough to scare the ancien regime; they seem pleased to meet chili pepper banana bread at last.
The reference to St. Bart's, where Davis vacations, provides a symbolic way to jump from classical French toward nuevo Latino and seafood.
Davis, who concocted the SoHo image for South Howard, pioneered tapas at his neighboring Ceviche. Now he's trying a French version of the little dishes of Spain, which I believe we once called hors d'oeuvres.
They're a good part of the menu (and all of the bar menu). The pepperpot soup was the only dish I tasted with island fire and a dark roux worthy of the French frontier. Soft-shell crab was a fine starter, but the Martinique accent escaped me. A grilled conch salad was too bland.
Main dishes are appropriately long on fish. Crab-crusted snapper proved fresh, crisply cooked, and the citrusy beurre blanc was slickly done. A coffee-chocolate sauce on filet mignon as thick as demi-glace showed the same classical skill. Buttery mashed boniato, the white yam, was the best of the island side dishes; a sweet potato fritter was too tough and ratatouille was an undercooked stir-fry. There are no complaints about desserts, high-style confections of chocolates and homemade ice creams such as macadamia nut crunch.
I'd like less of the rum and fruit flavors and more of the culinary patois that created Creole cuisine by cooking French food with Indian curries and the peppers that grew on every plantation.
But authenticity is not crucial on St. Bart's or here. What is important is that a gentle breeze has begun to blow through Le Bordeaux that's pleasant and promising.
In the meantime, it's odd that Tampa has lost its last French restaurant at a time French bistros and brasseries are back in vogue in other cities. But change does come. Don't forget that at one time this kitchen belonged to Neil's, and in it worked a young chef named Mario Batali.
St. Bart's Island House
1502 S Howard Ave.
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Bar open later.
Details: Most credit cards, full bar, no smoking in restaurant.
720 S Howard Ave.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday-Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday; 12:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday.
Details: Most credit cards, full bar, smoking section provided.