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Belly up to the bar for a shot of sugar

Summertime and the drinkin' ain't easy, not when you confront the flood of flavor spilling over in the modern convenience store.

First came Slurpees, Icees and such, then teas, waters and New Age soft drinks, then flavored coffees, then Coke and Pepsi added cherry, vanilla and lime (and sometimes subtracted caffeine and sugar).

Oh, for those simple choices of yesteryear, like whether to pour a bag of Tom's peanuts down the neck of a Co'Cola or an RC.

Not anymore. RaceTrac and 7-Eleven have added flavor dispensers to give kicks of cherry or vanilla to the already psychedelic array of flavors on the Wall o' Liquid Fun, next to the gun rack of plastic cups.

Given the choices, you'd need a 256-ounce backpack cup to consider the possibilities.

At one RaceTrac, the Nibbler counted 14 flavors plus cherry and vanilla Flavor Bursts, tempting me to a Diet Dr Pepper with a kick of Mountain Dew Code Red for extra caffeine and cherry on top.

I trembled at the thought of adding cherry to root beer; it would combine/corrupt? two childhood favorites, the purity of Barq's and the wicked indulgence of a double cherry orange. I couldn't do it.

It's more like the mix-and-match craziness of a thoroughly modern martini bar than an old-fashioned soda fountain, which could mix anything but failed to imagine the mutants it could create.

Modern soft drink mixology is hypercharged for an interactive generation in a millennium that knows no boundaries and fears tobacco more than sugar. It's odd that in a society where we no longer cook, we want to be our own barista (nee soda jerk).

The appeal lies in two unstoppable trends. First, Americans take more refreshment (dare I say sustenance) by drinking than eating because drinking doesn't require one to use silverware or sit down. And despite Dr. Atkins, our sweet tooth is insatiable and given our diminished attention span, we want to taste all those sweet flavors _ chocolate, mango, vanilla, raspberry _ right now.

So why not slip under the carbonated waterfall?

At a 7-Eleven, I found only 12 soft drinks but an extra flavor choice, lemon. The one that struck me here was a bottom layer of Dr Pepper Red Fusion, topped by Caffeine Free diet Coke, with a shot of vanilla across the top. (A sign tries to encourage moderation in shots per Big Gulp, as if this were a time for temperance.)

But if you want to make your own Jolt, you could slip over to the coffee island, which provides hot times for other flavor-spinners: four regular coffees, five flavored coffees, (including chocolate raspberry), three forms of hot chocolate and cappuccino and four flavored creams. You could brew your own Death by French Vanilla without getting near Starbucks.

And one could combine, say, root beer over ice with a bit of hot chocolate and shot of dark roast coffee and a hit of vanilla for an Iced Rootin' Tootin' Sloppoccino. But it would be wrong.

Besides, you can create frightening cross-breeds without blurring temperature zones, as I discovered all too late. The mad scientists at 7-Eleven have designed special cups and procedures for the Slurp and Gulp, sort of an ice cream soda without the cream. I could have put my parfait of Red Fusion, diet Coke and vanilla in a clear S&G cup, added a Slurpee dome and topped it off with flavored slush.

There were four Slurpee flavors but it would have been no contest.

Memphis Melon.

On my summer vacation

Six years ago, Richard Gonzmart of Tampa's legendary Columbia set himself an enviable goal: Go back to Spain at least once a year to find new products, sample new wines, seek out old tastes and try the latest restaurants.

Sure, somebody's got to do it, but it's no longer just the boss. Last month, Gonzmart took 20 of his top staff and their spouses for eight days of tasting in the vineyards from Ribera del Duero to the Rioja and restaurants from Salamanca to Madrid.

"When I realized what it was doing for me, I knew I had to share it with my managers," Gonzmart said. He took his first group in 2001 and plans another trip next year, an investment that is both a reward and an education in the taste of Spain.

"I can try to explain tapas," he said, "but you can't really understand until you see it" in Spanish restaurants and bars that offer dozens of small dishes for everyone to try. Now, the Columbia managers are fired up about broadening their tapas menus, Gonzmart says. "I'd love to have 20 tapas on our menu."

The Floridians also tasted rustic dishes like fresh sardines and heads-on shrimp and ate in smart, modern restaurants like Paradis in Madrid, which provided an example of "the level of quality we want to excel at."

It's a smart move. The best restaurateurs do get out, constantly in their towns and around the country; the worst sit in empty dining rooms thinking they are the only ones who sear tuna or serve three-cheese ravioli. Some small restaurateurs take advantage of Florida's slow off-season to close and return to their roots overseas.

Taking staff along is an invention of modern management. Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago takes 35 of this staff to a different region of Mexico for four days every Fourth of July. Even the Olive Garden chain sent 150 employees, from cooks to waiters, to taste food and wine at its new restaurant and culinary school in the Chianti district of Tuscany last year.

Just add waterlilies

Cafe Monet & Gallery (445 Central Ave., (727) 895-4360) was rejuvenated when owner Renee Lynn moved 10 blocks east this year. It has lost the frame shop, but the walls hold works from 60 bay area artists, spunky to abstract, plus the banner of McCrory's Snackette that used to be next door.

Monet preserves that spirit too. The menu is more comfy than edgy: It spans breakfasts, bagels, wraps, soups and salads, with room for a fried bologna sandwich. Nothing over $6.

Tampa Bay bouillabaisse

+ After three years, Outback has rolled out its second edition of Lee Roy Selmon's (17508 Dona Michelle Drive, Tampa, (813) 977-3287). Selmon's, which I thought was Outback's best new concept, may have gotten lost in the rush to expand Bonefish Grill. In any case, Smokey Bones BBQ & Sports Bar, Orlando's contender in the barbecue dinner house race, has two in this area (Westfield Shoppingtown Brandon and Westfield Shoppingtown Citrus Park), four in Orlando and 30 more elsewhere in Florida and the rest of the nation. Selmon's has better sides by my lights, but at this point, Smokey has a lot more sites.

+ East Lakers who want to grab more than pizza or c-store hot dogs on their commute now have a high-end market on their roadside that rivals gourmet stores to the south.

Bella Cucina Gourmet Deli (2663 East Lake, Palm Harbor, (727) 773-2880) has baskets of crusty breads, Euro-cases of fine cheeses, sausages and French ham, a butcher counter with rabbit and top beef, plus wine, pasta and fine chocolate. It's already expanding and will open a takeout next month with fresh salads and hot meals to go or to eat at a couple of small tables.

+ Tampa's arsenal of square belly bombs is shrinking. Krystal, which has served up sliders on S Dale Mabry for years, plans to close. You won't have to go without; a location opened this spring in north Tampa (1916 E Fletcher Ave., (813) 631-1995).

+ You can be the critic by helping Zagat pick local spots to list in the Orlando, Tampa Bay and Sarasota section of its 2004 Guide to America's Top Restaurants. This will be a nationwide compilation so fewer than 20 will make the final cut. Those who vote at Zagat's Web site (www.zagat.com) will get a free copy of the finished book. Voting ends Sunday.

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