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CAN FOOD SCENE IN TAMPA GET ANY BETTER?

Without question, the Oxford Exchange rules supreme as Tampa's downtown lunch spot at which to see and be seen.

The restaurant took the reins from the beloved, now-defunct Valencia Garden to become the of-the-moment place for politicians, Important People, ladies who lunch and the occasional celebrity, schmoozing over salmon Nicoise and chicken burgers with jalapeno.

And now, a morning mimosa, pinot grigio or nice merlot.

It was one of the remarkable things about this place, besides the feeling that something this elegantly hip could not possibly be here: Oxford Exchange did not sell alcohol.

So, a year and a half in, do we turn out to be the kind of town where a nice restaurant (plus a cozy bookstore, sprawling coffee bar and schmancy shopping) can survive without booze?

Apparently, not so much.

Oxford Exchange was recently approved for alcohol sales, and mimosas began appearing alongside the brunch Benedicts. This week, a lunchtime wine list debuted to much enthusiasm. Look for specialty cocktails, too.

"Our customers keep asking for it," says Oxford Exchange director Allison Adams. "It's important for the viability of our business." Previously serving breakfast and lunch, next week they open on Thursdays for dinner.

It's unclear how this might affect the church that shares its lot with Oxford Exchange for much-needed parking, based in part on no alcohol sales.

But even the old Valencia, where muckety-mucks once cut dining room deals over trout a la Rusa and black beans and rice, had its dark bar.

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Speaking of food and progress, maybe those tired chili cookoffs are at last in the past.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced our first Mac & Cheese Throwdown on May 10 at downtown's Curtis Hixon Park on the river. The contest is the mayor's effort to, if not exactly hippify Tampa, build that all-important lively vibe.

And could there be a food more akin to a city?

Tampa is big pans of mac and cheese next to the okra and tomatoes at a barbecue. It's working-class food you ate as a kid and then in college. It grew up and got fancy, truffled, gorgonzolaed or lobstered, in a city growing up, too - but still mac and cheese at heart.

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Given those recent tourism ads that put St. Petersburg and Clearwater beaches over on the Atlantic coast (oops), along with other unfortunate misplacements, I wanted to make sure our newly opened Trader Joe's got it right.

I know, it's been an unabashed lovefest since the place opened in South Tampa. I have searched for something to critique besides the postage stamp parking lot and fallen short. Though I did notice the arty reusable shopping bags they sell are not printed with this city's name, like one I have from Atlanta. They say "Florida." Sorry, that's the best I can muster.

On the Tampa-themed murals around the store, someone did their homework. The University of Tampa minarets. Ybor City. A jai alai guy. And Raymond James Stadium painted over the dairy section, with cows.

I figure they're saving the Tampa Bay Rays for the St. Pete store opening this year. But hey, if things don't work out, over by the two-buck chuck, Tampa's got plenty of room.

- scarlton@tampabay.com

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