“This might be your last meal,” my friend joked.
He had a point. The darkening skies and rumble of thunder were close. Like, really close. A lightning bolt flashed and we both jumped. Within seconds the rain started, battering against the tables as we scrambled to grab our belongings and make a run for it.
We were at Stones Throw, a new seafood bar on the Tampa Riverwalk across from Armature Works’ Heights Public Market. It’s one of two outdoor food and drink concepts to open this summer at the burgeoning Tampa Heights development.
We escaped to the bar, where a slight overhang at least partially protected us from the storm. The bar staff seemed unfazed: Business as usual when you work at a spot that’s entirely outdoors on Florida’s west coast.
As the restaurant’s executive chef Nathan Hardin put it: “Afternoon showers? You just kind of go with it.”
In the three summer months I’ve lived in the Tampa Bay area, I’ve learned this much: Summer weather has nothing on Floridians. In New Orleans, we would all be huddled up in a dark, air-conditioned bar complaining about the rain and humidity while counting the days till Mardi Gras. But y’all have the outdoor fans blowing and the margaritas flowing and a devil-may-care attitude whether it’s a humid 95-degree day or the middle of a torrential downpour. It’s impressive — an outlook I admire, even if I can’t quite emulate it yet.
And with the official start of fall on Sept. 23, I think we can all agree that outdoor dining and drinking is about to get a lot more pleasant. With that in mind, I took a look at how the food and drinks are measuring up at two of Armature Works’ newer outdoor spots, where a little rain hasn’t dampened anyone’s spirits.
Here’s a little life advice: If there are oysters, start with the oysters.
Served raw on the half-shell, there are typically four varieties on offer at Stones Throw, and they usually consist of some combination of East and West coast with the occasional gulf variety.
On one visit there were Mystic oysters from Connecticut; Pain’s Creek from Massachusetts; Savage Blondes from Prince Edward Island; and the lone West Coast breed, Willapa Bay from Washington.
Served with mignonette, fresh horseradish, cocktail sauce and saltine crackers, the oysters are delivered on a tray of ice with the condiments tucked into tiny plastic containers, a breezy, low-brow approach with an upscale price tag (half a dozen for $16.50 and a dozen for $31).
The rest of the short menu unfolds like a choose-your-own seafood adventure that feels somewhere between a New England seafood shack and a Florida fishing camp, with a few international twists thrown in along the way.
There is a Peruvian-inspired ceviche ($16), where the daily fish comes swimming in a limey leche de tigre paired with shrimp, sweet potatoes, red onions and canchas (like a crunchy corn nut). A daily catch selection usually includes two or three types of fresh fish, and has featured everything from grouper and red snapper to amberjack, redfish, corvina and swordfish. Guests can then take their pick of cooking method — grilled, blackened or fried — and choose their vessel: tucked into flour tacos, sandwiched on a sesame bun or served in a bowl, over brown rice with black beans, avocado, pickled red onions and cilantro. Prices for these depend on the fish type — anywhere from $12 to $22.
The tots and tentacles ($14) are a messy, delicious mix of crispy-fried calamari and golden tater tots, all doused in a sweet and tangy bang bang sauce, made with Thai chiles, honey, Dijon, a little mayonnaise and key lime juice. The dish is topped with slivers of pickled peppers for a little kick and extra lime.
Also great are the lobster rolls ($19), where a pile of Maine lobster is dressed in a light mayo dressing, spiked with tarragon and lemon and served on a brioche roll. The kicker here is the shower of Cape Cod potato chips and fresh dill topping the rolls — a creative and crunchy twist on the East Coast mainstay.
A short cocktail program includes the cheeky “Gintonique” section, where three different plays on the classic quaff include the Debutante ($11) — a beautiful drink made with Hendrick’s gin, rose petals, lemon peel and cucumber. If you really want to keep summer going, the Aperol Spritz ($10) is an appropriate choice, as is the gussied up Blood and Moon spritzer, where bubbly tops off a medley of blood orange liqueur, mint and lime.
304 W Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 328-3910; stonesthrowtampa.com
Across the way, the rooftop bar and lounge M.Bird offers a very different dining experience, heavy on Caribbean- and Latin-inspired flavors with a breezy outdoor tropical setting to match.
Executive chef Jessica Frazier, who was on the opening team of neighboring Armature Works restaurant Steelbach, runs the ship here, overseeing a menu toppling with influences from the Mediterranean and Latin America. A creative thread fusing multiple cuisines snakes through the menu, from the Cuban tacos topped with roasted pork, Swiss and mustard slaw ($13.50) to a steak tartare laced with a black garlic aioli ($12).
M.Bird feels primarily like a bar, the cocktail program a little more sophisticated than the dining program. The innovative cocktails are perfect for soaking up some of the heavier dishes on the menu. The refreshing Out of Towner ($11) features a bubbly and light tequila and cucumber medley, and the pitch-perfect rendition of a classic Hemingway daiquiri ($10) is great with some of the Latin-inspired fare. For a more seasonal drink, the autumn-leaning Oobee Doo ($12) combines spiced pear liqueur with whiskey, fino sherry, pineapple, lemon and grenadine.
The bar’s dining setup on the outdoor patio features lounge-style seating, and the menu of snacks and shared plates feels designed as drinking fodder. A deconstructed panzanella ($12) carries a strong Italian persuasion, where toasted pieces of garlicky bread sidle oozing burrata cheese, plump cherry tomatoes and bits of grilled mango. The dish is dressed liberally with a creamy snap pea aioli and a tangy red wine vinaigrette.
Among the spot’s bestsellers (and one of my favorite snacks here) are the jerk chicken egg rolls, where soft bits of chicken marinated in a jerk spice blend are enveloped in egg roll wrappers, deep-fried and served with a creamy charred pineapple-and-coconut dipping sauce. The rolls carry a distinct warm spice that heats up the back of your throat and lingers.
The dishes with a Latin persuasion had me the most intrigued, like the vaca frita tostones ($16), a heavy snack that is best shared. Short ribs are braised for six hours, then the soft, salty and garlicky meat is piled high atop golden-fried smashed plantains and paired with a cooling mango crema and pico de gallo. For a lighter — if still meaty — bite, the steak pinchos ($13) are skewered and grilled until charred and smoky, served beneath a bright green Argentinian-style chimichurri. On one visit, our steak was a little overcooked, though it still carried a lot of flavor.
If the weather cooperates, it’s a pretty splendid place to close down an evening. Part of M.Bird is covered, but the best seats here are outside under the open sky where the wraparound patio overlooks the river and downtown Tampa skyline.
Both M.Bird and Stones Throw have had an impressive couple of months, staying busy during a season that isn’t always the friendliest to new businesses. Now, with the weather cooling down, it’s hard to imagine they’ll slow down.
1903 Market St., Tampa; (813) 296-2702; mbirdtampa.com