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From chains to food halls, how the Tampa Bay dining scene has changed in 10 years

A craft brewery boom and influx of fast-casual concepts and food halls have altered the Tampa Bay dining landscape
People wander around the Tampa Heights Market at Armature Works at lunchtime on February 22, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. The 22,000-square-foot market features 14 vendors, including second locations for longtime restauranteurs and several new concepts. [MONICA HERNDON | Times (2018)]

Editor’s note: This story is part of “A Decade Defined By,” a series that examines how Tampa Bay has changed in the past decade. We will publish one story a day until Dec. 31. Read the whole package here.

Tell someone about the trajectory of Tampa Bay’s restaurant scene, and they might not believe it.

What was once a testing ground for chain restaurant concepts (hello, blooming onions and bottomless breadstick baskets) is now one of the country’s most exciting and multifaceted places to dine.

Over the last decade, the area has become a craft brewery mecca. Traditional fine dining spreads and white tablecloths have given way to casual settings and edgy small plate programs. And there is no shortage of James Beard-nominated chefs wowing us with envelope-pushing menus.

Perhaps the biggest change hasn’t been what we’ve been eating, but where: Food halls, pop-ups and an influx of fast-casual joints have turned the traditional dining model on its head and reflect a more casual and diverse approach. We can now nosh on samosas, slurp down ramen bowls and imbibe in craft cocktails under one roof.

A variety of dishes, including the Chicken on a Biscuit from BnB Butcher and Barbecue and the Avocado Egg Salad from Graze 1910, photographed on February 22, 2018 at the Tampa Heights Market at Armature Works in Tampa, Fla. [Times (2018)]

In an age where everything is increasingly designed to be captured and shared, we’re communicating differently about how, what and where we’re eating on websites like Yelp, Facebook and Instagram. The internet and rise in social media platforms has also helped us become more informed as diners, and we care more than ever about where our food comes from.

There is room for growth. The industry has never been so competitive and restaurants are grappling with how to deal with unprecedented staffing shortages while rising rents and higher food costs have rendered historically small margins even smaller.

But it’s an inspiring time, too. Amid a national reckoning sparked in part by the #MeToo movement, the restaurant industry is starting to look inward and reflect, not just on where our food comes from but how the people who bring it to us are being treated. Just as restaurant owners experiment with new menu items and ingredients, employers are looking to new ways to improve the well-being of their workers while diners are more interested in supporting local businesses that provide better working environments for their staff.

Five game-changing restaurant trends in Tampa Bay, 2010-2019

1. A craft brewery boom (and some fine craft cocktails)

Pioneers in the craft brewing scene like Cigar City Brewing, Dunedin Brewery and Tampa Bay Brewing Co. set the scene for countless others and the Tampa Bay area is now booming with small, independent brewers. Florida is home to 285 craft breweries, up from 45 in 2011, according to the Brewer’s Association, and the numbers keep growing. Craft cocktails — and the bartenders making them — raised the bar on the spirits and natural wines have become a hit with oenophiles on both sides of the bay.

Patrons gather at the one year anniversary of Coppertail Brewing Co. in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

2. Farm-to-table (and some fable)

Chef Greg Baker’s iconic Seminole Heights restaurant The Refinery paved the way for a new wave of chefs and diners eager to work with fresh, local food dictated by the season. Of course, there were those who weren’t always honest about where their food came from, but the movement has proven itself one of the most pivotal developments in recent dining history.

3. A return to (fast) casual

The Ciccio Restaurant Group championed this concept with spots like Fresh Kitchen and Taco Dirty and countless entrepreneurs in the food world have followed suit. From build-your-own protein bowl spots to fresh-squeezed juice joints and poke, taco and burrito hubs, the fast-casual train isn’t slowing.

4. Make it meatless

Gone are the days when vegetarians would have to ask for the lone “vegetable special," a side of grilled mushrooms and spinach. Amid an increased focus on healthy, “clean” eating (not to mention the Impossible and Beyond burger boom), you can now be vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free or all of the above and still have plenty of options.

The Beyond Burger, plant-based burger patties. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

5. An explosion of food halls

From the Heights Public Market at Armature Works to the nearby Hall on Franklin and Channelside’s Sparkman Wharf, food halls and courts have become the dining destination de rigueur. And the trend is poised to cross the bay: the team from Armature Works will open a hall in the Sundial space in St. Petersburg in late 2020 and plans are underway for a Hall on Franklin offshoot to open on Central Avenue.