Cafe Ponte, iconic Clearwater restaurant, closes for good

The restaurant’s end was a combination of the financial COVID-19 backlash and a failed lease renegotiation.
Cafe Ponte, Chris and Michelle Ponte's celebrated Clearwater restaurant, has closed for good.
Cafe Ponte, Chris and Michelle Ponte's celebrated Clearwater restaurant, has closed for good. [ Times (2019) ]
Published May 13, 2020|Updated May 13, 2020

Cafe Ponte, the celebrated Clearwater fine dining restaurant, has closed for good.

Chris Ponte, who opened his eponymous restaurant in 2002, said the closure was a combination of the economic backlash from COVID-19 and the fact that he was unable to reach a deal on a lease renegotiation with the building’s landlord.

“Our lease is up in May and we just couldn’t come to terms with an agreement,” Ponte said when reached by phone Wednesday morning. “He wanted to increase the rent and we couldn’t come to a fair agreement.”

The shutter comes in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, as restaurants across the Tampa Bay area are struggling to survive following a six-week mandated shutdown.

Ponte, a James Beard-nominated chef, and his wife, Michelle, also run Tampa spots On Swann and the Italian newcomer Olivia, which opened late last year. All three restaurants were forced to temporarily close in March, prompting hundreds of layoffs.

“We felt with the uncertainties of everything going on, especially in this time, it was just best to close it,” Ponte said of his flagship restaurant. “It’s bittersweet. We’ve seen so much with that restaurant — more than I could have ever dreamed.”

During its 18-year run, the iconic eatery on Icot Boulevard became a favorite among locals and critics alike, praised for Ponte’s envelope-pushing menu of refined New American cuisine. Fans came for the velvety wild mushroom soup, topped with truffle cream and favorites like the miso-marinated sea bass, both dishes Ponte says will make an appearance at his new eatery when it opens in MidTown Tampa next year.

That restaurant, a fine dining offshoot of the Clearwater institution, will tentatively be called Ponte and will feature a similarly elevated menu of upscale New American fare.

Though Ponte said the promise and portend of the new project help make his first restaurant closing slightly less heartbreaking, the financial backlash imbued by the coronavirus-imposed shutdowns have gutted the local industry. He said restaurant owners like himself are facing a long, hard road back to normalcy.

“You can’t make money on 25 percent or even 50 percent — that does nothing for us,” Ponte said. “Restaurants have to run at full capacity in order to make profit to the bottom line. The margins are always getting tighter on us, food costs are going up and we would have to put that on to the guests, and we don’t want to have to do that.”

Like other restaurateurs, Ponte has been eyeing the current dining landscape hesitantly. His other restaurants have remained mostly closed during the shutdown. On Swann recently reopened for dine-in service last week and Olivia, which recently launched to-go service, will open for reservation-only dining on May 18.