TAMPA ― South Tampa was abuzz with news of the opening.
Counter Culture, the widely anticipated new restaurant from chef Jeannie Pierola, had been a long time coming.
For months, the space inside the Bayshore Center on W Bay to Bay Boulevard sat empty. The buildout and redesign at the former home of Pach’s Place took longer than expected. There were permitting issues and other problems. The new countertops turned out to be the wrong countertops and had to be replaced. What was first scheduled to open in fall 2018 got pushed to the next spring, and then pushed again.
In late December 2019, the restaurant finally opened. Social media feeds lit up with photos of grilled steaks and char-marked octopus, colorful salads, bright cocktails served in dainty coupe glasses and bar counters jam-packed with diners. The place hummed with energy.
With an expansive menu, an early evening meal could easily stretch into a late-night affair. Maybe you planned on bellying up to the bar for just a snack and a cocktail, but chances are you’d end up staying for much more, a parade that could last hours: crusty slices of sourdough, served with a sweet and salty butter with honey and aleppo chiles ($5); velvety cylinders of toro (tuna belly) tartare garnished with crispy-fried shoestring potatoes ($17); burrata, paired with tart, pickled mangoes and a coconut pistachio granola ($17); plump Key West shrimp, grilled and plated on a tiny mountain of crunchy patatas bravas ($19). To cap the evening, the decadent black bottom butterscotch buddino ($12) was a must.
That opening buzz was all warranted, and by most accounts the restaurant appeared to be off to a smashing start.
Of course, the timing was terrible. Nearly three months later, the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt. On March 18, two days before Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the statewide shutdown of restaurants, Counter Culture closed.
Pierola, like so many of her peers in the restaurant industry, was in shock.
If opening a restaurant to great hype and acclaim was exhilarating, running that same restaurant at the onset of a pandemic was downright terrifying.
At first, the doors stayed closed. Like others in her line of work, Pierola eyed the scene with trepidation. But when it became clear that the coronavirus wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, her team started pivoting.
In April, the restaurant reopened with takeout. Pierola, a James Beard-nominated semifinalist many times over, wasn’t initially thrilled at the concept. But in time, the kinks were ironed out. They experimented with different third-party delivery services, and later, an online portal was set up where guests could order to-go food directly from the website. It seemed to be going all right.
But there were still so many unanswered questions: How long would this last? Could takeout keep them afloat? Would diners ever feel safe going out again?
When the time came, welcoming dine-in customers wasn’t without its setbacks. In June, an employee tested positive for the coronavirus and the restaurant promptly closed, while the entire staff was tested. And when the state’s COVID-19 case numbers started spiking, the customer dropoff was swift.
“I just never in my life saw business and reservations evaporate the way they did,” Pierola recalls now.
But slowly, as the summer months passed, things started looking up. Now, as the restaurant nears its one-year anniversary, Pierola says she feels almost lucky.
Lucky that the buildout of her restaurant includes retractable windows and a large outdoor patio, beckoning to patrons still hesitant about indoor dining. Lucky that South Tampa locals have continued to show their support with both dine-in and to-go orders. Lucky that she is still in business at all and has been able to rehire roughly 70 of her 130 employees. And while the restaurant is still operating with limited capacity and social distancing mandates, business is up.
These days, the bright, modernist dining space still feels a lot like its former self, but a closer look reveals a pandemic facelift. Dining at the counter before felt intimate, cozy and, at times, a little crammed. Now, even though the chairs are spaced farther apart, the restaurant’s setup still allows for some intimacy, just with a little more breathing room. Windows face out toward Bayshore Boulevard and Tampa Bay and, weather permitting, the retractable windows are opened wide, infusing the whole space with fresh air. The staff are all masked and guests are encouraged to wear masks when entering the restaurant and whenever they are not seated. Every table is topped with tiny aluminum spray bottles of hand sanitizer, a welcome and thoughtful touch. (The only hiccup has been that some customers have mistaken the bottles for olive oil canisters.)
The menu has been streamlined, and while some dishes from the opening list have been axed (a chateaubriand that just wasn’t selling, and a jerked pork collar), most made the cut. The wood-fired grill — a 15-foot powerhouse that includes an oven, plancha and four different grilling stations — still anchors the operation and is the genesis for dishes like wood-grilled butternut squash served with an almond mole butter and avocado crema ($13), and roasted baby carrots topped with crispy bacon, shaved green onions and a smoky creme fraiche ($12).
A wood-roasted chicken ($30) has enjoyed a comfortable place on the menu from day one, and for good reason. The half chicken gets an umami kick from a soy and vinegar adobo marinade flavored with dried porcini mushrooms and comes served atop a smoky, nutty romesco sauce. Another mainstay, the octopus served two ways ($17) — wood-grilled and crispy-fried with pimenton — comes with a juicy wedge of charred lemon, crunchy fried chickpeas and a bright and zingy salsa verde and herb salad.
The toro tartare and butterscotch buddino are still on the menu and — unlike lunch service, another pandemic casualty — they aren’t going anywhere.
Pierola knows that it’s impossible to predict the future, or what the next few months will bring for the restaurant industry. But there is reason for hope, she said.
“We’re not out of the woods yet," she said. "But I’m trying to be optimistic.”
In a few months, everything might change again. For now, Counter Culture feels like it’s found some solid ground.
If you go
Where: 2909 W Bay to Bay Blvd., No. 100, Tampa. 813-570-8660. cc-tampa.com.
Hours: Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Starters, $13 to $20; vegetables, $10 to $15; pastas, $25 to $36; wood-fired entrees, $15 to $41.
Don’t skip: toro tartare, roasted brick chicken, butterscotch buddino.
Dine in: Seating at the restaurant both inside and on the patio is by reservation only.
Take out: Online ordering for takeout, curbside pickup and delivery is available through the restaurant’s website.