TAMPA — It’s never taken Chris Ponte this long to open a restaurant.
First, there was the pandemic and the corresponding shutdown. Then, the inevitable delays — shortages in supplies, equipment and labor. But also: Opening a restaurant of this caliber just takes time.
Now, more than 3 ½ years since its inception, Ponte Modern American has finally opened.
At first glance, it appears to have been well worth the wait.
Joined by his wife, Michelle, and stepsons Andy Mahoney, 26, and JT Mahoney, 30, Ponte’s new restaurant is a family affair, melding the James Beard-nominated chef’s classically trained technique and kitchen finesse with a younger generation’s eye toward the future. The restaurant joins Ponte’s other Tampa restaurants, which include Hyde Park’s On Swann, Italian restaurant Olivia and the fast-casual Bare Naked Kitchen, which opened earlier this year in South Tampa.
News first broke that Ponte planned to open up a follow-up to his celebrated Clearwater restaurant Cafe Ponte at the Midtown Tampa development in early 2019. And though the restaurant was initially slated to open in early 2021, there have been some advantages to the wait: Ponte was supposed to be one of the first restaurants to open at the 23-acre mixed-use development near Interstate 275 and N Dale Mabry Highway. Now, it’s one of the last. Being a trailblazer in an empty lot would have been a lot tougher than coming into the bustling hub of retail and dining that exists now.
“It kind of benefited us that we were able to open (now), because it’s more lively here,” Ponte said. Finding people to work has been relatively easy as well, Ponte said, compared to the challenges employers faced during the labor shortage last year.
The delay also gave Ponte plenty of time to survey the market and surrounding restaurant landscape. In an area where fast-casual has reigned supreme, Ponte’s newest venture feels like an outlier — a calculated return to a time of expense account dining and business power lunches.
“We just wanted to bring another element to the Tampa Bay scene,” Ponte said. “We felt like that’s kind of gotten away from the dining experience. I just wanted to bring that elegance back.”
Like Cafe Ponte, which closed in 2020 following an 18-year run, Ponte’s latest endeavor is not a casual affair. Rather, the sprawling 7,000-square-foot space indeed feels like an exercise in elegance, with white tablecloths and elevated tableside service.
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Guests are greeted in a large foyer facing a marble host stand and then whisked to a giant dining room with towering ceilings outfitted with chandeliers. Vases of flowers are spaced throughout the restaurant and plush banquettes line a massive two-column centerpiece, which both anchors and divides the space. Behind it, an open kitchen serves as the dining room’s backdrop, encased in a glass partition that offers guests a view of the chefs — all donning traditional French chef toques — in action.
Alongside the bar, a glass-encased wine cellar has room for approximately 3,500 bottles and diners have the option of purchasing their own personal wine lockers, which start at $2,500.
Helming the kitchen is executive chef Paul Morrison and executive sous chefs Matt Micenec and Dion Jumapao. As for the menu, think Manhattan steakhouse with a modern American twist.
An evening here can start with Parker House rolls with honey and black truffle butter, or, for an extra cool $175, a spread of Oscietra Royal caviar, with all the traditional accoutrements, including potato herb blini and ginger creme fraiche. A raw bar menu features a selection of East and West Coast oysters ($24); a kanpachi crudo with Thai chiles, cilantro oil, cucumber and coconut vinaigrette ($22); and a tiger shrimp cocktail, served with a sake cocktail sauce and miso mustard ($24).
For starters, composed small and shareable plates run the gamut from a truffle risotto with Parmesan foam ($21) to a lobster cappelletti with tomato, basil and lemon chile butter ($25); a crab and rock shrimp cake with a pickled fennel citrus salad and yuzu aioli ($24); and escargot served “en croute,” with nduja garlic butter and cognac ($18).
Prime and aged steaks highlight the entree portion of the menu, where guests have their pick from roughly six selections on any given evening, including a 14-ounce grass-fed, 28-day wet-aged New York strip ($48), a Wagyu Denver Steak from Snake River Farms, Idaho ($85), and a 28-ounce Porterhouse, dry-aged for 35 days ($90). In typical steakhouse fashion, guests can then gussy up their selection with a number of sauces (bearnaise, cognac truffle), toppers (lobster tail, foie gras) and butters (caramelized onion, blue cheese cabernet).
Beyond the steak selection, dishes include a heritage chicken, served with fennel sausage, hot cherry peppers, taggiasche olives and a verjus vinegar sauce ($36); a dry-aged Berkshire pork chop with roasted caramel apples, walnuts, sage and calvados sauce ($38); and New Bedford scallops, served with rainbow cauliflower, capers, crispy prosciutto and a hazelnut brown butter ($48).
Though the menu here is distinct from Cafe Ponte, die-hard fans of that restaurant will be happy to hear that fan favorites like the mushroom soup, sea bass and short ribs make an appearance on the new menu, but with slight revamps and upgrades.
Though Ponte appears to rest comfortably in upscale fine dining territory, there are modern touches throughout that nod to a younger generation. Regardless of what you order, the element of showmanship looms large, with dishes like a Caesar salad delivered to guests piled out of a cylinder onto a plate, and prime cuts like a cote de boef carved tableside. And the restaurant’s signature Michelle Martini is a production of its own ($39), with Chopin Vera Wang vodka poured into a glass served alongside a tray of Sevruga caviar, blini, creme fraiche and olives.
In other words, there may not be a flashy neon script sign or a plant wall backdrop, but there is still plenty of fodder for the Instagram set here.
For those looking to dine at Ponte, getting a reservation is key: The restaurant is rolling out bookings slowly, week by week, for the 250-seat restaurant. In the coming weeks, once the restaurant has found solid footing, the team plans on opening up reservations further in advance.
There is a (slightly) more casual option, for those not looking to splurge on a two- to three-hour dining experience — and you don’t need a reservation. The restaurant’s lounge, called the Gramercy Bar, features a 30-seat U–shaped bar and serves a full menu. Eventually, it will offer an abbreviated bar and small plates selection, too. That, plus a few other amenities like brunch and a weekday lunch, are still to come.
For now, Ponte appears ready to hit the ground running. We’ve waited long enough, after all.
If you go
Ponte Modern American is currently open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 1010 Gramercy Lane, Tampa. 813-582-7755. pontetampa.com.