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Our food critic is back on the beat and dishing on her plans for 2024

Tampa Bay Times food and dining critic Helen Freund returns to the dining beat after months away. Here’s what she hopes to share with readers going forward.
 
Tampa Bay Times food critic Helen Freund reflects on returning to the dining beat in 2024.
Tampa Bay Times food critic Helen Freund reflects on returning to the dining beat in 2024. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Jan. 23|Updated Jan. 24

Hi, hello, it’s me — again.

I’ve been away for a bit. In June, I took a temporary leave from the Tampa Bay Times restaurant beat to work full time on a story about kratom, a controversial and virtually unregulated substance that’s become wildly popular in Florida over the past decade.

I’d been chipping away at it for more than a year when it became clear this was a big story with the potential for a big impact. So while my colleagues on the dining team kept up with the rapid evolution of Tampa Bay’s restaurant scene, I was joined by a group of reporters from around the newsroom and together we immersed ourselves in the world of kratom.

In December, we published the result of our reporting, a multipart series examining the herb’s role in the state, including hundreds of overdose deaths tied to the substance. If you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll give it a read.

But now it’s January, and I’m slowly getting back into the swing of things on the dining beat. There is, ahem, some serious catching up to do.

From everything that opened at Water Street to the advent of Tampa’s first-ever Michelin stars and an influx of expensive tasting menu restaurants, Tampa Bay’s food and beverage scene saw a ton of action in 2023. (For more on that, read our rundown here.)

During the first two quarters, I covered a slew of restaurant openings, many of which had been hyped by publicists and social media influencers for months. But when I dined at some of these places, I was disappointed that the buildup wasn’t always warranted. More than a few of those meals fell flat.

Leading into summer 2023, I found that much of the pandemic’s fast-casual craze had been replaced by high-end dining, including several restaurants where it felt close to impossible to get out for under $100 per person after tax and tip. Cocktails frequently hovered around the $18 to $20 mark. A glass of wine easily went for $16. And it wasn’t unusual to see entrees in the $40 to $50 range. This isn’t to say some of those meals weren’t worth the money or the hype. I had plenty of great dining experiences in 2023. But the ones that missed the mark and remained packed had me scratching my head.

Why were some of these restaurants such a disappointment? Why were they so outlandishly expensive? And why were so many of us still flocking to them, handing out our hard-earned dollars without more thought?

Is Tampa Bay’s booming luxury real estate market and influx of new residents feeding this highfalutin frenzy? It’s no secret that the cost of living has skyrocketed. Inflation is real and shows no immediate signs of waning. Food and labor costs have spiked, and restaurant owners have been forced to raise prices for myriad reasons. Some of this sticker shock has to get passed on to diners.

And yet I can’t help but feel that, in some cases, the pendulum has swung too far.

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Around June, I largely stopped eating out for work. Taking six months off allowed for some much-needed perspective and helped me digest how the restaurant landscape was changing. When I did dine at a restaurant, I was doing so on my own dime, not the Times’ budget. That, too, made me reassess plenty, from which dishes I ordered to the restaurants and dining experiences that felt worthy of my time.

I’ve thought a lot about what returning to this beat might look like, and what types of stories I want to pursue going forward. While my to-do list is still swelling, there are a few key topics I plan on addressing. The question of what it costs to dine out right now in Tampa Bay and who can afford to do so is top of mind.

There are so many things I am looking forward to unpacking, including how, amid climbing rents and the absence of efficient public transportation, the very restaurant staff serving you that pricey burger are being forced to move farther and farther away from their place of employment.

As a restaurant critic and a reporter chronicling the dining industry, it’s my job to give you the most comprehensive, accurate picture of what eating out right now entails, how those working in the industry are making a living and what the future of Tampa Bay’s dining landscape might look like.

There are so many fantastic restaurants that I’m excited to explore and share with you. But my role isn’t just to tell you where everyone else is eating and post flattering Instagram photos of a $25 martini. Rather, it’s to break out of the echo chamber created by social media influencers receiving free meals in exchange for favorable reviews. To look beyond the press releases pushed by restaurant publicists, which often drown out smaller establishments unable to afford such marketing campaigns. To explain why your favorite neighborhood joint was forced to close. To help you spend your time and money wisely.

Most of all, I want to help you eat well. I want to tell you about great restaurants you haven’t heard about. I want to (gently) nudge you outside of your comfort zone. That’s where you’ll find the best meals.

I’m excited to get back to the table. Please, pull up a chair.