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Carlton: Has downtown Tampa outgrown tackiness, and Hooters, too?

Times files (2003) The Channelside Hooters\u2019 lease is up at the end of January, but the CEO hopes to relocate close by.
Times files (2003) The Channelside Hooters\u2019 lease is up at the end of January, but the CEO hopes to relocate close by.
Published Aug. 3, 2018

Surely it's a sign that downtown Tampa might be outgrowing its former funkiness:

Hooters — the world famous "breastaurant" that calls its own self tacky — is losing its lease and leaving its prominent perch at the edge of the Channelside entertainment complex.

Where, for the last 15 years, enthusiastic diners gnawed chicken wings served by waitresses in trademark skimpy orange shorts and Hooters tank tops imprinted with round-eyed owls.

In case you missed that subtle double entendre there.

And, okay, I get the skimpy part. But can someone please explain to me why the outfits were so 1980s down to the white socks and sneakers?

But I digress.

As part of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's $3 billion makeover of the south side of downtown, the old Channelside will soon morph into the way fancier Sparkman Wharf.

This piece of the big Water Street development will include shops, office lofts and outdoor dining. Shoot, pretty soon we'll be all rooftop bars, craft cocktails and restaurants that serve six kinds of avocado toast around here.

For historical perspective, when I first got to Tampa three decades ago, the only places to eat after dark were Subway and a really sad McDonald's that basically doubled as a homeless shelter.

So this is a moment of note. Even as downtown has scored dramatic improvements — a winding Riverwalk, expansive parks, hipster places open at night, actual downtown residents walking actual dogs — you just assumed Hooters would hang in there right where it was.

Because for so long it did.

The Monday it opened, the line was out the door, and Hooters kept rocking that corner even as Channelside's movie theaters went dark and restaurants disappeared and tumbleweeds started blowing through the courtyard. Tourists must have thought the whole place was the world's largest Hooters.

For a time, the restaurant provided a free Hooters trolley ferrying diners to and from the city's business center. Which was brilliant, really, since it was too hot, too far to walk and parking was abysmal and, for some, Hooters had that certain something.

When that trolley service was announced, the then-head of the local bus agency said in what I'm guessing was total deadpan: "That place is going to be hopping." Pause. "People like wings."

This too was so Tampa: people in ties and heels Hooters-bound for a plate of boneless wings and curly fries served by attractive women wearing not so much — those ties often flung over shoulders to avoid the wayward splatter of hot wing sauce.

I read an obituary once for an obviously beloved grandpa whose "celebration of life" was held at that Channelside Hooters — one would have to assume at his request.

This week came the news that Hooters' lease is up at the end of January and there are new if undisclosed plans for that prime corner.

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And also this: Hooters' CEO says the chain hopes to find a new location not far away.

A Hooters rebirth, smack in the middle of a sparkling new version of this city?

Actually, that would be pretty Tampa, too.