TAMPA — If you’ve been paying attention to the cyclical tides of pop culture over the past couple years, it feels like GenX Tavern in downtown is opening right on time.
A walk through a shopping mall in 2019 — always an on-brand Generation X activity — can feel like a trip through your high school dream closet of 1995. I had that striped Tommy Jeans T-shirt now for sale in Pac Sun, say the 30-somethings who now cannot pull off that T-shirt. Trendy “dad shoes” are really ‘90s throwbacks.
Lethal Weapon and Full House have been rebooted. Alf, Frasier and a dozen others are being considered for that treatment, and one of the most-streamed Netflix shows is Friends.
Charli XCX recently put out a song called 1999 with a video recreating a scene from Titanic, not to parody it, but because it looked cool. Charli XCX was 6 when Kate and Leo stood on the bow of that doomed ship.
And so, GenX Tavern, named for the small generation of folks born from about 1965 to 1980, is on-trend. The bar and restaurant with an ‘80s and ‘90s theme at 103 E Jackson St. will quietly open at 4 p.m. Tuesday before a full, grand-opening celebration Saturday.
Restaurateur Dave Burton didn’t plan it this way, at least not consciously.
“The idea of doing something where we could celebrate the ‘80s and ‘90s came up, and we immediately loved it,” said Burton, whose other restaurants include Holy Hog BBQ, Tampa Pizza Company and the Getaway. “I put a lot into all my places, but this one definitely feels the most personal by far.”
Burton, who is 41 and a Tampa native, falls squarely within the Generation X boundaries, a demographic that was often characterized as too-cool-for-everything. Picture a young Ethan Hawke or Janeane Garofalo rolling their eyes at anything as try-hard as a theme restaurant. Or better yet, showing up ironically just to make fun of it.
“Putting this place together was really walking a fine line,” Burton said. “We didn’t want it to go so far that it became cheesy.”
He stresses that first and foremost, it’s meant to be a good restaurant with good food and drinks where anyone, no matter if they grew up in the Reagan-era or the Obama years, will feel comfortable.
“We didn’t want it to feel like a museum,” said Larissa Pepe, operations manager for all of Burton’s restaurants. “The main thing is that you’re surrounded by great conversation starters.”
Pepe, 27, is technically a millennial, “but I don’t feel that way. These are all the things I grew up with.” She even provided her own Britney Spears HitClips disc as part of the decor. She’d saved it in a box for years.
It’s clear is that Pepe and Burton had a blast tracking down the rest of the vintage stuff that fills the 5,200-square-foot restaurant over many hours spent scouring eBay and Etsy.
A big stack of tube televisions reminiscent of an old Radio Shack window display is the first thing that greets customers. They’re all functional, and hooked up to a Super Nintendo.
The neon light display over the centerpiece bar, with tap handles shaped like Care Bears and Mr. T, is meant to look like the game KerPlunk.
Display cases on the back wall behind a row of elevated picnic tables are stuffed with pogs, VHS tapes, Cabbage Patch Kids, hacky sacks and a Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? book that looks like it came straight from a fifth-grade book fair. The 1992 USA men’s Olympic basketball team, a.k.a. the “Dream Team,” looks down from a photo in the corner, next to a poster for Holyfield vs. Tyson II, a.k.a. “the bite fight.”
The storefront, formerly the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and more recently a space where janitorial equipment was stored, went through an extensive renovation over the past year.
“This place was full of dust and wires hanging from the ceiling,” Pepe said.
A second space off the main dining room has several living room areas with couches and coffee tables, each with its own TV and a light fixture made from floppy discs. The hallway to the restrooms is the trippiest spot. Neon lights and an infinity mirror are meant to evoke a Pac-Man arcade game.
Some of what’s going on at GenX Tavern feels inspired less by the specific pop culture of the ‘80s and ‘90s than just a nostalgia for youth. They’ll serve rum cocktails in pouches, like adult Capri Sun juices. A signature Tang-a-Rita comes in a glass rimmed with the orange drink powder Tang.
“Every dad had that refrigerator out in the garage with some random beer in it, like Bud Ice or something,” Burton said. And so GenX Tavern will feature an all-the-time “dad’s fridge” $2 special. The bartender will grab a random beer from the fridge, brown-bag it, and serve it without telling you what you’re getting first.
The food is fairly straightforward American fare. Burgers run $10 to $12 with names like the Gordon Gecko or Truffle Shuffle. Hearty salads are listed under the Richard Simmons section. Dessert items include Dunkaroos and a candied spam funnel cake.
Burton is excited to be a part of downtown Tampa’s resurgence as a destination for food and entertainment.
When Burton was a teenager in Tampa in the mid-90s, he remembered a city without a whole lot going on.
“Honestly, it was a lot of hanging out in parking lots,” he said. “I was a good kid, though. I wasn’t a troublemaker.”
Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] or follow @spatatimes on Twitter.