For the past 11 years, I’ve gotten a phone call near the end of May. It’s from a reader, a young man seeking restaurant advice. He doesn’t earn much money, is a hairdresser in south St. Petersburg, but every year for his birthday at the beginning of June, he wants to treat himself to a great meal.
Where should he go?
That first year, I don’t remember where I sent him, but I fretted. How fancy should it be, how much money is he willing to spend? He called me after the fact and gave me feedback. When he phoned the following May, I knew more about him. I had kept track of what he liked, which side of the bay I suggested last, which places didn’t float his boat. He called me when his grandmother died; he has called me for professional advice. He’s my friend, someone I think about and root for. Also, someone I’ve never met.
This is my last column for the Tampa Bay Times before I head north to take a position at the Washington Post. This reader who calls me every May is not the only one I will miss. Over more than a decade, I have interacted with hundreds of readers — some offering me story tips, others with questions, praise or criticism — who have become something like friends or part of an extended family. Maybe every job is like that if you stay long enough: You become enmeshed in a community, both supporting and supported in a rhythm you couldn’t have predicted.
When I first came to the Times, the area’s food scene was dramatically different. I went out with a real estate agent in New Tampa, who upon learning I was a food writer said, “Oh, we’ve got everything here, Olive Garden and Red Lobster.” I tried to keep my face still, but I’m positive there was a wince or eye roll. It was true, the area was a proving ground for chain concepts: Darden, Bloomin’ Brands and all the biggies spitballed things here, Tampa Bay some kind of restaurant Peoria.
There was almost no local craft beer and the word “artisanal” was something you reserved for hand-cobbled shoes or maybe blown glass. There were no charcuterie boards, no house-made pickles, no poke bowls or local kombucha. There wasn’t a frenetic focus on the latest high priest of pasta or virtuoso of vegetables.
Wow, how things have changed. As the newspaper’s food critic, I was mostly just an eager chronicler, but it’s still impossible not to feel a certain pride in how much the Tampa Bay food scene has metamorphosed. I credit well-heeled snowbirds whose tastes have been expanded by travel. I credit millennials returning home to start independent businesses and patronize other independent businesses. I credit Joey Redner and all the early titans of Florida craft beer. I credit people like Greg Baker and John Matthews for celebrating the remarkable goods coming from local farmers and food producers.
Some of why we’ve become an exciting dining destination is economic: We are, relatively speaking, an affordable place to live and work. Unlike other densely competitive urban areas, folks can get in the game here by maxing out credit cards and borrowing from Mom and Dad. In the past two years, I could have spent 40 hours each week cataloging the new restaurants entering the market. This past week alone I can count a big handful, with high-profile openings like Mole Y Abuela (Fabio Viviani and team) and Oak & Ola (Anne Kearney and partners). We’ve expanded the number of world cuisines that are represented and now boast legitimate restaurant rows that read like a geography lesson of Southeast Asia or South America.
Like everywhere, Tampa Bay is not without gastronomic challenges. A protracted bear market could put the squeeze on independent restaurants that operate on a tight margin. We still have far too few small farms and ranches to service restaurants and those for whom “local” is important. And there are still too few checks on shysters for whom it’s profitable to misrepresent food’s provenance. We can do better. It requires a committed dining public willing to patronize those doing good work and penalize those who aren’t. It’s about putting our money where our mouth is, or maybe vice versa.
I’ve watched this area’s restaurant scene grow up. I will watch what it does next from afar. And whoever steps in to do my job, I hope they get a call from a south St. Pete hairdresser in May. And I hope they have a good restaurant suggestion.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] Follow @lreiley.