Advertisement
  1. Food

Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley reflects on her decade in the job After more than a decade as food critic, it's time to reflect

After 11 years, food critic Laura Reiley hangs up her fork, with some observations about how our restaurant scene has changed.
MONICA HERNDON | Times Times food critic Laura Reiley, pictured at Armature Works in Tampa, is leaving the Tampa Bay Times for a job at the Washington Post
Published Feb. 20

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.

More: Six ways to become a better diner

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 l.e.reiley@gmail.com. Follow @lreiley.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Alison Krauss will perform at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Oct. 20. Capitol Records
    The Clearwater Jazz Holiday returns with a strong music lineup, Zac Brown Band plays Tampa and Barry Bostwick will be here to screen ‘Rocky Horror.'
  2. Festival goers move through the midway during the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church's annual Ethnic Festival. This year's festival will be Oct. 17-20 at the church on Spring Hill Drive at Coronado Drive. Tampa Bay Times | 2010
    The 28th-annual Ethnic Festival returns to St. Joan of Arc.
  3. Left to Right: Hospitality panel members Viviana Leyva, Steve Westphal and Jeff Gigante talk about the needs of the hospitality industry in Tampa Bay region during a kickoff of the University of South Florida Hospitality Leadership Program last month. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    Restaurant and hotel owners say they have a need for finding and keeping talented workers.
  4. Vegan broccoli slaw with vegan burgers in the background for Memorial Day. SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    We have plenty of plant-based eateries to choose from.
  5. Milk and Honey Sprouted Wheat Bread. LORRAINE FINA STEVENSKI  |  Special to the Times
    Try to find a local honey for this easy bread.
  6. You can taste more than 100 beers during Brews by the Bay, now in its 11th year at Tampa's Florida Aquarium. Courtesy of Florida Aquarium
    Brews by the Bay samples 100-plus beers, wiener dogs lead Marker 48’s Oktoberfest, seasonal sweets at local restaurants and Mastry’s Brewing celebrates three years.
  7. Blue crabs are seasoned and steamed for ten minutes at the Key West Seafood Company, Gulfport,  Wednesday, October 2, 2019.  SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    Not sure where to start? Go from market to table with guidance from local sellers.
  8. CJ Hnilica, manager of Key West Seafood Company, Gulfport, sorts through a box of fresh blue crabs, Wednesday, October 2, 2019. The crabs were steamed for customers.  SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    Here’s what you need to know about Florida’s other crab.
  9. Aubi & Ramsa opened last month with an aesthetic that strives more for cocktail bar than ice cream parlor. (Divya Kumar | TIMES). DIVYA KUMAR  |  Divya Kumar | TIMES
    The menu offers 26 flavors, including White Chocolate Merlot and mezcal-infused Chocolate Azteca.
  10. Hyde Park Village newbie Meat Market is a Miami Beach favorite that now serves prime cuts of beef in Tampa. Meat Market
    Plus, Tampa’s Aubi & Ramsa scoops boozy ice cream, Anthem House is bringing shakes and teas to Clearwater and Tampa’s Oxford Exchange pops its Champagne Bar.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement