It’s almost unfair. Steve Gianfilippo’s five-story Station House was already super cool and hip-looking before the Ichicoro crew negotiated to take over the downstairs restaurant space. I was chagrined at the time that they gutted the handsome existing restaurant to do something minimalist and edgy. The result has an Asian aesthetic to tie into the ramen-and-small-plates menu, but it’s also got a DJ booth, a graffitied nook for selfies, outrageous martial-arts-seafood-and-psychedelia wallpaper by Half Sumo Collective and a huge Banksy-ish octopus mural. All of the dining spaces are defined by horizontal blondewood slats so you can peek through.
In 2018, I went there before a concert, I went there after a lecture, I went there in jeans for a quick soup slurp and I went there in lady clothes for more leisurely izakaya (Japanese gastropub small-plate snackies), and it always felt just right. The team behind this place has so many balls in the air (their original Seminole Heights Ichicoro, Ichicoro Imoto at Armature Works, the Corners Pizza, probably some other things they haven’t told me about yet), but this outpost manages to feel like the best kind of controlled chaos, a restaurant that could break out as a party at any moment. ichicoroane.com
Address: 260 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 300-0281
There are 7,000 hardback books, sleeves removed to reveal all-blue spines (well, and three red ones, very Architectural Digest). It’s a paean to books, a tribute of sorts to the George Peabody Library on the Johns Hopkins campus in Baltimore, which dates to 1878. (And yes, this restaurant used to be called the Peabody until early 2019.) This new space in the research and education building of All Children’s Hospital has herringbone tile floors over here, black-and-white checkerboard marble tile over there, outrageously high ceilings and dramatic globe pendants. The wood paneling is dotted with re-creations of portraits like the John Singer Sargent oil of Baltimore suffragist and philanthropist Mary Elizabeth Garrett, and there are pretty blue wingback chairs in which you’d need to be wearing tweedy jodhpurs and flicking a riding crop idly to feel fully comfortable. Gorgeous and dignified, it is the sibling of Oxford Exchange in Tampa and actually has excellent food, overseen by young dynamo Rachel Bennett. She focused on breakfast, lunch and brunch to start and has added enormously to her dinner offerings recently. It feels like a clean, lively fresh take. Check the fried Brussels with ricotta salata and capers. thelibrarystpete.com
Address: 600 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 369-9969
When it debuted in 2012, it was just about the most visually dazzling restaurant ever to open in the area. And that’s still the case. Blake Casper and his sister, Allison Adams, had a vision for something multi-use and oh-so-Anglophilic. (He attended the London School of Economics in the mid-1990s and fell under the sway of the club and cafe culture there.) In a historic building that dates to 1891 and is purported to have originally been stables for the Tampa Bay Hotel, they have fashioned a place that hosts weddings and meetings, offers co-work spaces, has a highly curated little bookstore and housewares boutique, operates the independent and ambitious TeBella tea shop and Buddy Brew coffee house and functions as a full-service restaurant with a central glassed courtyard. Casper has other big endeavors on his horizon, including a private club and bed-and-breakfast in the old Stovall-Lee estate on Bayshore Boulevard, but that doesn’t mean OE has gone neglected. This is the power spot for business breakfasts and lunches, as well as the convivial setting for afternoon high teas with finger sandwiches, scones and such. (They do a kids’ tea, a Champagne tea and a couple of other spins.) At lunch, top offerings include the grilled cheese and tomato soup combo and the spicy chicken burger and solid sweet potato fries. While it started dry, OE now offers a full bar; dinner was attempted but never seemed to gel. oxfordexchange.com
Address: 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
Phone: (813) 253-0222
A restaurant is a stage set, what happens there a performance, different every night. In a career that spans more than a couple of decades, at least eight restaurants and a wild ride, BT Nguyen is a master at setting the stage. Nguyen, who after the fall of Saigon was a refugee from Vietnam, worked in the fashion industry after college before switching gears and opening her first restaurant, a late-night cafe called Exodus. In Tampa, each of her concepts, without seven-figure design budgets, has a “take,” an aesthetic that signals what your expectations should be.
At her flagship in South Tampa, she brings in the natural world - driftwood, orchids and other epiphytes, little bouquets of herbs from the patio outside - then juxtaposes it with glamorous things like midcentury modern Philippe Starck ghost chairs and chilled metal martini glasses. The message? Pay attention, celebrate the sensual pleasures of the natural world without compromising standards? I don’t know. What I do know is that her motto is “eat local, think global,” her own sourcing exacting, her own travels extensive. Her expertise is classical French techniques, with plate presentations that verge on early nouvelle cuisine, zinged up with Vietnamese flavors. I love her pumpkin coconut milk soup, her grass-fed spicy bo tai chanh and her escargots capped with a buttery pastry round. restaurantbt.com
Address: 2507 S MacDill Ave., Tampa
Phone: (813) 258-1916