Rooster & the Till
Why is it some of my very favorite restaurants fit into the small plates category? It’s because it’s how we are eating. It mirrors famed chef Thomas Keller’s thoughts on the law of diminishing returns. You order a huge, remarkable dish: First three bites are amazeballs; 20th bite is meh. Share a small plate with two people you love, each of you carefully retrieving three forkfuls, plate-scraping essential? It’s the stuff of decades-later reverie. I know Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez. I know they are good employers and kind humans. They opened Nebraska Mini Mart in 2018, as well as Gallito at Sparkman Wharf.
They also hosted a guest chef series with an all-female cast of noteworthy chefs from around the country. Meanwhile, they sent out consistent and thought-provoking food. They have an amazing team (Brian Lampe, sorry about the hair comments), they keep engaged with national trends while honing their own style, they source responsibly within the limits of our growing region, and like all my favorite restaurants around the country, they continue to detonate the three-quadrant meat-veg-starch expectation of what a dish should be. Some of my favorite dishes are meat and vegetable in equipoise, sharing the limelight. This is starting to sound too esoteric: Rooster is fun, lively, an easy place to see why Tampa is a culinary star, not super expensive, likely to be the setting for good conversation and always the provider of thought-provoking sweet-savory desserts. roosterandthetill.com
Address: 6500 N Florida Ave., Tampa
Phone: (813) 374-8940
Lauren Macellaro is the bold chef, Jessika Palombo the dynamic front-of-the-house manager, Freefall Theatre co-founder Kevin Lane and partner Kevin Damphouse the owners. Together they have turned what was once a humble Christian Science Reading Room into one of the most ambitious restaurants in the area. (Bonus: Far from downtown, it has an entire parking lot.) Reading Room has its own on-site garden, from which it sources veggies, herbs and flowers; its dining room is airy and spare, with a hint of wood smoke perfume. Food is served in rustic glazed pottery, silverware is funky black stainless and the menu is tucked into an old hardback book. Attention to detail is nowhere more evident than with the food. It is not tweezer food, nothing precious or hyper-manipulated: There are small shareable nibbles, slightly larger plates that tend to be a little more appetizery, then larger plates still that are more entree-ish, but it’s all mix and match.
Macellaro and Palombo brought some staff with them from Asheville, N.C., hired the rest here, but as a group they are cohesive, knowledgeable and deeply committed to making sure you have a good meal. And you can hardly help but do so. Start with the house bread and butter, or the chicken liver mousse as another jumping-off point. Salads are uniformly gorgeous, often pairing roasted veggies with their raw corollaries for maximum texture. Because the menu changes frequently, it’s not helpful to suggest entrees, but chicken and pork dishes seem especially deft. rrstpete.com
Address: 6001 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 343-0052
I stopped in, nabbed the little marble table in the tiled vestibule serviced by two deep blue-gray armchairs. The table quickly filling with orange- and rosemary-scented marinated olives, “the Butcher” plate of charcuterie, crisp roasted cauliflower with currants and golden raisins, and a beet salad, I sipped a walnut-maple old fashioned, eavesdropped on a gaggle of girls-night-outers and thought, “Wow, this is the new normal in Tampa." Ten years ago a restaurant like On Swann would have been anomalous, so Big City. It’s a testament to how far the food scene has come that South Tampa takes it in stride, making it a neighborhood watering hole and brunch staple for families out shopping, business folks and everyone else.
This collaboration between Cafe Ponte’s Chris Ponte, his wife, Michelle, former Outback Steakhouse senior vice president Trudy Cooper and former Bonefish Grill president John Cooper has matured gracefully. The design is as stylish as when it debuted in 2016, the staff an interesting mix of seasoned pros and fresh-faced youngsters. From the quartet of boards to dishes like the oh-so-rich mushroom tartine or lively tuna crudo, it’s an easy place to graze, especially if you’ve got the aspiration to share a beef ribeye with crushed potatoes and bourbon onion rings that feeds two or three. onswann.com
Address: 1501 W Swann Ave., Tampa
Phone: (813) 251-0110
Brick & Mortar
Hope Montgomery and Jason Ruhe took the plunge in 2015, shifting from full-time caterers to full-time restaurateurs and part-time caterers. Their “brick and mortar” effort was smallish and homespun, lots of repurposed wooden pallets and funky terracotta flower pots, but it almost immediately took off, St. Petersburg diners charmed by their distinctive and effervescent Cal-Ital aesthetic. Montgomery coyly says they’ve got some new irons in the fire but isn’t ready to say what; Ruhe spent 2018 invested more in seafood-focused menu items like whole fish and scallops and perfectly crisp-skinned cobia fillets.
There are some anchor items that would prompt revolt if removed from the menu (the excellent burger with truffle fries, carpaccio of beef tenderloin topped by house ravioli filled with soft poached egg, the slow-braised octopus two ways), but they have otherwise built their reputation on a smart lineup of easily shared small plates and a shorter list of mains that lean to homemade noodles and slow-cooked meats (oxtail, short ribs). This is not splurge territory, most dishes between $11 and $24, but it makes a fine date night, especially if the weather is good and you can sit at one of the sidewalk tables.
Address: 539 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 822-6540