Five or six years ago, if you were to stand on the steps of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and look north along the Hillsborough River, there wouldn't be much to see. Just a couple of old warehouses and some rubble in the area known as Tampa Heights, one of Tampa's oldest neighborhoods just north of downtown. Then restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, who grew up nearby, poured $6 million into restoring the historic Water Works Building and turned it into Ulele, an expansive restaurant that embraces Old Florida.
That was in 2014, right around the time Water Works Park opened and a transportation grant allowed for the expansion of the once segmented path along the river into the 2.4-mile-long Tampa Riverwalk. With the completion in February of the Heights Public Market at Armature Works, the area's largest food hall in a historic building that once housed an electric streetcar line, Tampa Heights has cemented itself as a culinary destination.
Here's one way to navigate the many gustatory options. Park at Armature Works, which has the largest lot (and also valet options) in the area, and go from there.
STOP 1: Hidden Springs Ale Works
1631 N Franklin St., Tampa. (813) 226-2739. hiddenspringsaleworks.com.
This brewery opened in 2015 before the Heights was certifiably hip. Now, the craft beer hub is in prime position on Franklin Street just blocks away from two food halls. The chill, sparse tasting room is a nice way to start your food romp. I'd recommend one of the milk stouts, Deja Moo, made with smoked chipotle peppers and cocoa nibs, or the Vanilla Deja Moo, the same but plus vanilla (both $6.) They do solid wheat beers and IPAs, too, all brewed on site.
STOP 2: Armature Works
1910 N Ola Ave., Tampa. (813) 250-3725. armatureworks.com.
Psst. Look for the plastic cups bearing the Riverwalk logo. They are key to this next part of your journey through Tampa Heights. Those cups allow you to bring alcoholic drinks you buy at Armature Works up and down the Riverwalk, a gesture that practically begs for a dinearound such as this.
So start there, at Fine & Dandy for a classic cocktail, or Cru Cellars for a glass of wine. For the nondrinkers, stop by Union, the Armature outpost of Commune + Co., for coffee or tea. In addition to Coffee Cola and nitro-pressured coffee, they have a rotating selection of specialty drinks . Currently, it's the Pina Colatte, a nitro pour of Union's pressure brew, plus pineapple, vanilla, rum and coconut cream.
With drinks in hand, take a lap around the building so your group can get familiar with the choices at the 14 different food and drink stalls. It'll limit the FOMO that may occur when you order too quickly, only to see a more enticing entree 10 feet away. Don't go full meal here, as there's more eating to be done. Opt for something like a Tampa Girl empanada from Empamamas, the food truck-turned-food hall spot that has won awards for a Cuban sandwich-inspired version of the fried dough pocket. Or split a sandwich from Inside the Box, a restaurant run by Metropolitan Ministries that smokes, brines and cures all of its meats in-house. You can't go wrong here, but the Sugar Glazed Pork Loin, with sriracha bacon and smoked mozzarella cheese spread, and the Roast Beef, with blue cheese and roasted garlic aioli, are drool-worthy. Graze, which has breakfast all day, has some solid lighter options like various tartines (essentially, fancy toasts) and salads.
When you're done eating (most places get your cell number and text you when the food is ready), carry your leftover drinks down the Riverwalk toward Ulele, then hang a left and make your way across N Tampa Street toward your next stop.
STOP 3: The Hall on Franklin
1701 N Franklin St. (813) 405-4008. thehallonfranklin.com.
Look, I understand. It's getting late, and you just want to know what's what. Like Armature Works, this is another food hall with an overwhelmingly large menu to peruse. Unlike Armature, it's table service, so you get a waiter who can help narrow things down. Relax into one of the chic chairs that outfit this gorgeously designed hall and order from one (or many) of the seven vendors in the hall.
Start with a cocktail from the Collection, the bar from Ro Patel, a local mixologist behind many of Tampa Bay's best bars. For nondrinkers, Kofe has a wide lineup of coffee, tea and other sippers. Here are some other menu items that have never failed me: a poke bowl from Poke Rose, the curry chicken or the signature ahi tuna being very solid choices; a liege waffle from Bake n' Babes, the de facto dessert spot in the hall; the Jack Rose cocktail topped with Luxardo cherry foam from the Collection; the sweet potato tots from Heights Fish Camp; and the Stinky Bunz (try the zucchini) from North Star, an Asian eatery from the owners of Anise Global Gastrobar down the street.
STOP 4: Ulele
1810 N Highland Ave., Tampa. (813) 999-4952. ulele.com.
Time this just right. Your goal is to arrive at Ulele around 8 p.m. if it's summer, grab a table outside and get in place for a spectacular sunset over the Hillsborough River. If you didn't get your fill of sweets at Hall on Franklin (and even if you did), order a scoop or two of Ulele's homemade ice cream. The coconut is my fave, but their flavors change often.
Belly up to the outdoor bar for a nightcap, or sip on one of Ulele's beers, which are made in a brewery that sits behind the restaurant. (In the works on the back patio is a trolley bar, yet another spot you can while away the sunset hours outdoors.) The Wedding Beer and Rusty's Red Ale are two popular choices. Pro tip: You can only get Ulele's beers at the restaurant and some other Gonzmart properties. Take a sip, and a spoonful, and marvel at all that eating you just did where there was recently only rubble.