Veronica Danko, in the business proposal for her upcoming Jug & Bottle Dept. bottle shop, sums it up nicely.
"The Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa has seen a rapid growth in resident beer and wine enthusiasts and 'foodies,' while also enticing out-of-towners with its burgeoning restaurant and bar scene. These residents and visitors provide a unique opportunity for a package and retail business to capitalize on, as the neighborhood is still missing important amenities, such as a place to buy international and small-batch beers and wines, gourmet food items and quality casual takeout food."
Seminole Heights has become the "it" spot in Tampa, with dozens of existing restaurants, bars and food businesses crowded along N Florida and N Nebraska avenues, and a big handful on the horizon, poised to debut this spring.
What's going on?
Tigi Taylor, who will open Hampton Station, a neighborhood pizza-wings-burgers spot at 5921 N Nebraska, at the end of March, thinks it's only natural that Seminole Heights' time in the limelight is nigh.
"It's about 15 years overdue. The real estate collapse stalled things. Residential always rebounds first, and commercial comes next. People are moving back in from the suburbs because they are sick of traveling. And now that the businesses are opening, you're getting younger couples who are moving here, people who are used to living in a city."
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It has been a long haul. Years ago Heights residents would amble over to Bo's Ice Cream on N Florida for a banana split on a skeetery summer's night. But there wasn't much else. Late-nighters scarfed butternut squash tostadas at the cult-fave Taco Bus and the Front Porch on N Florida became a neighborhood hangout, but it wasn't until Ernie Locke and Melissa Deming opened Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe in 2009 that the neighborhood started to attract culinarily ambitious businesses. Progressive drinking establishments like the Independent (a second outpost of the St. Petersburg bar that is widely credited with introducing the area to serious beer) and Mermaid Tavern filled in some of the empty, and often affordable, real estate.
Greg and Michelle Baker moved into the charming Victorian house previously occupied by Bungalow Bistro, and since the debut of the Refinery in 2010, Seminole Heights seems cemented as the hipster Tampa neighborhood where delicious things happen. Rooster & the Till followed swiftly, as did another round of craft beer and drinking establishments: Florida Avenue Brewing Co. (formerly known as Cold Storage), Angry Chair Brewing and Southern Brewing and Winemaking (supplies for home brewers and winemakers). Devon Kreps of 7venth Sun Brewing in Dunedin says they will open a location on N Nebraska in Seminole Heights, although he declined to say just when.
At the beginning of this year the Bakers opened Fodder & Shine, their paean to Florida Cracker cuisine, while, simultaneously, first-time restaurateurs Lysa and Mike Bozel debuted Bourgeois Pig north of Hillsborough on N Nebraska (but have since lost their opening chef). And on Feb. 20, Paul Madrano, Brian Bosco and Justin James opened the doors of their three-years-coming Red Star Rock Bar at 6421 N Florida Ave. (Bosco's Domani Bistro and Lounge burned down last year.) The 1,500-square-foot space is a fun rock-themed drinking establishment, supported Thursday to Saturday by featured food trucks outside.
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Perhaps the most exciting newcomer will open in June at 5229 N Florida. Noel Cruz, a seasoned New York restaurant pro, opens Ichicoro, the Tampa Bay area's first ramen house. It's a huge trend in other cities. Cruz thought it was time.
"I've contemplated doing something down there for years," he said by phone from New York. "But it never felt right, timing wise. My first idea was a Mediterranean concept with local sourcing. The ramen thing came the last couple years as I got connected with some friends up here. I don't see any of it down in Tampa, and it seems like the right time for something truly authentic."
The University of Florida and Culinary Institute of America grad plans an intimate 40- to 50-seat open design, and will import a chef team originally from Sapporo, a hotbed of ramen innovation. This is not instant soup, folks: Bone up on tonkotsu (a style made with pork bones), shoyu (a style heavy on soy), kansui and other styles of broth studded with noodles, meats, veggies and eggs.
Danko and partners Ryan Fouche and Aaron Schaub, all of the Independent, will launch their Jug & Bottle Dept. (a reference to the back of the pubs in England where people would go for their take-home consumption) in April.
"At the Independent we don't have a package license and we have a huge selection of rare bottles from around the world that people always want to buy," Danko explains. "Also, there has been nowhere in Seminole Heights to drop in and buy a bottle of wine. Originally we were all looking for space separately, so we decided to do it together."
She says the store will stock a selection of wines and craft beers, and a small grocery section of coffees, teas, specialty sodas, kombucha, cold-pressed juices, artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, flowers and canned goods. It will also carry beer, wine and iced coffees on draft to go and offer a selection of beer and wine gifts.
Taylor, also an Independent alum, opens his Hampton Station in an old 1960s gas station that was supposed to house Delicious Surprise in the Publix shopping center. He has lived in Seminole Heights since the late 1970s and sees a need for a casual, family-friendly, moderately priced place for wings and burgers, with televisions and 10 craft beers ("nothing too outrageous"). He says his restaurant is named for the Seminole Heights sub-neighborhood of Hampton Terrace on Lake Roberta.
Ferrell Alvarez, co-owner of Rooster & the Till, says his Seminole Heights business is booming.
"The first few months we were open, we did numbers that nobody would believe based on our (limited) space. Then the newness wore off and we settled into nice monthly sales, even in the summer months. April, June and September, traditionally slow months, have been some of our best. We're still riding that wave. By Wednesday or Thursday each week we're booked up for the weekend."
To accommodate customers, Rooster will expand, with construction beginning in May. The restaurant will go from 40 seats to 66 seats, with a French suite-style kitchen and more room for wine storage, and thus a deeper wine list. Still in the planning stages is a chef's tasting menu based on a ticket sales system. Why an expansion and not a second location?
"We have a little more to offer with Rooster & the Till. We want to maximize our potential from an all-around hospitality standpoint. In the new space we will have so much more equipment to play with and we will put more high-end and aged wine on the menu without losing the focus or balance of affordability. And we'll be able to take larger tables."
Tampa developer Wesley Burdette has embarked on an ambitious venture nearby at 4513 N Florida Ave., where Warehouse Lofts, a $5.5 million project, will offer 48 apartments. Scheduled to be completed in September, the complex will have 3,270 square feet of retail space with a rooftop terrace. The plan is that at least some of that ground-level retail space will be devoted to a coffee bar, a restaurant and something involving craft beer.
And beyond all this, rumors swirl about a permanent farmers market/grocery venture, another wine and spirits shop and a new sushi restaurant, all of them independents.
In short, the Heights is setting sights high. Some of this, at least according to Danko, has to do with its unique sense of community.
"This community is made up of so many amazing people of all ages and professions, who have pride in Seminole Heights, its history, and what it is becoming," she says. "Most people here go out of their way to educate themselves on neighborhood growth and to support the growth of small local independent businesses."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.