In the way it took many of us a while to understand that a contemporary food truck was capable of driving metaphorical circles around the old-school "roach coach," there's a learning curve with the food halls that have proliferated in American urban centers. They are not, for instance, like mall food courts or a collection of flea market vendors. And yet most of them are not precisely sit-down restaurants either.
The Hall on Franklin, which opened about a month ago in Tampa Heights, operates in a slightly different manner than established gastronomic playgrounds like Mario Batali's Eataly or Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. Jamal Wilson has brought together seven vendors, the offerings synergistic and not duplicative, each operating more or less independently but coming together with a service style that is very much a traditional sit-down restaurant experience with servers and food runners and silverware at the table.
Take a peek at online reviews and there's some confusion and the inevitable grousing. Yes, because you have a server and food runners, you are tipping. This is not a hunter-gatherer situation, everyone wandering off to stalk their own comestibles, one guy staked out at your table to ward off circlers with a fierce stink-eye.
You put your name in upon arrival (there are four bars, so if you find an empty seat, have at it). Because this concept is new and hot, waits can be lengthy, but Yelpers, giving a new place a bad review for a long wait is like saying, "I hated Hamilton, way too hard to get tickets." There's high-top seating, regular table seating and low tufted leather couch seating, all spread around a super sexy reimagining of a 1920s yellow brick building. Parquet floors and Vegas-worthy chandeliers are juxtaposed with industrial roll-down garage doors and illuminated menu screens for a seamless old-meets-new look.
Each food vendor has a "storefront" section of the room with a menu and counter service, but really the only customers using the order counters are to-go orders. I'm wondering if the counter people have enough to do as everyone else in the joint is going full tilt.
Once you're seated you need to begin the lengthy process of surfing the multi-page menu booklet and choosing first a drink, from either Ro Patel's artisan cocktails at the Collection ) or the coffee drinks, sodas and chocolatey quaffs at Ty Beddingfield's Kofe (I think I had a latte-art scorpion in my foam), either way there are beautifully executed choices at prices that are competitive with other Tampa hot spots.
If you, like me, want to try something from everywhere, maybe start with a half dozen raw gulf oysters ($12) from Heights Fish Camp, which arrive on an iced aluminum tray with lemon wedges and a couple of sauces (a mignonette in a plastic pipette — nice touch) and a basket of saltines. And then maybe the smoked fish spread ($8.99, contains crab) with more saltines and carrot and celery sticks, a nice spin on a Florida classic.
North Star Eatery, a Viet-Korean fusion concept from Kevin and Xuan "Sing" Hurt of Anise Global Gastrobar, and Jason Cline's Poke Rose are next to each other on one wall, their offerings working most effectively together, the pokes a lovely array of meal-in-one options anchored by cubes of fresh tuna, salmon or cobia. I tried several, the best of which was the signature Poke Rose bowl ($10.95 for small), warm rice and greens nearly obscured by rosy tuna cubes, scallion, radish, edamame, sesame seeds and spicy ginger. Now accompany this with a trio of North Star's buns, the best of which are the panko-fried wheels of zucchini ($3.50) and the red curry chicken ($4), something of a signature over at Anise.
My only beef with the Hall on Franklin is serving vessels. Wilson, never a restaurateur before, was starting with the great unknown, an all-new concept with little precedent in this area. He envisioned servers and runners, who work for the hall, not the vendors, pulling together and using a seat-numbering system so food could find diners anywhere in the hall. And it mostly works (okay, sometimes runners are ruefully holding a hand aloft: "Rose? Who has the rose?"). The thing that is weird is that nearly every dish is served in cardboard to-go containers or, much worse, disposable plastic bowls.
It's a dishwasher paucity, clearly. There are individual small ceramic plates for sharing, but the hall doesn't seem to have the dishwasher bandwidth to go all the way. I see this as a problem because — girls' night out, big date, business soiree — it's too nice a place to be rooting around in cardboard. And I hate to think of the amount of garbage this set-up generates — a heavy millennial crowd will no doubt exert some pressure in this arena.
I haven't mentioned Heights Melt Shoppe or Bake'n Babes yet, and that cannot stand. Both of these are notable, the former a fancy-grilled-cheese concept from longtime Tampa Bay restaurateur Dave Burton, and the latter a dessert bakery that doubles as the breakfast spot, working with Beddingfield to get the morning meal squared away with aplomb. The babe in question is Julie Curry, an amateur baker turned pro who did the desserts for Anise. The best way to get a big picture view of her strengths is to order the dessert tapas tray ($25 but easily feeds four or five) served on a slate slab (yay, no plastic), with a pumpkin whoopie pie, perfect plush creme brulee, refreshing minty sorbet, cheesecake with a gooey chocolate cap and a salted caramel cube called a Carmelita bar, that, because it has oats and pecans in it, you can convince yourself is something akin to an energy bar.
So once the initial hubbub has died down, who is going to frequent the Hall on Franklin? Certainly University of Tampa students couch-slouching with their phones or tablets. But also young moms with their progeny getting out of the house, business lunchers, couples with different dietary styles ("I'm getting raw poke bowl and he can order that Monte Cristo thing although I told him he's got to watch his cholesterol"), and grazers and sharers who love the idea of a cavalcade of small dishes. And frequently, probably, a food critic on her day off.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.