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Tampa's old Water Works Building slowly transforms to Ulele restaurant

Executive chef Eric Lackey points out Ulele’s barbacoa, which will be used to prepare grilled oysters, meats and seafood.
Executive chef Eric Lackey points out Ulele’s barbacoa, which will be used to prepare grilled oysters, meats and seafood.
Published Feb. 28, 2014

TAMPA — Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn better get the best table in the house when Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits opens in May.

In an exclusive hard hat tour Thursday, the Tampa Bay Times got a preview of the ambitious new restaurant concept, a collaboration among Richard Gonzmart and the Columbia Group, managing partner Keith Sedita and the city of Tampa.

The 1906 Water Works Building is still a long way away from roasting oysters, grilling Florida beef steaks and pouring shots from a recently acquired keg of Patron reposado (that's 27 cases of tequila), but it's easy to see the magnitude and foresight of the project.

"The mayor felt this was an underutilized area, so close to downtown," said Sedita, who was with OSI Restaurant Partners for 13 years and helped develop the Carmel Café concept.

As workers dug out a seawall along the eastern side of the Hillsborough River across from Blake High School, Sedita described how the Riverwalk will start on the north end near the restaurant and run 2.2 miles to the Tampa History Center (where Gonzmart operates the Columbia Café). Sedita envisions a time when folks will dine at Ulele (pronounced you-lay-lee), hop on an electric water taxi and head over to a Tampa Bay Lightning game or a concert.

Although the price was right on the lease ($1 a year for 20 years), Gonzmart said the transformation of the building into a 6,800-square-foot restaurant has ballooned in scope due to ever-more-ambitious plans and the strictures associated with renovating historic buildings.

"The budget has escalated four times," he noted, starting somewhere around $1.4 million and now heading north of $4 million. And with loads of moving parts, it's easy to see why Gonzmart envisions the 230-seat restaurant and microbrewery as his "legacy."

Designed by Tampa's Beck Group (located next door to the restaurant), the historic exterior has been preserved almost entirely, while the interior showcases a stylish juxtaposition of historic with industrial-chic, from sleek stained concrete floors to an open-construction mezzanine level with views of the river and a glass wine cellar tucked under an open metal staircase.

Although not LEED certified, which is the most stringent "green" building designation, the restaurant features green elements and repurposed local building materials. Envision Tampa's old courtroom benches used as banquettes and tabletops designed by Built in Seminole Heights from 100-year-old timbers out of a Florida barn.

Outside, Tom Ries of the Ecosphere Restoration Institute has overseen the restoration of Ulele Spring, which with a flow rate of 2,000 gallons per minute will provide warm, clear water that they hope will entice manatee and other wildlife. And in the shorter leg of the L-shaped restaurant, Ulele's brewmaster, Tim Shackton, is gearing up to showcase house-made beers as well as other Florida craft brews.

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But at the end of the day, a restaurant's success or failure often hangs on what's on the plates. Executive chef Eric Lackey, who came on board in June after stints at FlameStone American Grill and Belly Timbers Grill, is mum about actual menu items, but took pleasure in showing off his state-of-the-art kitchen. A 10-foot round barbacoa features four cooking stations to produce citrus-wood grilled oysters, meats, sauteed items and seafood; a cold oyster station will showcase the talents of exhibition shuckers; and a gleaming custom Halton hood will control ventilation for the large open kitchen.

Menu items, which will be mid-priced, are being tested in a temporary headquarters kitchen adjacent to the Columbia in Ybor City. According to Lackey, dishes will pay tribute to early Florida Native American fare as well as that of later Florida pioneers and emigres, with an emphasis on fresh-from-Florida produce and proteins.

That covers a lot of ground, but Sedita says the mandate is clear.

"With every ingredient we're asking ourselves, 'How does this relate to the history of the area?' "

Laura Reiley can be reached at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.


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