Tampa's Channel District is high up on my list of underrated drinking neighborhoods. While everyone's talking about the beer and cocktail scene in Seminole Heights, downtown and in Tampa Heights' Yellow Brick Row, I rarely hear details about the ever-growing bar and restaurant scene on the Channelside waterfront.
I only recently learned that Cena — a low-key but well-respected Italian joint located at the base of the Grand Central condo complex — got its liquor license in May, including the launch of a new cocktail program.
Grand Central has a near-monopoly on neighborhood drinking spots. There's Maloney's and the Hideaway on one side, and the inner courtyard features Pour House, City Dog Cantina and Cena. With the addition of craft cocktails at that last one, there are few bases uncovered within a one-block radius of the complex.
Cena is a little restaurant, with just a handful of white-clothed tables in the dining area and room for only a half-dozen or so people at the smooth, granite bar in the back. The interior is clean and minimal, matching the laid-back lounge music playing softly in the background. It's a smart choice for a small venue, where a more elaborate setup would get messy in short order.
The vibe at Cena is somewhat upscale, but it's casual enough — the kind of place where you could drop some serious bucks on a romantic dinner just as easily as you could roll up to the bar and sip a negroni for no reason other than the fact that you're in the mood for one.
The cocktail list is a work in progress, with only five entries on the printed menu and an off-menu barrel-aged boulevardier to choose from. Ditto the liquor selection itself, which is relatively limited in the context of the craft cocktail bar that Cena is well into developing.
Of course, it's a mistake to confuse a limited drink menu with a lack of quality or creativity. Anyone with a little bit of booze knowledge will recognize that Cena's spirit selection is a curated affair, centered around uniqueness and quality rather than sheer variety.
You'll find some very interesting options. The "well" whiskeys at the moment are the 1776 bourbon and rye whiskeys from James E. Pepper — both excellent values and somewhat uncommon finds.
There are a couple of gins from Uncle Val's, El Tesoro tequila, Kirk and Sweeney 12- and 18-year-old rums, Bache cognac and many other deep cuts from the international liquor cabinet, not the least of which is Zirbenz, a stone pine liqueur from the Austrian alps.
Even the token Italian beer is an unusual brand — Cena offers Menabrea amber and light instead of the standard Moretti or Peroni. There are many Italian wines in the restaurant's excellent wine selection, of course, as well as some unusual Italian amaros and spirits, like Poli grappa and Amaro Nardini.
Cena may not look the part at first glance, but this is a bar worthy of some in-depth exploring.
The six house cocktails are almost familiar territory, but each has a signature twist that makes it Cena's own. The negroni uses Cappelletti in place of Campari and Cocchi di Torino in place of the more widely used Carpano. The old-fashioned swaps chocolate bitters for Angostura and adds Hoodoo chicory liqueur to its 1776 bourbon base. The mojito incorporates Cappelletti and prosecco.
With the neighborhood's low profile, you'd be forgiven for being unaware of the cocktail situation inside Cena. But it would be a shame to miss out. Take a day to explore the Channel District and have a few drinks along the way, ending up at Cena for a nightcap. You'll be happy you did.
Contact Justin Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @WordsWithJG.
1208 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 374-8840; cena-channelside.com
The vibe: A chill, intimate Italian restaurant with a fresh new cocktail program.
Food: Appetizers and salads, $9 to $16; entrees, $14 to $30.
Booze: Beer, wine and liquor. Beer, $5; wine, $5 to $16 by the glass and $24 to $125 by the bottle; liquor, $7 to $18.
Specialty: Cena's new cocktail program offers a half-dozen unique takes on classic premises, like a chicory-and-chocolate-boosted old-fashioned and an elderflower-tinged gin and tonic garnished with a massive basil leaf and plump, whole peppercorns. The spirit selection is small by cocktail bar standards, but it's smart and much more exotic than it appears upon casual inspection. Be adventurous!
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday.