Amidst the ugly check-cashing stalls, used car lots and bars-on-the windows convenience stores, the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa has become one of Florida’s hottest dining destinations.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s a run-down, rough-around-the-edges neighborhood that’s close to downtown but far out of favor. Architecturally it has some interesting homes, but it’s deemed ugly, dangerous, or too “racially mixed.” A few pioneers buy houses or rent there though because it’s cheap, often the fringe creative types: musicians, artists, actors, and solopreneurs.
Their friends find out about those cheap rents and start to follow. Eventually a few forward-looking businesses open coffee shops and bars to cater to this crowd, then a few clothing boutiques and music halls open. After that a few chefs who are tired of working for someone else open their own restaurants here because hey, the cost of rent is not going to kill them since they’re next to a used car lot and a laundromat. Those restaurants start winning awards and getting write-ups in magazines, the crowds start flocking in, there’s not enough parking and…
Waaaahhh—what happened to our neighborhood?!
This progression has become so predictable that if I were a multi-millionaire I’d put most of my money in real estate in these neighborhoods all over the USA. I’ve profited handsomely in my own life when I lived through this in Hoboken, New Jersey and East Nashville, Tennessee. My friend I always stay with in Brooklyn has seen the value of her co-op rise by a factor of four in a decade and a half. It’s not always pretty and there are certainly losers in this game—the original low-income residents who get pushed out of places like Echo Park in L.A. for instance. If you can be a participant when the changes are happening though, it can be an exciting ride.
So back to Seminole Heights in Tampa. When I moved to this city the first time (between two stretches in Mexico), Seminole Heights seemed like the place we would have lived if we didn’t have to worry about schools for our daughter. It’s where the cool people were and there were a few fun restaurants and bars, one brewpub. When we came back three years later, it was like someone dropped a hipster bomb and the place exploded. I recently attended a Florida Tourism event where they were offering a whirlwind restaurant tour of the area and I jumped on it. Here are some quick notes on places worth checking out, from that and my own excursions.
The Refinery – The place that started it all in 2010, run by six-time James Beard award nominee Greg Baker (a Tampa Bay native) and his wife Michelle. He went to culinary school and trained with the best, but longed to open a place that would “serve elevated food at prices that don’t break the bank.” This was “farm to table” before the phrase became so misused and it stocked local brews back when there weren’t many to choose from. The menu changes at least once per week depending on what’s fresh and available. [Update from 2020: alas, sometimes the first movers eventually lose their advantage. The Refinery is now closed.]
Fodder & Shine – Same owners as the above but in a far larger facility with smokers out back. It started out serving Florida food from original history recipes, but it turned out people didn’t really want to go back to those lean, swampy times and now it’s a glorious “southern public house.” We’re talking boudin balls, meatloaf, fried chicken, pork BBQ, and smoked mullet. I could have eaten three of the cornmeal fried chicken biscuit I tried. With a fun cocktail menu and a good craft beer selection that’s Florida-only. Bonus: you can play vintage Area 51 or Asteroids video games while you’re waiting if you’re not seated right away.
Rooster & the Till – Take one partner from Brooklyn, one from Tampa Bay, and let them work together for 12 years before opening their own place. You get good chemistry. This restaurant started out seating 10 people, then expanded twice and now has a major wait on weekends even though it seats 70. It serves eclectic dishes at good prices, such as chorizo crusted octopus with picked raisins, carrot emulsion, and squid ink black beans. You can get a sense of what they value by what they won’t let in the building: “No Coca-cola products, no Bud Light, nothing that comes off a Sysco truck.” Instead of just buying what’s seasonal, they plan their menu on what their favored farmers are growing—ahead of time. Then they round out the menu with items like charcuterie, pork, and seafood that are available all year.
Ichicoro Ramen – This place certainly doesn’t need any publicity from us: friends of our stopped by on a Saturday night lately and were told the wait would be “at least three hours.” This may be the greatest instant success story that Tampa has ever seen. Everything on the menu is pitch-perfect, probably since the team tried it all out in New York before opening here. We’re talking a Cuban sandwich made with puffy Asian bun for the bread, divine fried sweet potatoes Japanese style, and ramen that’s a million miles away from what comes out of a package or styrofoam cup. Check out this menu and start drooling, including the inventive sake cocktail selection.
Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe – “Eclectic” is the ethos here, from what’s hanging on the wall to what shows up on the menu. You can travel to Asia, the Mediterraneans, the Caribbean, and the Deep South in one sitting if you really want, from the Hippy Pizza to Suku’s Curry to the Tuna Cracka’ Stacka’. Everything comes out better than you expected though, including the chocolate covered bacon you can order at the end. They also have a terrific cocktail menu, with all of them priced between $8 and $11. There’s also a Soul Food Sunday brunch and live entertainment on the weekends.
There will surely be a few new places to add to this list within a year, along with another brewery, a craft distillery, and…who knows? But if you happen to need a cheap used car, those lots will still be strung out along Florida Avenue as well for many years to come. Seminole Heights has a long way to go before total gentrification takes over and the low-budget cool people move on.