Tag Archives: Tampa

Already Planning to Go Back

While I’ve focused almost entirely on the fun stuff, our days were largely spent studying at the famous journalism school, the Poynter Institute. We heard programs on everything from topic trends to useful software. This cartoon hung on the wall at Poynter reminded us that, while writing is a serious business, it’s good to see the lighter side of it.

Poynter-PeanutsCartoon-B

Definitely worthwhile, but it meant we saw a lot less than if we were on vacation.

The conference kept me too busy to get to the Sunken Gardens, which were the first thing suggested by just about everyone I asked for recommendations. I also missed the Dali Museum, which got rave reviews. I never got to the beach, and I learned too late that there is still a place in St. Pete that serves smoked mullet.

Plus there are all the other delights of the area. I’m determined to dine someday at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. I want a full meal, and not just a snack, at Columbia. Plus I want to visit again some of the places from long ago—the Ringling Estate, Tarpon Springs, Fort De Soto.

And I’m certain that when I check out sites such as Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay, I’ll find even more things to lure me back to the area.

So farewell for now, Tampa Bay. I’ll definitely be looking for an opportunity to return.

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Tampa, New

Tampa has in the last few years experienced an explosion of craft breweries, which seems to be happening in a lot of places, largely as a result of so many folks losing high-paying jobs and figuring that, if they can’t make a lot of money, they might as well have a lot of fun doing something they love. I’m not a beer drinker, but I know enough people who are that I figured this was worth passing along.

Along with the increase in the number of new beers, there have been increases in other areas of consumption. While in Florida, I tasted a dangerously tasty cocktail made with coconut rum from Wicked Dolphin Artisan Rum Distillers, from Cape Coral, Florida. (Here’s the recipe for their Wicked Punch, if you’re interested.)

One of the more remarkable places we visited was the Epicurean, a new food-focused hotel created by the owners of Bern’s Steak House. The hotel features a cooking school, organic greens growing on the walls in the main restaurant, and gourmet amenities in the guest rooms, from butcher blocks and wine coolers to delightful goodies in the stocked fridge. And it’s across the street from the steak house and its remarkable wine collection, so one need not drive home if one samples a bit too much of that collection.

A lot of the new restaurants in the area are focusing on artisanal foods and beverages. Haven was remarkable for having the fabulous, climate-controlled cheese locker shown below, which both displays and protects their remarkable, international collection of cheeses.

Cheese room at Haven

Cheese room at Haven

Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee; it’s the name of a legendary Native American princess) has the advantage of lovely views across the Hillsborough River, great gardens, and a fabulous building: the repurposed 1906 Tampa Water Works Building. Ulele focuses on the abundance of Florida, particularly indigenous ingredients. Everything we ate there was just crazy good, but the standouts for me were the alligator hush puppies, spicy lobster cakes, garlic-laden charbroiled oysters, Ulele salad (greens, cheese, beans, roasted peppers, onions, and a balsamic vinaigrette) and the crab mac and cheese. Everything was good, but those were the “wows” for me. The house-made ice cream was pretty special, too.

Ulele Restaurant

Ulele Restaurant

So Tampa is definitely a good choice for people who like to eat.

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Tampa, Old: Ybor City and Columbia Restaurant

The Columbia Restaurant was the only food destination from my childhood that I was able to revisit on this trip. It was as fabulous as I remembered—not just the food, but the décor, the Old World charm, the sky lights and balconies, and most especially the gorgeous tile work inside and out.

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa


The Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida, having opened in 1905. It was created by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., and is now run by the fifth generation of the founding family. I love that kind of history.

As well as being the oldest restaurant in Florida, it is also the largest—and in fact, according to their website, is the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Everything I have ever eaten there has been wonderful, but they are particularly known for their Cuban black bean soup, sangria, flan, “1905 salad,” Cuban sandwich, and seafood dishes.

Over the years, a few other locations were opened for the Columbia, including what is now the oldest restaurant in Sarasota. But the original Columbia is at the outer edge of Ybor City in Tampa. Ybor City is a National Historic District that has been home to a wide range of immigrants over the years, most especially Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German, and Jewish.

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa


Ybor City is now a top destination for cigar aficionados, as the main street is lined with shops carrying hand-rolled cigars. We explored the length of 7th Avenue, enjoying the historic markers, statues, and old buildings, and stopped in a couple of cigar shops to watch the artisans at work, appreciating the care and skill needed to make really good cigars. Then, we headed for the Columbia.
Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars

Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars


Should you get to Florida, here is more information on the Columbia Restaurant (including a lot more history, plus the menus) and on Ybor City (again, more history and lots of useful information for visitors).

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Tampa, Old: Bern’s Steak House

In Tampa, we divided the time we had between new developments and iconic classics.

Among icons, it’s hard to beat Bern’s Steak House, which opened in 1956. Remarkably, it is still in the same family, run by the heirs of Bern Laxer, for whom the restaurant was named.

Bern's Steak House, Tampa, Florida

Bern’s Steak House, Tampa, Florida


While it is famous for its steaks, Bern’s is even more remarkable for its wine collection. There are more than 100,000 bottles in the restaurant’s cellar plus another half a million in the nearby wine warehouse. It is the largest wine collection in the world owned by one restaurant. Number 2 is the Tour d’Argent in Paris. The oldest bottle here is an 1813 port, but the costliest is a 1947 Chateau Latour.
One small part of the wine cellar at Bern's.

One small part of the wine cellar at Bern’s.


The general consensus among the food experts I know is that the side dishes are a little predictable, though still good, but the steaks, desserts, and most especially the wines are what you go for. In addition to being numerous, more wines are within range, economically, than one might imagine. As the sommelier who was guiding us through the cellar said, their priority is giving people a remarkable experience, rather than getting top dollar for the wines. They had someone offer them more than double the asking price for one of their rarest wines, but to take it and add it to their collection, rather than to drink it. The owners said, “No. It is to be drunk here.”

The ambiance is probably also a big draw. The lobby has a decidedly European castle feel to it, with soaring stone walls covered with art. There are seven dining rooms, each named for a wine region or a dominant design elements (such as the Bronze Room). When one is finished with the meal, one can go upstairs to the dessert rooms, which are astonishing. The dominant feature of the room is a stunning amount of gorgeous, highly polished wood, which divides up the room, making it a popular place for things like marriage proposals or other transactions that might benefit from a touch of privacy. Near each table, there is a telephone, which can be used to call the pianist, for special requests.

We didn’t have the chance to dine at Bern’s, but they didn’t want us to pass through without having some idea of their culinary abilities. As we were led through the splendid kitchen, we were offered lamb meatballs and grilled octopus and bruschetta on a slice of potato. Really excellent. Definitely on my list of “reasons to get back to Tampa.”

Ahead: another old Tampa icon, and then some new Tampa trends and destinations.

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Tampa Bay Bridges

One of the things worth noting is that it would be impossible to get around the area without bridges. On the St. Pete side of Tampa Bay, there are strings of islands that can only be reached by bridges. If you want to travel from St. Pete to Tampa, if you don’t want to spend hours driving around the end of the bay, you’ll need to cross one of Old Tampa Bay’s long bridges. (If you’re flying into Tampa Airport, you’ll see these from the air as you approach.)

Happily, crossing the bridges is quite wonderful. It offers splendid views of the water and whichever city you’re approaching. Depending on the light, it can be absolutely magical.

As with any city, rush hour can be frustrating—but if you’re on vacation, just plan around rush hour. (And if you’re from somewhere like LA, Chicago, or NYC, you probably won’t even recognize Tampa Bay’s rush hour as actually being an issue.)

Heading toward Tampa on the Gandy Bridge

Heading toward Tampa on the Gandy Bridge


The view from the bridge

The view from the bridge

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Tampa Bay: My, How You’ve Changed

My dad was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. As a result, while I was growing up, our family spent a lot of summer vacations visiting dad’s relatives down south. This was long before Walt Disney had even considered building anything in Orlando. We loved the beaches, and I became a world-class shell collector, combing the beaches in the early morning with my dad. But there was always a lot more than just the beaches to enjoy.

A few favorite food memories are associated with these trips. Warm-water lobster was cheap enough that you could feed it to kids. Smoked mullet was one of the best foods imaginable, and they sold it from stands along the road, which made it even more fun. And black bean soup, tostones, and flan at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City were definite favorites, as well.

On top of the dining, beaches, and relatives, there were wonderful things to see and do on the Gulf side of Florida. We examined raw sponges and the brass-helmeted diving gear of Greek sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, watched entertainers at the Kapok Tree in Clearwater, got fresh seafood in Pass-a-Grille, explored Fort De Soto down on Mullet Key, and delighted in the remarkable museums on the Ringling estate in Sarasota.

Then life got busy, relatives died, other destinations called, and I didn’t get to the Tampa Bay area for decades. I’d been to Miami on business and to Key West with friends, but not to the place where I’d spent so much time growing up–until last month. A writers conference offered an opportunity to find out what had changed and what was the same in the destination of my youth.

The palm trees, banyans, and birds of paradise still made me smile. The red-tiled roofs of older buildings led me to wonder if the reason I fell in love so quickly with Southern California was because of the similarities of architecture and plants that were so familiar to me. I learned that Tarpon Springs was still Greek, Columbia Restaurant still had black bean soup, the Ringling Estate in Sarasota was still a destination, and Pass-a-Grille was still good for seafood–but there were a lot of changes. Roadside stands selling smoked mullet had vanished. In St. Pete, small, old-Florida architecture shared the streets with modern high-rises.

While I missed a few things, I quickly learned that there were new delights, from excellent museums to sensational dining options, mixed in with the old delights of tropical ambiance and lovely beaches. There are a lot more people–but also more air conditioning, which is a good thing.

The conference kept me busy most of the time, but I still managed to fit in a bit of exploring and a fair bit of excellent dining. As a result, it will take a few posts to share all that I experienced.

Old and new blend in downtown St. Pete.

Old and new blend in downtown St. Pete.

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