Greg Baker is chef/proprietor at ‘cracker’ restaurant, Fodder & Shine. He is also a James Beard semi-finalist and one of Tampa‘s most respected chefs – so there’s nobody more qualified to tell us about Tampa’s top restaurants.
Twenty or so years ago, while working in the kitchens of an upmarket restaurant, Greg Baker had a life-changing epiphany. It suddenly dawned on the young chef that good food was wasted on those who could afford it; and thus began his lifelong mission to make culinary excellence more accessible.
That dream was realised in 2010, when Chef Greg opened his first restaurant, The Refinery, serving quality, farm-to-table goodness in a trendy Tampa neighbourhood at prices that didn’t break the bank. His second venture, Fodder & Shine, joined the fledgling empire in late 2014, with a nod to the indigenous Florida dishes Greg calls ‘cracker cuisine’.
“It’s a tribute to old-school Florida and the cowboys who lived here in the state’s early years,” he says. Named ‘crackers’ for the sound made by their whips when herding cattle, these pioneer settlers had scant resources on which to sustain themselves. “Cracker cuisine,” Greg explains, “evolved from sheer necessity.”
To source authentic cracker ingredients, Greg asked the local farmers that already supplied The Refinery to start producing Seminole pumpkins, rare-breed cattle and other hard-to-find items that coalesce into Fodder & Shine’s tasty ‘Southern comfort fare’. The formula has proved a hit with hungry locals. “We wanted to create somewhere that serves great food but is also fun to hang out at,” says Greg. “We think of it as a modern public house.”
Tampa, and Seminole Heights in particular, is perfectly suited to Chef Greg’s vision. The formerly rundown neighbourhood has undergone a real resurgence of late, creating an environment where counterculture thrives. “It’s now perceived as a place to get away from the mainstream and ordinary,” says Greg. “And Tampa itself has come into its own as a modern, progressive city. It’s got buzzing art, food, and drink scenes, plus easy access to the great outdoors and all the other things that make Florida great.”
Beyond Fodder & Shine, the Seminole Heights area has a number of hot-ticket restaurants. Greg’s original outlet, The Refinery shines for its emphasis on seasonal ingredients. The restaurant works closely with regional producers and suppliers to create frequently changing menus showcasing whatever might be at its best. Everything from sausages to salad dressing is made in-house, from scratch – a focus on detail that’s garnered Greg several James Beard nominations and Zagat’s ‘Best Restaurant’ title for three years running.
Chef Greg is also only too happy to recommend other restaurants nearby. “We have so many great spots right now,” he says. “Rooster & the Till, just up the street from my two restaurants, is constantly pushing boundaries. The menu covers all aspects of North American cuisine; and, like me, Chef Ferrell Alvarez is dedicated to local, sustainable foods.”
Among Chef Greg’s other favourites are Ã‰levage and its sister restaurant, Haven, both of which are found across town in the fashionable Hyde Park district. “These two relatively new spots fall under the umbrella of legendary Bern’s Steakhouse, but each has its own distinct focus. Ã‰levage takes Southern cooking to new and interesting heights, giving classic dishes contemporary twists. Haven’s speciality is top-notch cheeses, charcuterie and small plates, alongside an awesome whiskey collection that truly boggles the mind.”
Another one to watch is Jamison B Breadhouse Bakes in Ybor City, Tampa’s Latin quarter. “The presence of such an amazing bakery is proof that Tampa has come of age,” reckons Greg. “They don’t sell to the public, so seek out any restaurant that uses their breads – including mine. You won’t be disappointed.”
Tampa also comes up trumps in terms of ethnic eats. In particular, Greg recommends two spots just north of Seminole Heights. “Tara’s Roti Shop, up near Busch Gardens theme park, is a good bet for no-frills Trinidadian food; try their meat patties, or buss up shut (a type of roti) with curried goat. Otherwise, Pho An Hoa is great for Vietnamese cooking. Their pho and bun are fantastic and the “7 Courses of Beef” is epic.”
The success of all these independent eateries is indicative of Tampa’s status as a foodie hub. Chef Greg would be the first to agree; but what does he think is behind it? “That’s easy,” he says. “Having witnessed the evolution of two great food scenes in Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas, I’ve no doubt that the driving force is beer. Both of these cities and Tampa are home to excellent craft brewing scenes. A developing taste for more complex beers goes hand in hand with adventurous eating. Soon, industrial beer and chicken wings just don’t cut it for a Friday night out – people start to want something more challenging that’s also tasty and good.”
It’s therefore unsurprising that craft beers are a feature at Fodder & Shine. True to its ‘think local’ ethos, the bar carries offerings from some of Florida’s leading breweries, including Tampa’s own Cigar City Brewing. With names like Smuttynose Robust Porter and Original Sin Apple Cider, the menu is as enjoyable to read as the craft brews are to sip. And in a land better known for Mickey Mouse and the make-believe magic of theme parks, local beers and cracker cuisine are a rare burst of authenticity, providing visitors with a glimpse into Florida’s cultural heritage through food and drink.
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Have you visited any of Tampa’s top restaurants? Did Greg Baker leave out any of your favourite eateries? Let us know in the comments section below.