December 18, 2015
Local know-how goes a long way in Tampa – especially if you want to venture off the tourist trail. Replete with restaurants and bars, Hyde Park is one of the city’s most happening neighbourhoods. Here’s our guide to uncovering the top taste sensations on its burgeoning “SoHo Strip”.
Goofy, golf and guaranteed good weather may be the Sunshine State’s biggest draws, but even those who know Florida well can find unexpected surprises. While most tourists follow the well-trodden path to Miami, Orlando and the Gulf Coast beaches, less obvious spots like Tampa have all too often been overlooked. But in the last few years, the state’s third most populous city has evolved – and in doing so, has thrust itself into the spotlight.
Although it’s long played host to theme parks, professional sports and other mainstream attractions, Tampa’s recently emerged, grown-up vibe has made it more rewarding to visit. But there’s a catch to this new credibility: it’s very much a local scene, so visitors need to look beyond the tourist hotspots to find it.
The focus of Tampa’s new, urban cool is very much on food and wine, which puts its epicentre in the leafy Hyde Park district. This upmarket area, one of Tampa’s grandest suburbs, is distinguished by antebellum homes and graceful, lichen-covered oaks. Seemingly more movie set than neighbourhood, it certainly doesn’t look all that edgy; but it’s home to a vibrant foodie scene that’s truly ahead of its game.
Hyde Park’s main drag, South Howard Avenue, has long been considered Tampa’s ‘Restaurant Row’, but a massive update in its dining and nightlife has seen it unofficially renamed the ‘SoHo Strip’. Here, restaurants stake their reputations on farm-to-table freshness, with a focus on provenance and traceability that’s far from the cliché of super-sized fast food.
Nowhere is the farm-to-table trend more pronounced than at Bern’s Steak House. This legendary dining spot is a Tampa institution, counting presidents and movie stars among its clientele who flock here for the dry-aged steaks and one of the world’s largest wine cellars. Its unremarkable facade hides a warren of discrete dining rooms where waiters serve up some of Tampa’s most talked-about treats. Sauces, soups and sensational ice creams – in fact, just about everything – is made in-house with carefully sourced ingredients including many from Bern’s own farm. Reassuringly old-school, it’s a dining experience not to be missed.
Much more contemporary is Bern’s new offshoot, Haven, which is just around the corner from its more established sibling. Here, twice James Beard nominated Chef Chad Johnson has spun the trend for modern, small plates into a culinary sensation. Cheeses, charcuterie and seasonal ingredients are the undisputed stars of the show, with approximately 300 whiskies or 40 wines by the glass (all sourced from Bern’s own, half-million-bottle-strong wine collection) available to wash it all down.
Directly across the street from Bern’s lies another foodie favourite. With its state-of-the-art culinary classroom and extraordinary focus on food, the Epicurean Hotel offers a brand new take on hospitality. The foodie theme even extends to the guestrooms, where cushions bear silverware motifs and mini-bars come stocked with gourmet treats. Elevage, the in-house restaurant, gives classic recipes a modern twist and serves them in an industrial-chic setting to create an experience “where nostalgia meets nouveau”. Menu highlights include a flavourful venison bourguignon, as well as cocktails at the ground-floor bar that are crafted with seasonal ingredients.
There’s more farm-to-table goodness to be found down the road at Boca. Located within a converted gas station, it specialises in sharing plates made from locally sourced ingredients. Or for lunch on the go, try Fresh Kitchen, whose take-away menu is handy for a picnic lunch in the park around the corner.
Another thing that’s big on Tampa’s SoHo Strip are diverse, ethnic eats. Thanks to the city’s strong Latin heritage, there’s lots of Hispanic flair. Ceviche tempts with excellent tapas, or try Bar Taco for authentic flavours hailing from south of the border. Piquant is a French-inspired diner and bakery that again uses only farm-fresh ingredients. And of course there’s good ol’ American fare; Daily Eats does brilliant brunches and all-day breakfasts, or for something more upmarket there’s Copperfish Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar, where the very best of surf and turf is served according to what’s on the market.
Even going to the movies becomes a gourmet affair on the SoHo Strip. At CineBistro, blockbusters and indie flicks come with popcorn, cocktails and bistro classics served directly at your seat in a restored Art Deco theatre. But nightlife in this part of town extends much further than the movies. The district its own late-night bar scene, with The Lodge, The Drynk and MacDinton’s Irish Pub being favourites among Tampa’s party crowd.
Of course, there are classier options, too. Foremost among these is Edge Social Drinkery, an open-air space atop the Epicurean Hotel where elegant, well-made cocktails headline. Another classy joint just a few blocks away is Ciro’s Speakeasy. Hidden behind an unmarked door in an unassuming, residential building, this sexy space celebrates the Prohibition era, when drinking was outlawed and went underground. True to the theme, a password is required to gain access. Remember it, or they won’t let you in.
After indulging in SoHo Strip’s many vices, there’s one more foodie treat to investigate. At Spa Evangeline, an emphasis on edible ingredients sees treatments flavoured with botanical oils infused with herbs from the spa’s vertical garden. A bourbon and brown sugar scrub or agave nectar scalp massage is the perfect way to round off an immersion in Hyde Park – one of Tampa’s loveliest districts, and one that’s truly got bite.
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Have you explored Tampa’s SoHo Strip? Where are your favourite places to eat in the Hyde Park area? Let us know in the comments section below.