Tampa is a city awash in sunshine, citrus fruit, and guilty pleasure. A foodie haven, it is easy to splurge on divine, mouth-watering calories in this town. Restaurants take pride in their creative kitchens while inspired alcohol mixologists can be found at many a food and drink emporium. And then there’s the city’s tobacco legacy. Take a stroll down Ybor City’s bustling 7th Ave. (a National Historic Landmark district) and you’ll get a heady waft of hand-rolled stogies from the tobacco shops that dot the strip (smoking is allowed in retail tobacco outlets and their outdoor sitting areas).
Copperfish Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar opened last year and is known for its selection of oysters (depending on the day, you could get Bluepoints, Dabob Bays and Kumamotos) and succulent fresh fish grilled over smoky hardwood (Montauk swordfish, Gulf yellowtail snapper, organically raised Scottish salmon). If you have any room left for dessert, indulge a silky molten lava cakes. The restaurant is the latest addition to Gordon Davis’ SoHo Hospitality Group collection which also features Ciro’s Speakeasy and Restaurant. Located on the ground floor of a historic condo building, Ciro’s demands a not-so-secret password for entry. “You can find the password, which changes daily, on our website, or we’ll just ask you what your favorite cocktail is and let you in,” explains the waitress, shimmying a little in her sequined flapper dress as she guides us to a curtained banquet. An extensive drink menu features fresh-squeezed juices, five sizes of ice cubes and more Absinthe, Rye Whiskeys and super-aged bourbons than any bar in Florida. Try a throat warming Old Fashioned or a light and refreshing Tryst, made with muddled cucumber, lime juice, gin, elder flower liquor and champagne.
Taking the science of flavor pairings to a new level, Edison food+drink lab’s award winning bartender, Ryan Pines is known for imaginative cocktails including the Violetta with dry gin, Cocchi Americano Rosa, lemon juice, egg whites and blackberries. From the kitchen comes a constantly changing menu. Cold starters could include Granny Smith apples with a jumbo lump crab salad, or a burrata with heirloom tomatoes, pepita pesto, chipotle lime sorbet and charred shishito chilies. Hot starters might include potato crusted oysters or foie gras croquet made with aged Benton’s ham, Gruyere, Mornay sauce and truffled organic egg. Large plates might be Za’atar grilled Florida Wahoo with caper skordalia, roasted beets, chickpea tagine and harissa mussels or French onion short ribs with raclette potatoes, fried shallot parsley salad, roasted bone marrow and French onion jus. The dessert menu features house-made ice cream combos such as chocolate truffle, roasted pineapple and rosemary, or sweet potato with toasted marshmallow. Along with the ice cream listings, there’s a diagram of the human tongue, pointing out where we respond to bitter, sour, salty, umami and sweet flavours.
A wonderful spot for brunch, Oxford Exchange is housed in the former stable for railroad magnate Henry B. Plant’s fabulous turn-of-the-last-century Tampa Bay Hotel (now part of the University of Tampa). Rich dark wood paneling, brass chandeliers, and black and white marble floors draw customers in to peruse gifts and books in the retail area while an airy, glassed-in expanse with fountain and ferns marks the dining area. Choose a local Buddy Brew Coffee latte or cappuccino, and then dig into a hearty omelet made with local and organic ingredients. Traditional afternoon tea features a selection of premium loose leaf teas and an assortment of sweets and savories, scones with clotted cream and house preserves.
After food and alcohol, cigars are Tampa’s No. 3 guilty pleasure. More than 300 cigar factories once propelled the economy but today only one remains, J.C. Newman Cigar Company. Julius Caeser Newman started out as a young cigar maker apprentice in Cleveland, Ohio in 1890. He launched his own company and then moved the business to Tampa in 1954 to be closer to his primary source of tobacco, Cuba. When the U.S. placed a trade embargo on the island in 1961, J.C.’s son Stanford searched the world and found equal quality in the tobacco wrapper leaves grown in Cameroon, West Africa. America’s oldest family-owned premium cigar maker, the company is now run by Stanford’s sons Eric and Bobby.
Citrus groves and sunlight might still be Tampa’s biggest selling points, but it is the food, drink and tobacco history that really make this city glow.