The New York Times
December 9, 2005
Tampa , Fla.
By CINDY PRICE
POOR Tampa . Upstaged by glitzy, sophisticated Miami and kid-frenzied Orlando, Tampa often seems like the forgotten middle child. Don’t let that fool you – this late bloomer has an easy charm and knows it. Downtown, the lazy Hillsborough River winds through a patchwork of history-filled neighborhoods, dotted with colorful cafes and museums. Visitors dive into rich cultural heritage with a Tampa Cuban sandwich (heavy on Genoa salami along with the usual ham) in Ybor City , or wander along the quaint, shop-filled streets of South Tampa . A few miles west, near St. Petersburg , powder-soft beaches lean into warm Gulf of Mexico waters. By the time night falls and the outdoor bars light up with music, you get the feeling this young urban paradise has just been biding its time.
Ybor City wasn’t always a backdrop for “Girls Gone Wild” videos. In its first incarnation, Ybor (pronounced EE-bore) City was home to the huge cigar factories that dominated Tampa ‘s economy at the turn of the 20th century. The Cuban and Spanish migrant workers who filled the streets have long since moved on, but much of their legacy remains. Poke your head in the Columbia Restaurant’s Cigar Store ( 2103 East Seventh Avenue , 813-247-2469) before 5 p.m. to catch workers hand-rolling cigars. Afterward, take a stroll down brick-lined Seventh Avenue , filled with boutiques, cafes and lively outdoor bars. Bikers, suits, college kids and tourists flock to the happy hour scene for a laid-back beer before the hard partying late-night set takes to the streets.
2) Tale of Two Tapas
Tampans argue fervently for their favorite tapas bar, but you can decide for yourself. At Ceviche ( 2109 Bayshore Boulevard , 813-250-0203), the mood is dark and sexy and the sangria (small pitcher, $16.75) spectacular. About a mile north, the family-run Sangria’s ( 315 South Howard Avenue , 813-258-0393) puts out a homey vibe, with yellow walls and bright open windows. The Yankees stars Tino Martinez and Alex Rodriguez have been spotted here, and it’s easy to see why. A flaky puff-pastry-wrapped brie with fresh berries ($9) could ease the pain of any loss.
3) Rack ‘n’ Roll
Only the hip little neighborhood of Hyde Park would try to pull off a pool hall-cum-sushi joint. The Rack ( 1809 West Platt Street , 813-250-1595) nails it, though, and actually serves some of the freshest sushi in town. It’s also a fantastic bar, with pool tables ($8 an hour) and faux red leather banquettes. If a late-night snack is in order (blame the tapas), split the massive Volcano roll ($11.95), an inside-out California roll with grouper, crab, salmon and lobster, drizzled in a sweet creamy sauce.
4) Cat Collective
Get your adrenaline going with a guided tour ($20) at Big Cat Rescue (12802 Easy Street, 813-920-4130), where a walk through the 45-acre, tree-filled sanctuary brings you almost nose to nose with more than 150 exotic cats, including African lions, black leopards, ocelots and pumas. Each cat has a story: Nikita was seized in a drug raid; Buffy has retired from Ringling Brothers. There’s even a lazy housecat whose only specialty is trying the patience of the staff.
5) Ice Cream Confidential
It’s likely that the 73-year-old Alfredo Naranjo and his wife, Sylvia, have never heard of the indie-food blog Chowhound.com , but their tiny, unassuming Snack City ( 2506 West Columbus Drive , 813-872-7502) pops up regularly on the message boards. Mr. Naranjo swears he learned to make ice cream in the library, but if this ice cream is by the book, then everyone else must be illiterate. A rich, creamy 8-ounce mango ice cream ($1.50) is so silky it defies logic. It might be the 16 percent cream he employs in his fresh, daily batches, but who’s asking?
6) Still Water
There’s plenty to do across Tampa Bay at Fort De Soto County Park (3500 Pinellas Bayway South, Tierra Verde; 727-582-2267) by way of bike or kayak, but its rare natural beauty is best suited for doing absolutely nothing. The park’s North Beach was recently named the best beach in America by Dr. Beach (Stephen Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University ), but late fall finds its placid, warm waters nearly empty. Park at the northern end of North Beach and find a remote strip of sand with waters as clear as a fresh-water stream.
7) A Cut Above
It’s a telling sign that Bern Laxer, the late owner of the world-renowned Bern ‘s Steak House ( 1208 South Howard Avenue , 813-251-2421), was once a vegetarian. You get the feeling this guy does not want you to take steak for granted. Waiters train for an entire year, part of which is spent on Bern ‘s organic farm, before they are allowed to walk customers through the steak options – cut, width, weight, temperature. The Chateaubriand is a customer favorite, but the 10-ounce Delmonico ($35.44) is the juiciest cut in town. Afterward, ask your waiter for a tour of the kitchen and enormous wine cellar, then mosey upstairs to the lavish dessert room.
8) Fright Night Theater
A late movie at the Tampa Theater ( 711 North Franklin Street , 813-274-8286; $8), a beautifully restored 1926 movie palace, begins with a wild trill of the mighty Wurlitzer organ. Hang out long enough in the dark, gargoyle-filled theater and risk what staffers call “getting Finked” – a brush with the mischievous late projectionist, Foster Finley, who was known as Fink. Later, soothe your nerves next door at the Hub ( 719 North Franklin Street , 813-229-1553), a smoky old dive with a fantastic jukebox.
9) Coffee and Politics
Can the fate of America really come down to a tiny lime-green coffee shop in West Tampa ? It just might, if you consider Florida ‘s power to swing national elections. Maybe that’s why political luminaries like John Kerry and Tipper Gore have dropped into the West Tampa Sandwich Shop (3904 North Armenia Avenue, 813-873-7104), where a Latin progressive movement is in full effect. Sunday morning finds patrons dunking toasted Cuban bread ($.90) in steaming mugs of café con leche ($.95) and talking politics long into the afternoon.
10) Pigskin Pirates
Sunday in Tampa means one thing – the Bucs, baby. Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is a monster arena: a fake pirate ship looms over one of the end zones and Big Nasty, a die-hard fan slathered in Kiss-like makeup and sporting a hard hat with rhino horn, wreaks havoc on the 20-yard line. It’s a real scene, but with the team claiming a waiting list about 110,000 people deep, your best bet for getting in is craigslist ( www.tampa.craigslist.org/tix ). If all else fails, hard-core fans hit Barnacles ( 926 Providence Road , 813-653-0959) for its 457 television screens. A laid-back alternative is Tate Brothers Pizza (235 East Davis Boulevard, 813-251-2767) on Davis Islands, where Sundays require nothing more than flip-flops, a couple of big televisions and maybe a pretty smile from the bartender, Jenn.
Tampa is about a three-hour flight from New York , and Travelocity.com offers inexpensive last-minute vacation packages. The city is spread out; you will want a rental car.
Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay ( 2900 Bayport Drive , 813-874-1234) is a big luxury hotel. Locals say a cocktail at top-floor Armani’s comes with the best sunset view in town. Rooms start at $230.
A quaint rustic cabin ($150 a night a person) at the Big Cat Rescue ( 12802 Easy Street , 813-920-4130) is located in the sanctuary, just steps from those fierce kitties. Sleep tight.