Changes, schmanges: Dunedin dining scene's still got it

Expansions, menu updates, openings and more are impacting Dunedin restaurants.

click to enlarge Sea Sea's new industrial-chic bar is the focal point of the main dining room. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
Sea Sea's new industrial-chic bar is the focal point of the main dining room.

Dunedin's still got it.

As the waterfront town's food scene continues to expand and evolve, attracting newbies like Happy's Bayou Bites and Neptune's Bar & Grill, Sea Sea Riders co-owner Sylvia Tzekas says it's the place to be.

"It used to be just us and Bon Appetit," she says. "Everybody's got their own little thing going [now]."

Sylvia and her husband Artie considered renovating their now-185-seat restaurant, nestled inside a home built in 1903, for a couple years before taking the plunge. Concentrics Restaurants, a consulting firm based in Atlanta, helped the couple make their remodel vision a reality.

The new zinc-topped bar anchors the chic, coastal-inspired main dining room, which the Tzekases opened up to bring the space together. It debuted to the public less than two months ago. While a smaller eight-seat bar formerly greeted diners to the left as they entered, that part of Sea Sea is now dedicated to dining.

According to Sylvia, there aren't many zinc bars in the area. They're popular in France, though, where folks can be heard saying, "Let's go to the zinc."

"[The dining room] was too separated. We wanted to make it more of a gathering space, more of a communal space. Now you have a sunset view from pretty much anywhere you sit," Sylvia says.

A local artist made chairs and the wine rack hanging above the bar, Artie and son Ismet refurbished rafters from the ceiling to build tables, the outdoor porch was expanded, and the hostess stand, which Ismet also helped construct, incorporates wood from a 100-year-old Florida cypress tree.

Ismet and Artie have handled much of the restaurant's finishing work, and there's more to do, but new sous chef Mike Walsh is helping the duo update their Floribbean bill of fare. Dishes were revamped as others were added, and more shareable offerings are also featured.

Down the road, Olde Bay Café is slated to get a casual, indoor-outdoor sibling around September or October. Partners Walt Wickman and Dennis Doyle bought the building at 900 Broadway from former Sam's Fresh Seafood owners Sam and Phyllis Hart last month, and are set to launch Hog Island Fish Camp in its place.

Fish camps (not summer camp for fish, mind you) are hole-in-the-wall-style eateries where fresh catches and down-home food may be found, and Wickman says Hog Island is "an old-timers' name" for Dunedin's Caladesi Island. He and Doyle, specializing in "salty Southern cuisine," will serve a local seafood-heavy menu alongside local beer.

Pork steak, Southern fried chicken, ribs and blue crabs will be among the items from chef de cuisine Jonathan Plichta, a Johnson & Wales graduate like Wickman. Fried mullet and cheese grits, signatures at the Harts' longtime seafood restaurant, will be on hand as well.

With a casual, Old Florida feel and 160 seats, the 2,500-square-foot restaurant is integrating reclaimed wood from the Dunedin pier into its decor, as well as working with Pinellas Park's Viable Lumber to use recovered wood from a Seminole golf course eucalyptus tree for the bar top.

Wickman says he and Doyle were sniffing out sites for their new concept at a few places in and outside the neighborhood.

"[This location is] the perfect opportunity," Wickman says, "and we're really happy to be in the heart of Dunedin, too."

Like Sea Sea Riders, Main Street's 38-seat Black Pearl is planning a huge remodel, which owner Zach Feinstein says will happen next year. Since acquiring the popular fine-dining restaurant in 2014, the same place he went for prom dinner, he's made improvements that range from updating the white tablecloth-covered tables to giving executive chef Chris Artrip more creative freedom.

"He's really breaking the bounds of what I thought this restaurant could be," Feinstein says of Artrip. "You can see the passion in his food."

As rotating specials are introduced every week, Artrip says he's getting into more seasonal grub and that he's retired many dishes from the original lineup. He uses a few modernist techniques, such as sous vide, while cooking, but he's not really into all that.

"I'm more of an organic chef. I kind of just go," he says.

Though the wine list remains affordable, sales have quadrupled since the selection was expanded, according to Feinstein. Online reservations are a big thing for the restaurant now, too. Artrip says around 60 percent of them come from the web, and diners may soon secure their spots for two vino-fueled gatherings: a $135 six-course Napa wine dinner on Sept. 28, and the $240 14-course chef's dinner for 12 people Dec. 9.

"We kind of fall under the radar here, but the level of our food, I'd put it against anyone's in Tampa Bay," Feinstein says.

At the nearby Living Room on Main, where Feinstein took over ownership last week, the staff remains the same and live music continues in the evenings. However, living walls (vertical gardens of herbs and veggies used in the restaurant's offerings), menu tweaks and outdoor awnings are in the works.

The Dunedin Smokehouse, led by new proprietors Marty and Traci Moulson, doesn't plan on changing its crowd-pleasing food selection amid a remodel, but a local artist is helping the restaurant execute some fresh design elements. Wood from old train cars is being worked into the interior's look alongside a hostess stand made of a refurbished wine barrel.

The Moulsons, the restaurant's third set of owners, moved to the neighborhood from Las Vegas and are into developing new events. General manager Melissa LaViola says the smokehouse, which already hosts beer dinners and the like, wants to take its involvement with the craft brewing community, and other east-end restaurants such as the Living Room, to the next level. A beer and barbecue festival is one idea, LaViola says.

Omar Hamid's 9th Bar Espresso has also experienced some changes. The cozy craft coffee bar once housed inside Dunedin House of Beer's Wine & Brew has relocated to 949 Huntley Ave. In addition to the java joint's artisanal brews, chef Ahmed Hamid cooks up brunch from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The seasonal farm-to-table lineup is small, featuring revolving eats like the Working Hipsters Plate (poached eggs, sweet potato hash, house-made butter, toast), Beer Oat Pancakes (spent grains, apple pie compote) and French Redneck (cornbread, bean cassoulet, over-easy eggs). A Kitchen Sink order lands patrons the whole menu for $30.

"We decided we are gonna be the first Michelin star coffee shop," Omar says.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since its original posting.

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