The Channelside universe is vibrating with canine synchronicity. Stageworks is finishing its first season at Grand Central’s state-of-the-art jewel box theatre with A. R. Gurney’s yappingly funny doggie comedy, Sylvia. Outside is a dog-friendly European style courtyard that serves as a hub for pre-and post-show noshes and libations. Choose from a canine-collegial beer oasis, a Mexican “Sea Dog” cantina and a deli/café hybrid that features a nine-hot-dog-long grill menu.
All that’s missing is a black velvet painting of dogs playing poker.
The condos that flank the courtyard create a wind tunnel that provides an almost perpetual breeze and welcome evening shade thanks to the vision of Mercury Advisors’ Ken Stoltenberg. With the memory of a Luxembourg beer garden in his brain, Stoltenberg realized there were precious few outdoor places to eat in South Tampa. He knew he could entice restaurant entrepreneurs by closing the street to create patio space and double their square footage with no additional cost. He hopes to add pizza and a sushi house to complete the square’s appeal.
They even lure patrons to the courtyard by swapping the ubiquitous farmers’ market for a food truck invasion every third Thursday. Add free music Sundays from 5 to 7 p.m. (September through May) and you have a truly buzzing “third place” alternative to work or home.
Sea Dog Cantina’s owner, John Oraha, may now live in a condo above the store, but he grew up in San Diego near the Mexican border. Oraha knows his tacos, burritos and salsas; all are made from scratch from his own recipes. Try the fiery chicken burrito or indulge in the scrumptious bacon-jalapeno mac ’n’ cheese. Although the macaroni is past a preferred al dente, the unctuous cheese is a delicious mix that balances the smokiness and heat under a crunchy breadcrumb crust.
On the mild side, a mouth-watering lobster taco on a soft flour tortilla perfectly combines crunchy cabbage, avocado and cilantro aioli with mango and bean salsa. Yum! The split pea and ham soup could be delicious, but on my visit was too thick and salty, as if it had spent the day reducing on the kitchen’s back burner. The Jessica Special salad also missed the mark, the lush sliced avocado no match for the tough spicy beef topping.
Still, if you can stand the heat, this is a good pre-show bet.
Eleventwenty Cafe Bistro is a bit of a misnomer; the space is a hybrid on many levels. The white tablecloths and cloth napkins are upscale, but you order at the counter, get a number, and your food is delivered to your table. Co-owner Terry Riney describes the amalgam as Panera meets Starbucks. There’s positive food blog buzz about breakfast, soup and reliable Boar’s Head sandwiches. I decide to explore the extensive hot dog menu.
The dogs are split and grilled, then offered with an array of condiments. What’s lost in juiciness on the grill you hope to make up with caramelization; but it’s not a fruitful trade-off. The chilidog features a pleasant mix of beef and beans and the slaw dog’s housemade topping is crisp yet creamy. The authentic Chicago dog piles a soft poppy seed bun with sliced tomato, pickle spear, celery salt, mustard, sport peppers, white onions and iconic neon green relish. Unfortunately, the dogs just don’t land. Better to grill the bun, and keep the frankfurter intact and juicy.
The coffee is good, but the array of striking desserts is disappointing when they emerge from behind the glass. They’re just not moving quickly enough to taste as fresh as they look. After one dry and disappointing bite from each of two delicious sounding cakes, they both quickly went into the trash.
The French fries, too, need work. A gastronomic wag once said, “Most good cooking is basically soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.” Perfect French fry technique requires a starch-purging presoak, a first fry to cook the potatoes through, and a second higher temp dunk to a crispy golden brown. Unfortunately, the fries here manage to be both too brown and too soggy.
After the show, head to the dog-friendly Pour House, situated across the courtyard for your favorite post-show libation. The 40 taps of craft beer cover an entire hoppy spectrum from lager to bitter stout. There are 65 craft bottle selections, a small but carefully chosen list of wines by the glass, plus six-packs and bottled wine to go. Forget PBR and try a beer flight, which offers a sampler of four 4oz pours for only $7.50, or bring some friends and taste them all.
Sit outside at one of the many four-tops and rub shoulders with Stageworks’ cast and crew, or settle inside on one of the oversized sofas. Help yourself from the popcorn machine, play some pool, or watch a game on one of the flat screen TVs scattered throughout.
One Urbanspoon beer aficionado summarized Pour House’s appeal with this: “[It’s] everything you’ve ever wanted in your basement.”