Flashforward: Predictions for the Tampa dining scene in 2010

Looking ahead is a lot like looking back, when it comes to the Bay area restaurant scene. Here are four predictions for 2010 that might look eerily similar to what happened in 2009. And 2008. And 2007...

1. Tampa's fine dining restaurants will continue to strive for mediocrity

I'll be generous and assume that most restaurateurs don't realize this, but new places tend to aim low. From fancy fish houses to northern Italian pasta specialists, the quality of food and experience at most Bay area fine dining spots strikes a solidly mediocre tone. Why? Partly, it's because the work that goes into creating a truly memorable meal is daunting; some people just don't have it in them. Partly, it's because pleasing the maximum number of customers necessitates catering to the lowest common denominator. Even at a restaurant where per person check averages top $50, that lowest common denominator can seem pretty damn low. Most chefs and owners feel it's justified, because the wider range of potential clientele helps their bottom line. True? Maybe, but that's a fine — and depressing — line to walk.

So, not only do restaurateurs feel they're rewarded for putting out crowd-pleasing — if not exacting — plates of food, it's what diners in the Bay area have come to expect. A restaurateur who's willing to break that formula and try something new and exciting, or perhaps even strive for perfection, faces a whole lot of challenges. That's why I predict that, like in 2009, few people will give it a try in 2010.

2. The best restaurants will be niche spots that try a little harder

One way that restaurants can break the mediocrity mold is by taking a tried-and-true formula and doing it better than the rest. It's a way to push diners into accepting something nicer, without sticking your neck out. St. Pete Brasserie did it this past year, offering classic and tasty French comfort food at rock-bottom prices. Cafe Hey has been doing it for a few years, giving diners a much better plate of food than they have any reason to expect from a tiny, out of the way coffee shop.

This one is easier for both restaurants and customers to handle, because the risk — both monetary and psychological — is so low. It's also why the last decade or so has seen big name chefs in major metropolitan markets opening fast food joints and casual cafes. There's a lot of freedom to be had when you don't need to justify high prices on a menu, for both chefs and patrons.

3. People will still spend most of their money at chain restaurants

Despite all the empirical evidence that shows how spending money at locally-owned restaurants is good for the economy, often cheaper, and usually much tastier, people will continue to spend a large percentage of their dining dollars at the Outback Steakhouses and McDonalds of the world. Why? Partly, it's because people are idiots who prefer convenience to long-term health and economic rewards. Partly, it's because people are unwilling to try new things when the option of a familiar plate of salt, fat and sugar is readily available. Yeah, that'll continue in 2010.

4. Specialty beer lists will continue to grow in popularity

Why are restaurants judged by the quality of their wine lists, when the average American consumer knows nothing about wine? To be honest, most people order wine based on price, familiarity and — occasionally — suggestions from an often undertrained staff member. Recently, with the growth of craft beer sales and Tampa's own brewery scene heating up, some restaurants have devoted a little more time to their beer selection than just listing the usual suspects from Anheuser-Busch. And why not? The average consumer knows more about beer, even craft beer, than pinot noir or sauvignon blanc; beer is just as potent a partner with food as wine; local options are readily available; and it's easier and cheaper to create an impressive list. More and more restaurants will get into the act in 2010.

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