On a recent trip to San Francisco, while walking down Divisadero and soaking in the massive waves of cool weather and hip culture, I happened on Fly Bar and Restaurant. The sister restaurant of downtown Tampa’s Fly, both owned by Tampa-native Leslie Shirah, was cool and cozy, with a menu devoted to a few interesting appetizers, salads and pizzas. Considering the other places I visited in the Bay area, it was par for the course, maybe even a tad too typical to stand out.
What it did do, however, was remind me that our own Fly has defined what downtown Tampa can be, and how, six years after opening, it continues to be the benchmark for downtown’s bar and restaurant culture.
Plus, it’s better than the San Fran version in almost every respect. The food, the atmosphere — everything but the noise level. That’s still way too loud for comfort.
Which is why I’m surprised to see several potential first dates going on in Fly’s dining room on a Thursday night. As the bar fills up, the roar builds, making even intimate conversation across a small two-top table difficult. Maybe it encourages people to get closer? Maybe it’s just the price you pay for that urban vibe, shown in the brick walls adorned with massive artwork, the cavernous ceiling, the shiny concrete floors.
Or, why talk when the food should demand your attention? Fly still serves one of those hybrid menus of mostly small plates that are delivered at the whim of the kitchen and the pace your server decrees appropriate. The term “small plates” can be deceiving, however, since many are hefty enough to provide a full meal for most diners.
Like a monumental pile of ropa vieja hidden under stacks of deep-fried plantain chips, easily meat enough for dinner, as well as breakfast and lunch the following day. The beef is shredded and juicy, laced with peppery heat and a touch of sweetness, with enough green olives to give it a burst of briny salt in alternating bites, for a mere $9.
Grilled lamb, on the other hand, is a discrete section of loin sliced and layered on one side of its plate, exceptionally tender and perfectly seasoned. Here, the sides provide the bulk, with a big dollop of rich hummus, a beautiful little vegetable salad dotted with feta and — the only faulty link — triangular sections of bland and doughy pita. It’s an amazing, high-end plate of food for only $16.
Fly’s hangar steak could use more salt and sear, although the chimichurri sauce helps, but the roasted mushrooms and fingerling potatoes alongside make the plate well worth the $13 it costs.
It’s good sign when the sides can outshine the protein, which usually indicates a kitchen that can cook a mean plate of veggies. Fly does more than that, serving some of the best Brussels sprouts in town, crisp tender and dotted with caramelized brown spots and coated in a powerful mustard sauce that manages to bring out the essence of the sprouts despite its heady and seedy flavor.
And the French fries are the best I’ve had in a long time, thick enough so that each one manages that ideal combination of crackling crisp skin and creamy center that marks a perfect fry. There’s a hint of garlic on them, but barely enough to notice. They may seem steep at $8, but there are enough for a half-dozen friends to share, or one very devoted person to gorge on.
Perhaps I can order them as a side with Fly’s red grouper that, on its own, is a thing of beauty. Its exterior is crusty, glistening with oil and heavily dotted with cracked pepper, while the interior almost oozes moisture. The fries can replace a mélange of chopped bok choy in a sauce that is so salty I find myself moving the fish to save it from the depredations of its companion. Still, the grouper alone is well worth the $15.
It’s not just the food and the vibe that have helped Fly stay on top — the restaurant and bar also has a few other advantages. In the past year, Fly has cut lunch and brunch out of its repertoire, which seems to be good for its core focus: It’s open until 3 a.m. every night but Sunday, with a limited late-night menu — the ropa vieja and frites are on it — that's perfect for an after-theater nosh. There’s the rooftop deck that has a great view of the skyline and Fly’s less-developed-than-you-might-have-hoped-six-years-ago neighborhood, plus a big outdoor seating area on the cobbled front sidewalk.
There’s also a small but respectable selection of draft beers, plenty of bottles, well-priced wine and a full bar complete with thoughtful signature cocktails using things like cinnamon syrup and lemongrass.
In San Francisco, running across our Fly Bar and Restaurant might make someone look twice and check out the menu, but here in downtown Tampa it’s the kind of place that has defined a scene, defied competition, and not only endured but improved over the six years since it opened.