As I sit down at the table, I can't help but reach out and, well, play with the table decorations. There's a gleaming yellow lemon sitting next to a massive carrot — the kind of thing you only seem to find at farmers' markets these days — sitting atop a mismatched tablecloth and doily set. Stacked at the far end of the table are three books that look like they came from a decorator's warehouse, kinda fancy, kinda old, kinda not the types of books anyone would actually read. One is actually in German.
Combine all that with the mismatched furniture in a dining room and bar that's essentially a warren of small spaces decorated with auto memorabilia and a slew of antiques and kitsch, and you have a restaurant that's instantly comforting and homey. It feels like the place has been here forever — instead of just a couple of months — and it matches the food perfectly.
Love's menu is just as much a mishmash of styles, with elements of Southern home cooking, barbecue, Florida coastal cuisine and the occasional fine-dining flourish. At its best the food is better than your momma's. At its worst the food is still hearty and filling. Not bad for a restaurant that used to be a used car lot.
Lynn Love started selling barbecue out of a corner of his family's dealership a couple years back, then decided to make the transition from late-model cars to late-night meals earlier this year. In the process he created one of the most interesting, tasty and inclusive restaurants to open in South Tampa in a long time.
Although most of the food is eminently recognizable from your childhood, there's one dish that gets all the press, a little twist on jalapeno poppers stuffed with peanut butter instead of cheese. It works — although I can't help but think cheese would work better — largely because the poppers themselves are just about perfect: green, crunchy and well-seasoned. The restaurant's take on shrimp and grits is more classic but less well accomplished, tasty but with a lot of rough edges, the grains chunky and occasionally clumped in dry bundles.
Barbecue — the reason Love got into this business in the first place — ranges from exceptional to downright boring. At the top of the scale is the restaurant's brisket sliders, the doughy buns stuffed with crisp cole slaw and paper-thin slices of tender beef that are infused with smoke through and through. Ribs are more ho-hum, acceptable but unexciting, while the pulled pork is completely devoid of smoke, seasoning, crust, or flavor. The menu says that it is cooked without fat, which would explain the lack of rich character that the restaurant tries to hide by dousing the pile of pulled pig in a slick of barbecue sauce.
Love's fried chicken, however, is a return to what the restaurant does best. The skin is crackling crisp, with that mottled and irregular browning that both looks more like homemade and tastes better than the usual dunk in a deep-fryer. This is the kind of skin that you may peel off for health reasons, but by the time the plates are taken away you'll likely have picked at it until your fingers are slicked with delicious grease. The meat is salty and moist, and the $10 order comes with parts from half a chicken, guaranteeing a tasty brown bag lunch tomorrow.
There are also pasta dishes that vaguely reference Italian themes and seem more like a sop to vegetarians than something that bears the heart and soul of the kitchen. Cuban roasted pork is better, but just, the heady herbs and garlic promised on the menu largely non-existent.
Love's serves seemingly a dozen sides or more, including garlic mashed potatoes good enough to grace the menu of a fancy restaurant (a decade ago, at least); baked beans infused with enough garlic and tomato to seem more Italian than cracker cuisine; standard cole slaw and potato salad; fresh corn and other veggies. Like the main courses, the sides range from the kinds of items you might get at a family picnic to seriously tasty restaurant-quality cooking.
But, like the eclectic decor and muddled interior of the restaurant, that's why Love's is such a damn inviting and interesting place to eat. In the front room — a bar area, of sorts — there's a man crooning '60s rock standards while a couple swishes across a patch of ground I can generously call a dance floor. Two tables away is a family with a happily squealing baby shoveling corn into its mouth. An elderly couple sits silently across the way, while at an adjacent table two kids in their early 20s seem like they're on a first date. They're all here because Love's just seems to fit, no matter who you are or what you're looking for.
Maybe I can't nail Love's with a convenient tag — down-home, Southern, homey, kitschy, and comforting all work well enough — but it has certainly pegged a vibe, a varied cuisine and a price point that resonates with a large group of Tampa residents who will more likely show up here for a weeknight dinner than head to the latest fine-dining spot in SoHo. Including me.