Scenic eats: At Tampa Bay's best-looking restaurants, the food is only part of the picture

[image-1]Z Grille

104 2nd St. S, St. Petersburg, 727-822-9600,

Z Grille's chef/owner Zack Gross could give a shit about interior design, so how did he end up with an American Institute of Architects award-winning restaurant that manages to sum up both his personality and his food? Easy -- he hired it out.

Local design firm Mesh met with Gross and wife/co-owner Jennifer, who mentioned their love of skateboards and tattoos. That's pretty much all the guidance they provided, according to Gross. The result is elegant, dynamic and loaded with hidden meaning. The dining room is a half-pipe made from an unbroken span of rich, deep brown bamboo that stretches across the floor, up one wall and across the ceiling. A back-lit glass panel spans one wall, featuring a design similar to Zack and Jennifer's tattoos. The bar is easily the most subtle of the many elements, the curvy structure covered in skateboard resin with a footrest reminiscent of a skatepark grind rail.

The connections sound obvious when you point them out, but the effect is so seamless, so integrated that most people will just see a beautiful space -- unless they know the story, or the people behind it.

[image-2]Council Oak Steakhouse

5223 Orient Road Tampa, 813-627-7625,

Tampa has plenty of steakhouses, but none like Council Oak. When the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino underwent major renovations a few years back, one goal was to maximize the Las Vegas feel of the place. Nowhere is that better accomplished than at the casino's signature restaurant.

You know what you're getting yourself into the instant you step from the clanging casino floor into Council Oak, thanks to a massive glass wall that looks into the restaurant's butcher shop and aging room. Floor-to-ceiling meat, glorious meat, that brings new meaning to using "natural" elements in design. Enter the dining room and you'll feel like you're in an amphitheater, the tables set on tiered levels overlooking the expansive and impeccably clean kitchen. The sonic and visual dissonance of the rest of the building morphs into a cool and luxurious palette of rich, muted ivory and brown, along with blessed silence except for the rattle of knives cutting through beef. And, if the details count for anything, they'll even decorate your food, burning each diner's initials into the steaks before they leave the kitchen.

Bin 27 Bistro

2702 West Kennedy Blvd., 813-878-2700,

How do you turn a former coffee shop and hair salon into an upscale neighborhood restaurant? Bin 27 is how. Owner Michael Wuliger converted this tiny, oddly shaped South Tampa space into an exceptional expression of comfort by transforming the natural disadvantages of the building into positive attributes.

Now, the low ceilings evoke a sense of intimacy thanks to the tall booths and a profusion of small light sources. At once you feel enclosed and separated, but still part of the flow of the restaurant. And if you want to interact with your neighbors, there's always the clever curved bar in the front that smooths out one of the restaurant's misshapen corners and provides a surprising amount of room for patrons. Wuliger shows that you don't always have to start from the ground up if you're willing to work with what you have.


170 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg, 727-827-2927,

Then again, St. Petersburg's latest big restaurant shows that starting from scratch can yield great returns, if your pockets are deep enough. Although tagged an "American brasserie," Cassis' roots are firmly French, with a startling and effective design that evokes a Gallic atmosphere before you even see the menu.

The restaurant is cavernous, divided only by the lines of banquettes and a few pillars, more like a train station than a dining room, with uniform rows of industrial globe lights stretching above the tables and black and white geometric tiles on the floor. Impressive? Sure, but what really gets you is the yellow. Bright yellow accent walls, bright yellow tile, bright yellow tubes of glowing light -- it's a lot of color, of a particular color, but in the big space and amidst the otherwise basic tones of the rest of Cassis, it works wonders. Those splashes of color add swathes of drama and excitement in what would otherwise be a beautiful, but sedate space. And, throughout it all, it's undeniably French.


2900 Bayport Dr., Tampa, 813-207-6815

This grand dame of high-end Tampa dining recently underwent a massive overhaul, along with its upstairs brother Armani's. But while Armani's relies on its incredible view for drama, Oystercatchers has an interior space that makes the windows almost unnecessary.

There's still the vaulted ceiling in the main room, composed of wooden beams that evoke a massive boathouse, easily impressive enough for a visit. But the real charm of the restaurant are the side rooms. The tables and chairs are works of art, the wood stained an ashy brown with square cutouts in the legs and old-seeming cushions attached to the chairs. In one area, the tables are set along a wall, with taller side tables between each to create the aura of booths without the actual construction. Call it Scandinavian, if you like, especially considering the rectangular light fixtures hanging above each table. The creamy walls are tinged with just a little yellow to brighten the place, with a minimal amount of art that serves to subtly accent the space. The net effect is an elegant blend of nature and luxury in one of the finest dining rooms in the area.


128 3rd St. S, St. Petersburg, 727-896-6372,

Red Mesa Cantina was lucky. Instead of creating a space that matched its food and vibe, it moved into a location that was already a showpiece. Originally a restaurant called Desanto, Red Mesa Cantina is tucked into an old brick building with an incredible courtyard. Tables are placed amidst pockets of thriving green foliage in discrete areas separated from one another by an actual burbling brook, of sorts. It's rare to find a restaurant where you may have to walk across a bridge to get to your table. At night, the courtyard feels like a private enclave amidst the relatively towering urban setting of downtown St. Petersburg, a world apart within a stone's throw of the street.


5119 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa, 813-234-1000,

Sometimes a restaurant sums up its neighborhood so perfectly, it almost defines it. That's Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe. The main draw of the place is the art, which starts on the walk up to the door in the form of a massive metal sculpture of a horse rising from the grass and continues into the dining room. The walls are covered in sculptural pieces derived from found items that range from hipster chic to downright disturbing, with more scattered throughout the space. The setting is rustic and refined all at once, just like Seminole Heights, with rocking chairs and picnic tables and a handmade stage for live music. Where else would you want to set your PBR while you nosh on deep-fried jalapeno poppers and vegan stew?

Most people pay very little attention to the interior of the restaurant they are eating in. Unless the decor is shockingly horrible, or astoundingly interesting, eyes are usually firmly focused on friends, menu, food and sometimes the more attractive clientele scattered around the place. Partly, that's due to human nature; after all, we eat out a lot and have become inured to the subtle differences between this steakhouse and that, or this sports bar and another. Partly, however, it has to do with where we live.

"Tampa restaurateurs don't feel the need to make the interiors as elaborate as they do in some places," says architect Kenneth Cowart, whose firm has designed several high-end restaurants in Atlanta and elsewhere. Cowart later thought his comment might be too strong, but I think we all realize that he's correct. As the undisputed king of chain dining, Tampa restaurants don't often push the boundaries of food, service or design — with a few exceptions.

Here's my list — gathered with plenty of feedback from other dining regulars — of the best-looking restaurants in the Bay area. High-end to low, funky to luxury, these are the places where serious thought was put into action when constructing the dining ambience. As Cowart says, the best spots "use a holistic approach to the restaurant, from the silver to the menu to what the waitstaff is wearing." These restaurants get that.

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