Taps Wine & Beer foams with potential

Tampa's downtown adds another piece to its puzzle

click to enlarge ON TAP AT TAPS: Imported brews dominate the offerings at Taps Wine & Beer Merchants. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
ON TAP AT TAPS: Imported brews dominate the offerings at Taps Wine & Beer Merchants.

It would be difficult for any restaurant or bar to live up to the expectations many have for the revitalization of downtown Tampa. Even unsubstantiated rumors of a place that might serve to lure folks into the tough nighttime scene are met with giddy excitement by condo developers and business associations. Taps has been the subject of press releases dating back to the signing of its lease in the new Skypoint tower in February. Forget about whether it's a decent restaurant or bar — what about its impact?

Here's the story, folks: Tampa's Big Bang ain't gonna happen. I'm sure a downtown will emerge that's worthy of mixed-use development, hot enough to pull late-night folk from Ybor and SoHo. It just won't be tomorrow. Or even this year. Think of it more as a cultural metamorphosis than a revolution. Be patient.

Like nearby Fly, Taps will play a part. Not with the same style, perhaps, or even the same drawing power, but this upscale wine and beer joint will be another brick in the slowly rising Lego tower of downtown Tampa's social scene.

Walking into the joint is like showing up at a party thrown by new-money aristos — the décor fancy but without much style; the crowd a mish-mash of worker bees, lotharios and pseudo-hipsters; the food trendy and unexceptional. The wine is pedestrian. The beer, while extensive, is promoted with giddy elitism.

During my visits, most of the people appeared to be urban pioneers looking for a modern-day Cheers close to their condo digs, but that beer list might be enough to bring out-of-downtowners in for a visit. Page after page of brews are divided by style like a progressive wine list, dipping into both the standard alt-brew faves and the occasional hard-to-find connoisseurs' pick. There are 20 draft selections that cover the bases well without delving into truly rare selections, a hefty variety of bottled Belgians and Germans, and a limited array of American craft-brews.

When I tried to order a Miller Lite (because I'd heard they didn't stock domestic mega-lagers), the bartender's eyes rolled and he pointed me to something else that might be to my liking. Odd, considering Taps carries many international versions of our own domestic plonk, the menu chock-full of Amstel, Heini, Sapporo, Corona, Red Stripe and Dos Equis, among others.

Wine is more of a crapshoot, despite the fancy cabinets loaded with bottles connected to stainless taps. There are some fine choices, but the list is dominated by a single distributor, Southern Wine & Spirits, which shows an inability or lack of desire to search the market for the best possible options.

Fortunately, most customers will pay scant attention to these tidbits that raise my wine-and-beer-wonk hackles. Just like most people will have few problems with the food.

Few problems, maybe, but I doubt many will be wowed. It's all gorgeous, but the flavors rarely mesh or sometimes even exist. Wings ($10) come out glistening with a sweet apricot glaze marked by dark spots of caramelization, but the only real flavor is a meager dose of fast-food chipotle sauce. Bruschetta ($9) is drizzled with truffle oil that destroys the subtleties of pillowy fresh mozzarella and salty prosciutto. Cubes of raw tuna ($13) are doused in spicy chile sauce that manages to hold up to the profusion of onions, avocado and jicama, to the detriment of the fish. Raw lemon juice kills crab and artichoke dip ($13), subsuming the shellfish under its acidic presence.

Simpler items do better at Taps, like sliders of luscious Italian sausage topped by more of that gooey mozzarella ($10). Sandwiches are uniformly tasty, from turkey and brie with fruity chutney ($10) to grilled chicken with muted pesto and bright goat cheese ($10). And the hot pretzel ($5) ain't bad.

You'll be eating that food and drinking that beer surrounded by an odd mash-up of décor. One wall is painted white and sectioned by profuse molding and mounted sconces like a scene from Martha Stewart Living. Another is lined by high-top, leather booths backed by dark gray slate. The bar is impressive, with a lot more of that slate and a towering glass wall featuring many of the bottles on Taps' beer list. Duck around a corner and you'll see muted earth tones and low couches formed into clubby conversation nooks.

Your best bet is to grab a beer and head outside to a sitting area that takes advantage of the wide sidewalks in front of Skypoint. Not only is the view more interesting out there, you'll also be doing your part to keep up the aura of the nascent downtown scene. Who knows, your relaxed presence — drink in hand — at 5:30 p.m. in front of an Ashley Street crowded with commuters will likely have more impact than a dozen strident pro-downtown press releases.

In that sense, I guess Taps could actually have more impact on driving the traffic back into downtown Tampa than the well-regarded Fly, if only due to higher visibility.

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