Looking at the restaurant round-up for CL’s last Ybor Issue six years ago says it all.
The historic district has seen many openings and closings since 2010, when spots like Fresh Mouth, Streetcar Charlie’s Bar & Grille, The Laughing Cat and Mema’s Alaskan Tacos were still around. And a number of places that have emerged since then have stuck, including bars, microbreweries, a craft distillery, mom-and-pops, even a Buffalo Wild Wings.
To give you a taste: First Chance Last Chance occupies The Lower Red Lounge’s former space. Michelle Faedo’s Sandwich Shop on 15th Street went mobile with its devil crab and Cubans. Rock-N-Sports Bar & Grill and Teatro on Seventh used to call Centro Ybor home; recent additions to the complex include Carne Chophouse, The Brass Tap and Hamburger Mary’s Pub House. Due Amici has taken over Roma Pizza’s space on the main drag of La Septima; Nicahabana Cigars took over Sula’s, also on 7th. The Big Easy Bar is breathing fresh life into the old Dogs Bollocks. And last month, Sushi House by kazoku sushi opened in the building where Tea Rose Cottage formerly resided.
Some locations have experienced more ins and outs than others.
A 17th Street spot distinguished by the sound of roosters crowing nearby has accommodated Jalapenos de Ybor, Hot Willy’s, Pollo Garden and now Ybor Eats. The old Laughing Cat, in the El Encanto Building at 15th Street and 8th Avenue, was succeeded by Row Boat, followed by Florida Cane Distillery, which launched there this past weekend after relocating from Brandon. Tampa Bay Brewing Company began at a neighboring 15th Street storefront (a former horse stable), then moved to Centro Ybor; The Roosevelt 2.0 took its place, and now Cigar City Cider & Mead has moved in.
Destinations off the main drag of La Septima are also continuing to grow.
James Joyce Irish Pub & Eatery moved to the old Mema’s off 8th Avenue from 7th. Joffrey’s Coffee & Tea Company migrated from Centro Ybor to the former Streetcar Charlie’s space. Coppertail Brewing Co. is out by IKEA on 2nd Avenue. And Cristino’s Coal Fired Pizza sits at 8th and 17th Street.
She’s watched the progression of the food and drink scene since the early ’90s, a time when the neighborhood was heavy on bars. Ybor has matured, Gonzmart Williams says, and in the last decade and a half, the landscape has started to change.
For one, restaurants are attracting more people from Ybor businesses and offices, downtown Tampa and other locales for lunch. The Columbia’s prime location at 7th and 22nd Street certainly does. Due to the varied dining options, folks are able to say, as Gonzmart Williams puts it, “I’ll just go to Ybor and figure it out.”
And like she says, “There’s so much more Ybor has to offer off of 7th Avenue.”
Sunday’s Delicatessen feeds everyone, he says — including bartenders, servers and cooks from places like King Corona Cigars and Cafe, Acropolis Greek Taverna, the Columbia and Green Iguana Bar & Grill before or after their shifts.
But it wasn’t always like this.
When the chef and owner came to the neighborhood in 2010, drawn to Ybor’s mom-and-pop vibe, to establish his flagship, Sunday’s Fine Dining, the Empire nightclub was in its heyday down the street. According to Sunday, the club’s violent reputation scared customers away from the fine-dining joint he founded with his late sister.
All that has changed, though, he says, since Empire’s closure (which he says was really good for Ybor) and the decrease in vacant buildings.
There was a period when the 8th Avenue gathering place didn’t open until 3 p.m.; its eclectic 21st anniversary bash on Friday, April 15, will be representative of the live shows it’s hosted for the last decade and a half or so. But over the last six years the daytime clientele has steadily grown, with Sunday brunch now one of the bar’s busiest shifts.
“I think not only are we maturing, a.k.a. I don’t want to be out until 4 in the morning so we’re gonna open early, but I think also the bar itself matures to an extent, the clientele,” manager Dean Rosenberger says. “So… regulars that used to come here and get silly drunk are now having their baby showers and baby birthdays and those kind of life events here that never used to happen.”
In and around Ybor since 1990, Rosenberger says the New World area has lost several neighbors over time (an omelet spot where The Orpheum used to be, a Japanese steakhouse in Ybor Square, Cafe Creole). However, the bar is now more food-oriented itself. Many folks didn’t know New World had a kitchen when Rosenberger first got there; it was a place for patrons to eat when they were drunk or were there for a show. Today, people hear about the music because they’ve stopped in for lunch or brunch.
The Blind Tiger’s Roberto Torres, who’s been an Ybor habitué since his days as a Florida State University student nearly 20 years ago, is now part of the marketing chair committee for the Ybor City Development Corporation. He had his first real interaction with daytime Ybor in 2008 at King Corona. Then, the community was still transitioning from another big moment: the recession.
Since then, he’s seen the area recover — and has benefited from that recovery himself.
In 2010, he co-founded Black & Denim Apparel Company, primarily selling to boutiques and making a name for the business outside Tampa, and in 2013 got the chance to open a closet-sized shop inside 7th's Blues Ship Cafe. B&D moved around a bit after that, and almost two years ago returned to the district as The Blind Tiger — combining the boutique with a nontraditional coffee shop and co-work space at the former site of Ovo Cafe, also on the 1900 block.
“We wanted people to want to come, want to see it and experience it, and learn about it — that was really important for us,” Torres says. “And we also used it as a trial to see if the boutique concept would meld well with the coffee shop, and we found out that people really like the idea.”
The venture recently expanded to Seminole Heights.
Torres is not the only Yborite with expansion on his mind. Jayme Kosar’s Ybor City Wine Bar, an upscale spot with an extensive wine program, has been so successful in Centro Ybor that she, too, is planning to open a branch in Seminole Heights.
She says there's more to do in Ybor during the day than folks know about.
“People are not aware of what’s happening in Ybor City,” Kosar says. “In the past, we’ve been associated with a lot of the nightclubs and tattoo shops, which is wonderful and adds to the culture, but it is not just solely the culture of Ybor. Not anymore.”
Though the district isn’t as affiliated with eruptions of club-life violence as it once was, some of the stigma remains, she says. For her, it’s a matter of educating, letting people know what the neighborhood has to offer. Ybor continues to be a party environment until 3 a.m., yes, but it’s become multigenerational. Kosar points to family-friendly places and events such as the Ybor City Saturday Market, Festa Italiana, Snow on 7th and GameTime.
“The demographics are changing. They’ve been changed,” she says. “I just don’t think people realize that.”
“We want to be part of the collective city, but we don’t want to compete with other neighborhoods. We have our own thing going; we just gotta figure out and realize what that is and how is it that we can broadcast it to everybody,” he says.
Other milestones through the years: Local craft beer emerging through breweries and other taprooms. Alternative entertainment districts growing in popularity, SoHo and Seminole Heights included. Jason Fernandez expanding his mini restaurant empire within Ybor City (Kosar: “To have one restaurateur own multiple locations, I think that says a lot for what’s happening”). Cephas’ Hot Shop closing down and coming back. The Boneyard hot dog (Rosenberger: “Probably the best hot dog I’ve had”). The Bricks appealing to a different segment of the population (Torres: “It gave them a voice and place to go”). Sushi House opening on 19th, down the street from The Blind Tiger (Torres: “It’s giving everybody a chance to thrive”). Tacos at Crowbar. The Columbia, because it keeps bringing people down here.
And more is on the way.
The historic King-Greco Hardware building at 8th and 15th Street will be home to Rock Brothers Brewing. Gonzmart Williams’s father, Columbia Restaurant Group President Richard Gonzmart, has started collecting artwork and statues for Santo Stefano, his newest project catty-corner to the Columbia that will honor the Sicilians who came to Ybor in the late 1980s.
There’s been talk about a brewery moving in where Empire operated and a whiskey distillery opening in the old Orpheum space, and something’s up in the former Blues Ship space.
“The big thing down here, it’s like a community. We all come together to make it happen,” Sunday says. “We’re not in competition with each other. Everybody’s out to help each other, which is good because you don’t find that everywhere.”