The night crawlers of a city are one measure of its vitality.
Those who inhabit the side of the schedule opposite the daytime are always looking for restaurants that stay open late. They might be medical residents getting off a midnight shift, restaurant managers and servers, newspaper staffers that finish at 1 a.m., Florida Orchestra performers emerging from a concert.
The culinary amenities they find, or the lack thereof, help define how cosmopolitan our fair city is.
As a longtime Tampa resident, I can definitively say that the situation is looking up. Recently, I took a couple of evenings to investigate what's available after 11 p.m., and found a number of restaurants open late, serving everything from Spanish meatballs to sushi to Greek souvlaki.
Here are a few of the results of my night-crawling:
Ceviché My favorite late-night hangout, it is a jewel hidden behind a gigantic Bayshore Boulevard condominium. It has a teensy bar with only a half-dozen seats, but it's always mobbed because its chef is accomplished, and its kitchen serves till the wee hours. Its specialty is evening tapas dishes the size of appetizers, designed to allay hunger until Spaniards eat real dinner — at 10 p.m.
Among Ceviché's best dishes are berenhana parilla ($5), grilled eggplant baked with portabello mushrooms, tomato, olive oil and Manchego cheese; and albondigas ($6), veal and the spicy Spanish sausage called chorìzo, served in a frisky tomato sauce. The restaurant's cold tapas dishes include homemade deviled eggs ($3); and seafood with cilantro and fresh lime juice, listed on the menu as ceviché de la casa ($7), from which the restaurant takes its name. Probably the best drink is sangria, the national drink of Spain — cold, festive with bits of colorful fruit floating like confetti on the bay during Gasparilla.
Sangria's Speaking of Sangria, there's another extended-hours restaurant a few blocks north of Ceviché on Howard Avenue that attracts a similar crowd of young sophisticates who like to dine and party late. We liked its casual charm and wine list, but the food was uneven.
I ordered crab cakes with herbs, spices and aioli sauce ($10), finding them just so-so; they suffered from too much breading. But my tablemates liked the albondigas ($8), meatballs in spicy tomato sauce. Sangria's rollitos de berenjena ($8), eggplant marinated and grilled and stuffed with goat cheese, were delightful.
Since we were making a night of it, we went on to Cherry's in Ybor City. By then it was probably 1 a.m. or so, and we thought plain old American food served without pretense late, late, might be the ticket. But the restaurant's fare left us cold. The hamburger ($6.75) was made with poor-quality meat and filler, plus a side of truly terrible french fries. A meatloaf special ($5.95) was close to inedible, a sort-of sausage-shaped piece of indeterminate meat matched with watery mashed potatoes. The best dish was a simple Buffalo chicken sandwich ($6.50), white meat set in a bun. Of course, we liked the imported beer ($3.75), which we threw down quickly in the spirit of Ybor excess. "Drink enough beer, and the food might even taste good," offered one of my dining companions, but it was just wishful thinking. Not only was the food poor, there was a terrible duo shouting (or singing) at very high decibels into microphones that ruined any attempt at conversation. We were relieved to leave.
I did better another night at a sushi and martini bar that's been open just under a year. Saketini's Sushi and Martini Lounge is right on the Seventh Avenue strip. It's located in the building that for years housed Adam's Hats. The space looks completely different now, with sleek modern furniture and big, colorful booths, trance music playing in the background.
It took me a long time to order because the martini menu was so complex. I finally settled on a Tokyo Bay cosmopolitan ($7.50) — Absolut Mandarin vodka, plum wine, cranberry juice and fresh lemons. I alternated sips of it with some very good Mexican sushi rolls ($6.25) that did such a sudden disappearing act, it seemed to amuse the friendly server. My dining companion liked her chicken teriyaki ($14.95), a fat, skinless chicken breast, grilled perfectly and anointed with a glisteningly thin teriyaki glaze; next to it sat a steamy mound of equally perfect hot rice, and a verdant zucchini and snow pea mix sautéed lightly. It was gorgeous and delicious.
Acropolis Greek Taverna The last restaurant we explored, Acropolis Greek Taverna, occupied a space that for many years housed a Spanish restaurant where the late mob boss Santo Trafficante used to eat with his bodyguards. I felt like I needed bodyguards once I tasted the restaurant's food, however, which was dismayingly poor. The phyllo dough in every dish was limp rather than crisp; the filling in the spanikopita needed more cheese; the souvlaki needed serious spice. I even took one bite of a "Napolean" dessert and abandoned it, which for a dessert lover like me is pretty extreme.
Ceviché, 2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa (813-250-0203, www.cevichetapas.com). Call for hours.
Sangria's Spanish Tapas Bar & Restaurant, 315 S. Howard Ave., Tampa (813-258-0393). Call for hours.
Cherry's, 1512 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City (813-247-4541). Call for hours.
Saketini's Sushi and Martini Lounge, 1625 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City (813-247-3585). Call for hours.
Acropolis Greek Taverna, 1833 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City (813-242-4545). Call for hours.
Food critic Sara Kennedy dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. Contact her at 813-248-8888, ext. 116, or [email protected]. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.