I prefer places that have a relaxed feel, whether they fall into the category of fine dining or not. Being a casual, laid back person by nature, I like to feel welcomed into an establishment like I'm visiting a friend's home, not scrutinized based on if I'm wearing heels or toting a designer handbag. On a few occasions we have been sent a glass of wine or a dessert free of charge because we have been identified as food lovers, based on the variety and number of dishes we have ordered, certainly not because of any social stature.
I do not appreciate a server droning on about the menu like they're reading off a script, as is common at so many larger chain restaurants. I can tell, when I ask a server, What is your favorite dish on the menu?, if he or she has really tried and truly likes it by the spontaneous enthusiasm (or lack of) with which they answer. One has to believe in one's product in order to sell it.
I like focus in a restaurant's menu, for the kitchen to concentrate on doing a modest amount of dishes really well. Many dining establishments trying to appeal to the masses have too many offerings, resulting in a muddled, overwhelming mess. I also take notice when a restaurant seems to have a grass-roots mentality, using local, seasonal and artisanal products, demonstrating a desire to preserve the art of cooking for what it should be and not solely focusing on churning out mediocre meals in order to make a profit.
An example of one of our most recent memorable meals was at Wood Fired Pizza and Wine Bar in north Tampa. After hearing excellent reviews (and having a fervor for good pizza) we decided to try it. Owner Peter Taylor's story of how he came to open a traditional Italian pizzeria indicates a love and passion that is not heard of often enough. The man is committed to using only the highest quality ingredients and it shows.
My husband and I ordered the Pizza Bianca and the Carnivore. Both were outstanding, the dedication to craftsmanship evident in every bite. The only cooking appliance is the brick, wood burning oven, hand-built by the owner , proudly displayed right in the dining room. With amusement and a twinge of sadness we overheard Peter on the phone, telling the person on the other end of the line that no, he did not serve chicken wings.
The space has a welcoming feel and we were greeted by the owner himself. We chose a nice bottle of Amarone, which was promptly decanted for us so we could enjoy it's true nature. After ordering the artisanal cheese plate, Peter eagerly shared with us some delicious Grana Pandano cheese that was not on the menu, the shipment having just arrived.
We also enjoy The Refinery in Seminole Heights. Owners Greg and Michelle Baker have been on the Tampa culinary scene for many years as caterers and food writers. They took over the space formerly occupied by Bungalow Bistro, and simultaneously preserved the historic carriage house's character while modernizing it with eccentric decor and a newly-built upstairs bar, giving it a contemporary feel. The dinner menu changes weekly, a chalkboard in the entryway informing diners from which local farms the produce and meats were obtained. The menu can include anything from down-home comfort food like fried catfish and in-house ground burgers, to more esoteric items like pork belly and ricotta dumplings called Gnudi. Chef Greg prepares all his dishes in an avant-garde manner, taking a seemingly pedestrian item and lovingly transforming it into a work of art. His engaging wife Michelle makes us feel like old friends stopping by for a visit.
We have been to The Refinery many times since it's recent opening, and I am always amazed at the diversity of the clientele. A young couple on a date sipping wine , college students in shorts and flip flops chugging PBR or a local craft beer, a family sharing a meal and a celebratory moment -- there is a harmony and balance that is palpable. For a restaurant to be able to appeal to both experienced and inexperienced palates, beer lovers and wine connoisseurs, and all the while making everyone feel at home is quite a feat. On our most recent visit we sat in the upstairs lounge with a handful of other patrons, all of us engrossed in watching the latest episode of Top Chef. By the end of the show, people who were strangers to us a hour before were now our dining companions. We tried their jerk beef skewers, they sampled our peanut butter, bacon and banana blondie. That's my kind of place.
Wood Fired Pizza and The Refinery both hit high marks for food quality, value, hospitality and eco-friendliness. These restaurants set a standard for which all eateries should strive, especially here in the Tampa area, where sometimes the aforementioned criteria are lacking.
It is more important than ever that we be conscience eaters and consumers, and it is all the more rewarding to patronize a restaurant where the focus is on providing high quality, considerately-prepared meals by owners, chefs and staff that truly believe in what they do.
What are your criteria for a fine dining experience? Your feedback can help raise the bar, and any restaurateur or chef who really cares about what they are doing will listen. The results will be tasty.