Going native

Ulele, the newest addition to Tampa’s Riverwalk, will focus on local history and flavors.

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click to enlarge THE BIG DIG: Mayor Buckhorn and others break ground on Ulele, a - restaurant named for Tocobaga princess that will focus on all things local. - CITY OF TAMPA
THE BIG DIG: Mayor Buckhorn and others break ground on Ulele, arestaurant named for Tocobaga princess that will focus on all things local.

When Mayor Bob Buckhorn took office, he had two historic city-owned sites on his mind in need of a revival, the Federal Courthouse (currently being transformed into Le Meridien Hotel) and the Water Works Building. Through a partnership with the Gonzmarts (the family behind the Columbia Restaurant), the Water Works building will become their next restaurant, Ulele.

“People had stopped thinking about it, but I knew it could be something better,” Buckhorn said. “It’s an anchor for Riverwalk on the north end that we’ve been trying to energize.”

Located just north of Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts at 202 W. Seventh Ave., Ulele (you-lay-lee) is named for the Tampa Bay’s own Pocahontas, Tocobaga Native American Princess Ulele.

“In 1565, Princess Ulele [Hirrihigua] saved a young Spanish sailor, Juan Ortiz … from being put to death by her father who was the chief,” said Richard Gonzmart Monday. “It was that compassion and empathy that she had that we hope to bring here.” (You can visit the alleged site of Ulele’s act of valor at the Pinellas Point Mound in St. Petersburg.)

Gonzmart said that in choosing a name for the restaurant, he also remembered his mother’s nickname was “Lele.”

Eric Lackey, formerly of Besa Grill and Flamestone American Grill, will serve as Ulele’s executive chef. His inspiration is the sustainable food practices of native tribes, and the menu is being modeled to source tastes from the community.

“This will be farm to table with local providers and organic as much as possible,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday. “It really will be one of the cutting-edge places to dine in Tampa, a foodie’s heaven.”

In addition to the restaurant, Ulele will also have an oyster bar, homemade ice cream and popsicles, and house-made beer.

Tim Shackton, former brewmaster at Hops Grill and Brewery, will be brewing beer on site. The restaurant will also employ about 100 graduates from nearby high school culinary programs. The city of Tampa originally sourced freshwater from the spring located on the Water Works site, but the spring became overgrown and clogged. Buckhorn says the city is investing in cleaning it up.

“We are going to clean it out and eventually let the water flow directly into the Hillsborough River,” Buckhorn says. “It still bubbles to the surface; you’d never know it was back there. It’s going to be really great, I’m pumped.”

Tampa Bay’s culinary scene recently received national attention from New York magazine, Saveur, and The Food Network.

“It’s a reaffirmation of everything I’ve been trying to do over the last two years,” Buckhorn says. “We want this to be a city young professionals want to be a part of. I look at the food trucks as my offspring. The craft beer guys are really putting us on the map and creating Tampa’s next chapter. I’m a proud papa.”

Ulele is slated to open in February of 2014.

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