Ask the Locals: Greg & Michelle Baker of The Refinery

click to enlarge Ask the Locals: Greg & Michelle Baker of The Refinery - Photo by Heidi Kurpiela
Photo by Heidi Kurpiela
Ask the Locals: Greg & Michelle Baker of The Refinery

In a city saturated with “safe” restaurant chains, Greg and Michelle Baker kickstarted a creative culinary juggernaut. Their Tampa eatery, The Refinery, is largely regarded as one of the top restaurants in the Bay Area. It’s been nominated three times for a James Beard Award, in 2011 for Best New Restaurant, and in 2012, 2013 and 2014 for Best Chef. Greg is the much-lauded chef, and Michelle is the general manager.
They opened The Refinery in a converted two-story bungalow on North Florida Avenue in 2010, catapulting Seminole Heights into a cooler, hotter frontier. Founded on the premise that everyday folks can eat like highfalutin’ foodies without breaking the bank or valeting their car, the small playful restaurant quickly grabbed the attention of discerning food critics and superstar chefs. Chef Mario Batali ate there two years ago.
The tattooed, dog-loving couple have held true to the premise that their gourmet dishes — often described as modern American — change depending on whatever locally grown ingredients are in season. The approach has been so successful that the Bakers have a second restaurant in the pipeline, Fodder & Shine. The new place will serve authentic Florida cracker cuisine, (gator, heirloom beef, pickled veggies, Gulf-caught seafood, etc.) and open later this year in an old auto repair center up the street from The Refinery. If previous success is any indication, this new fodder is bound to shine.

The best places to commune with nature: Hillsborough River and Manatee Springs. Michelle: “We’re really big water sports people. We love to kayak the Hillsborough River. It’s beautiful and in our backyard.” Greg: “I’m drawn to the springs. The first freshwater spring I ever saw in Florida was back when I was a Boy Scout and we went camping at Manatee Springs State Park.”

The best place to show your employees a good time: Tubing down Rainbow River. Michelle: “This was our first big staff trip. Greg and I had whistles like camp counselors. We spent a lot of time making sure our employees didn’t drown. They were so hammered.”

The best time warp: Tarpon Springs. Michelle: “We love to go to the sponge docks. It’s like the last vestige of the old Florida tourist trap. You’re right at the mouth of the Anclote River and the Gulf of Mexico, looking at the tackiest crap you’ve ever seen. We always get gyros from Mykonos. We love that flaming saganaki.”

The best way to add a kick to your cooking: VSpicery in Tampa. Michelle: “She [Val Herzog] has every spice you can think of, and if you’re visiting from out of town you can easily pack them in your suitcase.”

The best sensory experience at a grocery store: Oceanic Supermarket. Michelle: “They’ve got so many cool things to marvel at.” Greg: “You kind of play Russian roulette when you’re shopping. There’s just enough English on the packaging to get past the USDA.”

The best-kept Latin secret: El Noa Noa Jalapeño's in Tampa. Michelle: “They make the best al pastor and carnitas we’ve ever had.”

The best bowl of ramen in Tampa Bay: Nakaya Japanese Bistro. Michelle: “They do the best ramen. The amount of care they put into their food is astounding. It’s so easy to screw up simple food and they never disappoint.”

The best bowl of pho in Tampa Bay: Pho An Hoa. Michelle: “The broth is almost crystal clear. You can smell the anise and the meat is perfectly shaved. They put the bowl in front of you and it cooks within seconds.” Greg: “Everyone we’ve sent there has loved it.” Michelle: “We’ve probably eaten there 100 times.”

The best place to unwind after a bad day: The Independent. Michelle: “Our stressful days end at 11 o’clock at night. We’re close friends with the Independent’s owner, Veronica [Danko]. We can just hang there and be totally, 100 percent comfortable.” Greg: “There’s a great European-style beer collection. It’s in the heart of Seminole Heights.”

The best venue for live theater: Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center. Greg: “Anything we see there really pushes the envelope.” Michelle: “Jobsite Theater [at the Shimberg] puts on passionate performances that you wouldn’t expect.”

The best visual feast: Tempus Projects. Michelle: “They have a lot of variety. The artists’ styles are always different. It’s a good display of local Tampa Bay artists.”

The best in-town escape: The Schooner Hotel on Madeira Beach. Michelle: “It’s an old ’50s-era motel. It was awesome. We brought our dogs to the beach and nobody cared. For us, going to the beach is rejuvenating. We drank Corona, ate bad food and oysters.” Greg: “If you can see the water, it’s okay to drink Corona.”

The best excuse to pamper your pooch: Health Mutt in Seminole Heights. Michelle: “I know anytime I go to another town I always purchase something for my fur kids. Health Mutt has a huge selection of handpicked sustainable products. It’s all reasonably priced, too.”

The best place to get inked: 1603 Tattoo & Piercing. Michelle: “Skip Sampson and his crew are a group of professional and wildly talented artists. They work with your ideas and maximize them by 1,000. Their imaginations are limitless.”