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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2018
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The Stew: Back to the future of a great food year

How about that year 2014, huh? What a great year for food and drink in Tampa.

Yes, 2014.

Not that 2013 was bad, mind you. But 2014 was the year Tampa and St. Petersburg truly went ballistic for food.

Remember with me, won’t you?

There was that two-day mobile gorgefest at the Florida State Fairgrounds in March known as the World’s Largest Food Truck Rally. Food truck impresario Jeremy Gomez pulled together about 100 trucks in 2013, then came back in 2014 with more than 200 trucks. Hungry fans came by the tens of thousands to eat big from trucks from all over the southeast.

Then there was the continuation of the Great Beer Rush of 2013, when breweries sprouted like weeds across the area. In 2014, Angry Chair Brewing opened its tasting room on Florida Avenue in Seminole Heights. Coppertail Brewing Co. did the same in Ybor City with a building on East Second Avenue.

Cigar City celebrated its fifth annual Hunahpu’s Day on March 8, putting a cap on another successful Tampa Bay Beer Week and cementing the brewery’s reputation for holding Florida’s premier must-stand-in-line-for-beer event for craft suds lovers. It was the first year Cigar City sold a limited number of tickets (3,500) at $50 a pop. Each ticket holder enjoyed unlimited tastings and a Hunahpu’s Day sampling glass.

Cigar City continued in 2014 to be the fastest-growing craft brewery in the state. They met demand for their line of beers by using Brew Hub in Lakeland, a 50,000-square-foot contract brewing facility that opened in late spring. Orange Blossom Pilsner of Orlando and California-based BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse also used Brew Hub to expand their own beer lines. With the first year’s capacity booked, Brew Hub CEO Timothy Schoen began plans for more hubs throughout the U.S. and an expansion of the Lakeland facility.

We can look back and remember that 2014 was the year Richard and Casey Gonzmart brought Ulele Native-Inspired Food & Spirits to life in Tampa Heights. The $4 million project to turn the historic Tampa Water Works into a restaurant and bar that celebrates the native food of the region was part of a multi-faceted plan to expand the adjacent Water Works city park and finish the Tampa Riverwalk. Brewmaster Tim Shackton’s house-made beers and chef Eric Lackey’s menu inspired by heritage Florida ingredients were well-received.

It also was the year that the boutique hotel mini-boom brought more dining and drinking options (because what is a luxury stay without the benefit of being able to eat and sip like royalty?).

The Federal Courthouse boutique hotel in downtown Tampa, the former Mercantile Bank building along the Hillsborough River and the Hotel Zamora on St. Pete Beach all re-opened as luxury lodging with gourmet restaurant offerings. Ted Dorsey, former executive chef at Boca Kitchen Bar & Market and at Copperfish Seafood & Oyster Bar in Tampa, took over Zamora’s food program, including the Castile restaurant, with crew members from his previous stops.

After its grand opening on New Year’s Eve, Rooster & The Till became the must-visit restaurant for area cooks and restaurant staff. Chef Ferrell Alvarez’s seared pork belly with peppercorn honey, corn bread and pickled apple became a huge hit on the menu of the 36-seat restaurant in Seminole Heights.

Speaking of the Heights, Greg and Michelle Baker in 2014 followed their award-winning restaurant The Refinery with Fodder & Shine on Florida Avenue, which draws inspiration from heritage foodways of Florida pioneers. Eric McHugh, who turned the Sunday brunch into a must-visit meal, then took over the kitchen at The Refinery.

How crazy is the food scene getting? Fresh Market on Lithia-Pinecrest in Valrico opened in late spring, ahead of the start of construction for the Super Walmart on Bloomingdale Avenue.

Fresh Market in Valrico. South Valrico. How improbable is that? Almost as improbable as a retrospective written a year in advance.

How about that year 2014, huh? What a great year for food and drink in Tampa.

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