TAMPA — If the reaction by hungry visitors during the weekend is any indication, the restaurant Ulele in Tampa Heights is ready for its culinary close-up.
The restaurant opens for dinner tonight at 5 p.m. A formal ribbon-cutting for the renovated 112-year-old former municipal water works building along the Hillsborough River north of downtown will take place at 4 p.m.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, along with Richard and Casey Gonzmart of The Columbia Restaurant Group, will do the honors for the official opening.
Ulele hosted a series of charity fundraisers and VIP and media dinners Thursday through Sunday, serving more than 850 customers.
The Columbia Group spent $5 million renovating the building and surrounding patio, and installing a new kitchen, brewery and beer garden. The city spent millions refurbishing the adjacent Water Works Park, while Tom Ries and the Ecosphere Restoration Institute board took the lead on cleaning and rebuilding Ulele Spring.
The restaurant received more than 750 reservations for the initial weeks of dinner operations. The restaurant will announce lunch operating hours soon, Richard Gonzmart said Sunday evening.
During a gathering of 100 friends and members of the media on Sunday, Ulele chef Eric Lackey served a buffet that included grilled Parmesan oysters, New York strip steak, octopus carpaccio, shooters of fresh oysters swimming in Patron tequila, mini crab legs, lobster cake appetizers, lollipop chicken legs and house-made coconut, vanilla, chocolate and espresso ice creams.
Corey Dylan, morning co-host on WFLA 970 AM, said the deconstructed seafood pot pie was her favorite during the preview.
“I told the chef it was ridiculous,” Dylan said.
The restaurant is a great example of being proud of Florida, its history and the food it has to offer, she said. The menu's ingredients are inspired by those eaten by native Tocobaga Indian tribes and Tampa Bay's first European pioneers. Many of the menu's components are sourced within the state as well.
“Even the use of arrowheads and shells embedded in the bar top was a really cool touch,” Dylan said.
Aakash M. Patel, president of the business consulting firm Elevate Inc., said he was amazed at the drive by Gonzmart and his team to pull the project together.
Patel, who eats a vegetarian diet, said he enjoyed the okra fries, the blistered shishito peppers, the jalapeno cornbread, coconut ice cream and an Old Fashioned cocktail.
“Now that Tampa is a foodie city, we're becoming much more vegetarian friendly,” Patel said. Although much of the original menu will be driven by pork, beef, chicken and seafood, “Richard told me he plans to offer more vegetarian food as the menu evolves,” Patel said.
Ulele is one of several high-profile restaurants scheduled to begin operations during the next few months.
On Saturday and Sunday evening, Suzanne and Roger Perry of Datz and Dough restaurants held preview dinners for customers at Roux, their Cajun- and Creole-inspired restaurant on South MacDill Avenue in Tampa. Roux will open for dinner on Thursday.
Also under construction: Ava, an Italian pizza bistro on South Howard Avenue in Tampa from Michael Stewart, owner of 717 South; Noble Crust, for which two Bonefish Grill founders will merge Italian cuisine with ingredients of the southern United States on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg; and Fodder & Shine, a Florida Cracker cuisine restaurant on Florida Avenue in Tampa from The Refinery's Greg and Michelle Baker.
Last month, Bizzou opened at the Le Meridian boutique hotel on Florida Avenue inside the former federal courthouse. Patel said the flurry of restaurant openings has him promoting the hashtag #TampaHasSwagger on Twitter.
“Ulele shows why Tampa has swagger,” he said. “This kind of thing puts us in the same sentence as places like Nashville and Charlotte and New Orleans. This concept and Ava and Bizzou are really good for Tampa.”