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Thursday, Oct 19, 2017
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Downtown Tampa restaurants celebrate successful first year

TAMPA — One of the city’s long-stated goals has been to spur residential development in the downtown core, and the effort has been wildly successful.

Of course, all those people have to eat.

A pair of popular restaurants are demonstrating that the city center is a pretty good place to serve up food as well. Both Ulele, the brainchild of Columbia Restaurant proprietor Richard Gonzmart at Water Works Park in Tampa Heights, and Holy Hog Barbecue, which opened its fourth restaurant next to Tampa police headquarters, are celebrating their first anniversaries and relishing their new digs.

“We’ve been tremendously gratified by the success of the first year,” said Michael Kilgore, chief marketing officer for the Columbia Restaurant Group. “When we opened on Aug. 26, we had really strong numbers right out of the box. Two months later, when we opened for lunch, the same thing happened.”

Meanwhile, Holy Hog’s lengthy lunchtime lines suggests the downtown crowd likes its options to the stuffy clubs at the top of the city’s skyscrapers.

“Downtown’s been great for us,” said Danny Hernandez, founder of the Holy Hog chain. “It’s vibrant. It really is. Obviously, we’ve filled a niche. We’re excited to be downtown.”

The restaurants are credited with elevating the typical lunchtime offerings of burgers, sandwiches and salads. Ulele – pronounced “you-LAY-lee” — opened in a 1903 pump house along the Hills­borough River and focuses on Native American and multicultural influences, with menu items indigenous to Florida’s waters and farms.

Its beef comes from the Strickland Ranch in Myakka City, and fresh fish and seafood come from the Gulf of Mexico and coastal waters.

The Holy Hog prides itself on brisket, chicken, ribs and pork tender. Fans enjoy touches such as burnt ends and side servings of fresh collard greens.

“People downtown are craving something more than just a plain deli sandwich,” Hernandez said.

Ulele held a one-year celebration for an invited crowd on Saturday. On Wednesday, the actual anniversary date, patrons received a free 16-ounce growler of limited-release Ulele Spring Brewery Anniversary 2015 beer.

The downtown Holy Hog kicks things up a notch for its first birthday. The restaurant unveils its Southern Biscuit Kitchen and new breakfast menu the week of Labor Day, featuring the Backyard Pimp Southern Fried Chicken Biscuit, the Big Bad Biscuit (also known as The Nasty), and the Redneck Cuban Biscuit.

On Sept. 11, it will have food and drink specials, live music and recognition of Patriot Day with a complimentary biscuit and coffee for all police officers, firefighters, EMTs, military and support staff. A percentage of sales will be donated to the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and Friends of Tampa Firefighters.

For decades, downtown Tampa had the reputation of rolling up the sidewalks at the close of the business day. But a residential population numbering in the hundreds in the early 2000s has grown to more than 8,000. There are proposals that could bring another 12,000 housing units to the city center.

“The more heads and beds you put downtown, the more retail that follows, the more restaurants that follow and the more entertainment that follows,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The mayor had a significant role in the development of both restaurants — he was a major backer of Gonzmart’s bid for the city-owned property, and he cajoled Hernandez for years to come downtown.

He is particularly impressed by what Ulele has brought to the city, and by that, he does not mean simply the food. The restaurant adjoins the city’s $7 million Water Works Park, and the last leg of the Riverwalk project takes it past the property.

“Richard (Gonzmart) has transformed a corner of the Riverwalk and opened up that waterfront in ways people had never imagined, people have never seen,” Buckhorn said. “Both Richard and I saw not the limitations, but what it could be, and what a destination it could become.”

Holy Hog, meanwhile, is a short walk away from the mayor’s office, and the restaurant has won the Mayor’s Mac and Cheese Throwdown at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in back-to-back years.

“Between those two restaurants, they are singularly responsible for an extra 5 pounds on me,” Buckhorn said.

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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