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What's Brewing?

Breaking chains of local fare

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

It's been a tough year for independent restaurants in South Tampa.

Three of the once-hot cafes -- Cafe Pepe, Cafe Creole and Ovo Cafe -- dished up their last meals in the past few months. So did the Cactus Club and Primadonna.

It seems the little guys have a hard time competing against the chains, with their meaty marketing budgets and professionally designed decor. It's either starve or evolve.

Gordon Davis, for example, chose the latter. After years of running Le Bordeaux on S Howard Avenue he shredded the menu and revamped the concept last year to create St. Bart's Island House.

The calorie-conscious had grown tired of heavy French sauces and dessert, he said. They wanted more fish, less fat -- and for a fraction of the cost.

Davis admits keeping up is a "daunting challenge." Especially here in the birthplace of mega-chain Outback, which can afford to try new concepts, even if they wind up on the back burner.

Remember Zazarac?

The spread of chains presents pros and cons for Tampa's diners.

For one, it forces every restaurant to refine its recipes, sharpen its service and keep prices competitive. It should be obvious: No one wants to pay too much for a dull dish and a slow waiter.

On the flip side, too many chains water down the city's dining scene. What makes Tampa more distinctive? A dessert from Bern's or one from Cheesecake Factory?

Independents can learn from the big guys because the reality is that a lot of people, myself included, like the chains. The food is consistently tasty and the atmosphere inviting.

Take last Saturday's Best of Tampa Bay food fest at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. What stood out as favorites? Fleming's bacon-wrapped scallops and Roy's crispy blue crab and pork dumplings.

Both from Outback, served side-by-side in booths along the water, the sunset in the background.

Inside, John Schall, the president of Dish restaurants in Centro Ybor and BayWalk in St. Petersburg, brought curried ahi tuna to promote his new catering company, SideDish. He started it in February as a offshoot of the restaurants.

Dish is doing okay, he says, but has plenty of empty seats. The catering business fills in the gaps, especially during the lunch hour, when Ybor draws a lean crowd.

Schall says new competition has spread the wealth around thinly. Between Ybor, Channelside, International Plaza, SoHo and WestShore Plaza, diners need never go to the same place twice.

And don't forget the cool economy. I'm much more inclined to spend $100 on groceries at Super Wal-Mart than on dinner for two at my favorite restaurant.

Value turns me on.

Enter Maggiano's. Meatballs roll out of there by the thousands almost every night. On Fridays and Saturdays, figure an hour wait, possibly two. For pasta?

Their secret just isn't in the sauce. Go there for dinner and you leave with a day's worth of leftovers.

And you know it'll be open next week.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com .

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