Hyde Park Village we knew is vanishing

Published May 21, 2007

On the day before the restaurant closed, even the uber-cool waitstaff in their requisite black T-shirts looked sad.

For 17 years, people came here before movies, after shopping. I spent some serious time myself on the hard wrought-iron chairs at the Wine Exchange Bistro (though nobody ever said "Bistro) in Tampa's Hyde Park Village.

Just married and renting a tiny apartment around the corner, we would walk over for dinner for a splurge of a night out.

This is where I learned of my new husband's dislike of garlic - a shock, though not a deal-breaker - and also that I actually like white wine.

As a reporter covering cops and courts, I more than once left a plate of pasta behind to answer a night editor's questions. ("The guy definitely used a machete, " I remember saying into the phone.)

A friend and I sat out on the patio one night discussing her black-hearted ex-boyfriend, who just then walked in with a date on his arm. We laughed so hard we had to leave through the outside gate.

This South Tampa mainstay of a restaurant was supposed to move to another space with expanded seating in Hyde Park Village, but somehow things didn't work out.

So what's the big deal - restaurants come and go all the time, right?

But businesses have come and gone to the point of nearly decimating Hyde Park Village.

Movie theaters that once drew crowds - first for main-run films, later more arty ones - shut down. Gone is the Jacobson's department store, the Cactus Club restaurant, the specialty shops that sold expensive leather or stationery or stuffed animals or yuppie fishing shirts. Plans for a grocery store fell through.

New movie theaters popped up around town, as did high-end International Plaza, where most days it's as busy as Christmas Eve just before closing.

Oh, Hyde Park still has its players - Brooks Brothers, Williams-Sonoma, a busy gym- but you get the distinct sense of something fading away.

Ironically, this place is exactly what we should want for Florida: an attractive town center of shops and services that fits nicely in the neighborhood around it.

Shouldn't our shopping centers be open-air and accessible rather than sealed-up in air-conditioned mall-boxes? Shouldn't shopping be a stroll or a bike ride away, dog-friendly even, instead of a mandatory $3-a-gallon car trip?

David Wasserman, Hyde Park's Village's newest owner, said last year he could see "good bone structure" in the place and talked of a $100-million overhaul. That hinged on building two condo towers.

Earlier this month, the board that reviews historic neighborhoods voted against the plan. Neighbors worried about density, about how those condos could change the character of the place, and who could blame them? The Tampa City Council has the final say.

On the last day I ate there, the friend who was with me talked about how she had the most hideous blind date of her life in this place, and later a date with the man to whom she is now happily married.

So another favorite place is history, and the fate of Hyde Park Village - a place that should work for us - remains to be seen.