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Celebrities can eat; the rest can forget it

Top restaurants are booked solid unless your face gets you in anywhere.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


TAMPA -- Let's suppose, for a moment, that you're Someone. Not just any Someone. Someone with a Face. Someone with juice.

Say you're Madonna. Or Alan Greenspan.

Say it's the eve of Super Bowl and you blow through the door of one of Tampa's best-known restaurants. It's jammed to the hilt. Tables were snapped up weeks ago.

But you want to eat. Without a reservation.

Now.

What is the maitre d' likely to say?

You got it, baby!

A-List celebrities are the only people who have a shot at getting tables on command at the city's top flight restaurants in the days leading up to Super Bowl, say various restaurant managers who are suddenly being lobbied in a way only Secretary of State Katherine Harris could understand.

"If someone famous comes in, we're going to try to accommodate them so they don't have to wait 90 minutes," said Scott Estes, founding partner of the new restaurant Lee Roy Selmon's.

But if you're Joe Football, you're as likely to be seated that night at, say, Bern's as you are to discover a Super Bowl ticket in the lint filter of your dryer.

"If you ain't George Bush, you ain't getting in," said Malio Iavarone of Malio's Steak House on S Dale Mabry Highway, who during past Tampa Super Bowls has refused even to come to the phone to hear out desperate, last-minute reservation seekers.

Even the NFL is playing it safe, given the upcoming restaurant jams. As early as last summer, it began arranging reservations at a handful of places so out-of-town CEOs and football team managers wouldn't be stranded at Denny's. Nor will they have to run the risk of going unrecognized in the restaurant lobby, or worse, getting the "So What?" treatment from an unknowing hostess.

"We've got a couple of tables at a couple of restaurants," said Michael Kelly, executive director of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Task Force, the local liaison for the NFL.

For the most part, restaurants aren't changing their menus, just extending their hours to serve lunch earlier and dinner later. Since Super Bowl Sunday traditionally tends to be a bust for restaurants, many are closing early or shutting down completely, like Fleming's and Roy's.

They're also stocking up on beef. Super Bowl-goers aren't exactly a vegetarian crowd.

"We'll have whole live Maine lobsters, 28-ounce ribeye steaks and 16-ounce fillets, just for the Super Bowl," said Greg Lynn, operating partner of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.

Plenty of out-of-state corporations were ready to shell out big bucks to tie up large sections of certain restaurants on key nights, Thursday through Saturday. That didn't go over too well among most restaurant managers. Regulars don't like being shut out of their favorite haunts. And they remember.

"We had some major companies that wanted to book the whole restaurant," said Paul Rainey, manager of Bern's Steak House, arguably Tampa's most famous restaurant. "I said, no, that's not our style. Our local clientele that supports me all year-round, I'm not going to do that to them."

Bern's will not seat parties larger than 12 on Friday and Saturday nights of Super Bowl week, Rainey said.

Those kinds of constraints put the squeeze on people who aren't used to being squeezed. Take, for instance, Norwood Smith, vice president of sales for the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. On Super Bowl weekend, Smith will wine and dine 10 top clients whose conventions, if held here, each would be worth $250,000 in revenues for the city, he said.

Super Bowl tickets for all 10 visitors and their guests? No problem.

But dinner reservations? Now, that took some wrangling. Smith started calling Bern's two months ago when it first began accepting reservations for the big weekend. He wanted his group of two dozen to dine at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. At first, Smith was told that the best Bern's could do was to split the reservations over Thursday and Friday nights.

But he was finally able to finagle one big reservation Thursday night. At 9:30 p.m.

"We're eating late so an off-peak hour is fashionable," Smith laughed.

Actually, what's really fashionable is a star-studded dining room. It's what generates buzz. And buzz, as everyone knows, triples a reservations list faster than you can say Denzel Washington.

"We love when celebrities visit," Todd Herbst, an owner of Big City Tavern in Ybor City said with a chuckle, "but we're not going to ask people to leave their tables to seat them."

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