The game world's restaurant is surprisingly sophisticated and full of promise.
By CHRIS SHERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001
TAMPA -- Surprises don't come easily in Pop City, or anywhere in the modern game world. Even if you're not a player you know that anything, virtually anything, can be simulated. Muscle a big rig down a video highway, climb a faux rock wall or flail like Ginger Baker on a karaoke drum kit only you can hear. It only costs a coupla quarters.
Even the virtual skateboard at Pop City -- no pads needed to risk a backside on the pipes here -- seems within the technology of the wizards of play.
But here's one thing I never expected -- a real restaurant, one with a creative chef, good service, classy wine lists and get this: fresh vegetables. G. Elliott's, a sleek new restaurant tucked behind Pop City's game rooms, has all of the above.
Sure it has Buffalo chicken, but it also has salads with goat cheese, calamari in crisp pistachio crust, vegetables from snappin' fresh green beans to spaghetti squash, a raw bar and a view of the gritty beauty of a working harbor. Somewhere inside this pinball machine, a restaurant is struggling to get out.
Open two months, G. Elliott's still has kinks -- and bigger problems -- to work out, but its sights and standards are set far higher than one would expect in this situation.
The situation in question being Channelside, the last of the movie-and-a-mall megaplexes to open, if open is the correct word for a megaplex where the attractions in actual operation can be counted on one hand. Upstairs there are the movies, an IMAX and 12 screens of foreign films and art flicks, which is a good start, and downstairs just a swimsuit shop and Pop City.
Pop City is a big operation, a sprawl of game rooms, bar, restaurant and dance club patterned after GameWorks, the chain of high-flash arcades that has landed at Centro Ybor. Whereas GameWorks comes from Hollywood and Spielberg, Pop City is comes from right here and Fred Bullard, the Pinellas developer behind Feather Sound, Durango Steakhouses, BayWalk and Gratzzi. Yet if the movies draw you to Channelside and you find your way through the neon haze of the game room and the clatter of the pool hall, G. Elliott's will catch you by surprise.
It's a dramatic space, with the requisite amoebic curves, abstract lamps and charcoal blues of modern design plus 20-foot ceilings and harborside windows to match and a long gallery of outdoor seats. You don't have to like trendy decor to love the setting.
Still, it calls for caution on two points. Beware that a slice of the dining room is cut off from the view; that didn't bother some game diners, but me, I want my reality broad and watery when I can. Second, the channelside docks are working, too, especially on weekends, as docks for cruise ships so you may be up against a huge hull full of portholes.
There are cautions to the food, too, but they're hard to figure. Pizza I expected to be a staple, moved up in class by a wood-burning oven. Yet the cheese and mushroom pie I tried was dull and dry; it did smell of the hearth but the crust was puffy and not the crusty kind that goes with beer and air hockey. Likewise a pork sandwich, mojo pork with Gouda, sounds like a high-end Cuban but it came out closer to North Carolina pulled pig (but not close enough for this ex-Tar Heel).
Look upstream from game room snacks and the food gets better. You can get a peasant bowl of penne with shrimp, mussels and clams in a rustic tomato sauce or a hefty steak with a sweet crust of a bourbon glaze.
Vegetables promise better than average. There's a wide choice and most start out fresh. Green beans are as crunchy fresh as I've had anywhere, and red beans seem to have cooked for six or seven years, as is appropriate. Some have been livened up but others fail in seasoning. If the green beans were indeed garlicked, vampires have nothing to fear; the "drunken" reds hadn't imbibed anything stronger than black pepper. Still, they've got varied vegetables in the kitchen, even spaghetti squash and basmati rice, and that's ahead of many places.
The real surprise is that G. Elliott's has good salads. I mean good in several ways: the kind with a good mix of bright and peppery greens and house ranch dressing with a bit of chipotle smoke, well-made Caesar salad, and fun entree salads from a Florida Cobb with bacon and grapefruit to crisp fried green tomatoes and goat cheese.
Desserts need sprucing up. Chocolate cake, which can be a great simple pleasure, was twice flawed, cake too dry and icing too syrupy.
Yet the rest of the experience, a small but fairly priced wine list and a thoughtful young staff from hosts and servers to oyster shuckers and bartenders, makes for a far better dining experience than you expect in an arcade at the movies.
G. Elliott's won't always be alone in Channelside, but for now has given us a hint of the enjoyable and even sophisticated dining that could go with our movies. If G. Elliott's and its eventual neighbors keep trying, that could be Channelside's niche.
G. Elliott's at Pop City
615 Channelside Drive, Tampa
(813) 229-2489 Hours: 3 to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 3 to midnight Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday
Reservations: For parties of six or more
Credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V, D
Details: Non-smoking section provided, full bar, good wheelchair access
Prices: $5.99 to $14.99
Special features: Waterfront view, live jazz on Thursday nights; game room and night club open late, outdoor seating, free valet parking