Photo: Scott Keeler\Tampa Bay Times
Florida restaurant openings during the COVID-19 pandemic
Some restaurateurs have decided the time is right to open a restaurant.
To open a business and invite the public in by the hundreds in the middle of a pandemic and a recession, you have to be brave or crazy.
Or a restaurateur — which may amount to the same thing.
Amid the spread of COVID-19, fears and regulations and shortages of staff, meat and sanitizer drove many restaurateurs to despair and hobbled Florida’s restaurants.
But not all. A few veteran chefs and restaurant pros punched through the gloom to launch new restaurants or reopen doors of those closed in their infancy by state order in March.
Some have other restaurants or are pushing long-planned, big-money projects, deciding to redouble safety precautions and forge ahead rather than curse the virus.
“We must look forward to the future and not be crushed by current circumstances,” says JoAnne McMahon, who just opened the sparkling BoVine in Winter Park’s storied Park Plaza Gardens.
She had admired the property for years and planned to open in March. But finally this summer, she served Park Avenue fine cabernets, lobster creamed corn, double bone pork chops, prime porterhouse and a $68 ribeye, aged for 60 days.
Most upstarts and restarts from north to south say post-shutdown diners are hungry for a taste of normalcy and a substantial fare of steaks, seafood, comfort food and a whiff of grandma’s Italian cooking. Yet, surprisingly, chefs and customers are not afraid of $20 burgers or $35 entrees.
Prati Italia, Jacksonville: Virus fears haven’t slowed down Jacksonville’s top chefs. Tom Gray of Bistro Aix revamped and rethought his second restaurant, Moxie’s Kitchen & Cocktails, late last year. He reopened it as Prati Italia in February only to close in March. It came back three months later with a full menu of pasta, gnocchi, bacon-and-egg pizza and rainbow carrots in olive tapenade.
The Pier, St. Petersburg: The dramatically angular new Pier on St. Petersburg’s waterfront opened in July after years of debate and $92 million of construction. Imagined long before the virus, it was a slow but unstoppable investment in new entertainment and restaurants.
One is a branch of Sanibelbased Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, and three will be siblings to Birch & Vine on St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive downtown. Its star chef, Lee Aquino, runs the upscale Teak, the breezy, rum-soaked Pier Teaki, and the laid-back Driftwood Cafe.
Datz, Riverview: Tampa’s Roger and Suzanne Perry were ready to go with their third Datz gastro deli in March. The wait staff was hired, the signature orange paint on a large space in Riverview. But the exurbanites had to wait until June for Datz’s gourmandish mashups of cheeseburger ravioli, short-ribs benedict and ooey gooey monkey bread. Within weeks, it became the busiest in the group.
Water Pig BBQ, Pensacola Beach: Jelly’s Beach BBQ has been retooled as Water Pig BBQ with a big smoker to crank out barbecue pork, smoked mullet and updated southern trims such as watermelon feta salad.
Midtown Table, Jacksonville: Sibling chefs Matthew and David Medure had just gotten started with their newest venture, Midtown Table, when they were forced to shut down. They reopened in late May with Neapolitan and Sicilian pizzas, pasta made in house, hefty sandwiches and rosemary parm fries.
Grappino, Naples: Fabrizio and Ingrid Aielli had opened their latest concept Grappino for only a few weeks early this year. Now it’s reopened with red and white Roman pizzas, all manner of pastas, Italian wines and 100 grappas, house infused and imported. Some have aged 30 years and are sold by the ounce up to $100.
Redfish by Chef Adrianne, Coral Gables: In South Florida, a few restaurant dreamers persisted through the worst of the virus and government restrictions.
The beachfront Red Fish Grill on Mattheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables, devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017, has revived as Redfish by Chef Adrianne (Calvo). The new, bold, open-air space has endless casual seafood, plus Calvo’s Maximum Flavors, like bread pudding made from croissants with dark chocolate and Nutella.
Taru, Delray Beach: The biggest opening this summer was the Taru, a seafood restaurant inside the lushly tropical, 100-year-old Sundy House. The restaurant is named for the property’s gardens. Long famous for brunches, the Sundy House has a new menu, a fusion of seafood and comfort spiced with humor. Roast chicken, bouillabaisse and popcorn shrimp for sure, but also cauliflower and waffles, turkey and stuffing croquettes or sugarcane shrimp with caramelized fish sauce.
Tables are now 10 feet apart (and still seat 250), and the splendid $75 buffet is brought to each table. Just ask the server for more crab legs or roast beef.
James Strine and crew are glad to be back in action: “It’s what we do, make people happy with food.”
Almond, West Palm Beach: Also plowing forward is Almond, a branch of a beloved spot in New York’s Hamptons, which had only weeks before been shuttered. “It’s been a funky ride,” says owner Jason Weiner, who had to give away food and keep his new crew together. He’s back open thanks to a large patio and menu that is friendly and “anti-attitude,” from seven kinds of fries to ricotta cavatelli and veal Milanese.
Read more in Florida Trend's September issue.
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