My home state of Florida has been getting a lot of media attention—yet again—for all the wrong reasons. No, a man has not decided to marry his pet alligator, and as far as I know, there has been no recent mention of bath salts and cannibalism. But COVID-19 cases are on a startling rise.
After bunkering down in New York City for a few months, I made the decision to fly down to my hometown of Naples to quarantine and re-focus on my deteriorating mental health. And while I was grateful to be with family, in a house, and with access to a pool, I was still met with reservations about going out publicly, due to the blatant disregard for masks.
This made being in the Sunshine State during a pandemic conflicting. While I was disgusted by residents and their dismissiveness of science and medicine, I still wanted to support the many small businesses that rely heavily on tourism dollars. As a happy medium, I looked beyond Naples to explore a nearby city that instituted mandatory mask enforcement policies: Tampa Bay.
Unfortunately, based on recent numbers, it looks like Tampa (and all of Florida, frankly) needs to do a better job of curbing the virus, but there are establishments that tout strict social distancing policies and are still open to customers. I would never recommend a place where I felt unsafe or worried, nor would Tampa’s tourism board, which graciously hosted me with open arms…six feet away, of course.
Domestic travel is an extremely personal choice, but one that needs to be done safely and in line with local mandates. Whether you live in Florida or want to bookmark this article for the future, be sure to support these fantastic spots that anchor Tampa’s flourishing dining, hospitality, and entertainment industries.
As a food and wine connoisseur, I was very into this hotel. The entire space is curated to entice those with eating and imbibing on the brain, boasting vino upon arrival, on-site restaurants, a rooftop bar, a pool, a spa (with food-focused treatments!), and even an arena-style cooking space for demos, classes, and private events (closed temporarily). The decor is modern and sleek with pops of orange, aqua, and lime green, lending itself nicely to Tampa’s hip Florida vibe. The masked and socially-distanced staff is friendly, casual, and continuously asking how they can make your experience more pleasant. While the term “hidden gem” is undoubtedly cliché, it applies to this modern building that sits unassuming off Tampa’s famous Bayshore Boulevard. This is an ideal area for anyone hoping to avoid the hustle, bustle, and relentless construction that is happening Downtown.
Highlight: Brunch at Elevage. The kitchen’s flax and sunflower seed, oatmeal marathon pancakes were soft and pillowy with a huckleberry compote that really brought me back to summer in Montana. These are worth getting out of bed (which, I might add, was extremely comfortable) for. Also, the restaurant is upholding the same social distancing measures as the hotel. Tables are spaced apart and all menus can be accessed digitally.
There are times when I feel like Florida’s dining scene has lost its luster, until restaurants like Rooster & the Till prove me wrong. This was, perhaps, the most playful menu I’ve experienced all summer, with standouts like fried cobia collar (prepared and eaten like a chicken wing) and birria lamb neck quesadillas served with avocado yogurt. The space is also minimalistic, filled with a giant wrap-around bar that offers direct views into the open kitchen. It is here where you’ll see a passionate cooking staff putting precision and enthusiasm into each dish as it’s sent out with (gloved) hands. The Tampa Bay Times has not missed the mark by crowning this chef Ferrell Alvaraz landmark with the Best Restaurant honor two years in a row. Rooster + Till is safely operating at limited capacity, so it is recommended that you make a reservation in advance.
Highlight: The Parisian-style gnocchi with short ribs, ricotta, and pickled peperonata. This delightfully rustic blend of different textures and flavors has been on the menu since opening in 2013 and once you taste it you’ll see why. It was our favorite dish from the entire trip.
It’s no shocker why the open and airy Oxford Exchange frequents the lists of Tampa’s most beautiful spaces. Feasting in the European-inspired dining room or sunlit conservatory feels more like a museum instead of a restaurant, and this sophistication and careful attention to detail is reflected in the food. None of the menu items will feel unfamiliar, but the taste is elevated by using only the freshest and most seasonal ingredients in the area. As a digestif, be sure to stop by the adjoining bookstore and shop for some local goods that range from stationery and candles to pickled vegetables and condiments.
Highlight: I really savored my omelette with bacon, spinach, roasted tomato, and goat cheese, but its accompanying rye bread with homemade raspberry jam was the star. Also, you can’t beat the sunny and spacious atmosphere, which lends itself nicely to social distancing.
This Tampa Riverwalk gem boasts a beautifully converted warehouse space with oversized windows, a plethora of eye-catching artwork, and incomparable river views. And the food isn’t too bad either, offering Florida favorites like oysters, lobster rolls, octopus, scallops, calamari, fish, and—you guessed it—alligator. Of all restaurants in the area, I felt most safe with their social distancing measures, with tables at least 15 feet apart. It’s also adjacent to Armature Works, a trendy and busy public market with dozens of food and beverage outlets aimed to satisfy any craving. Unfortunately, you won’t be leaving Ulele hungry, but it makes for some great light cardio.
Highlight: Airy and citrusy okra fries. So simple, yet so addictive. Also, be sure to order the off-menu dessert special of candied maple bacon ice cream with a corn flake crust. I find myself thinking about it when I’m at the gym and wanting to reward myself later.
If you can’t nab a reservation at Bern’s, Tampa’s most famous steakhouse, Steelbach is an excellent alternative. The industrial vibe with high ceilings, hipster-esque staff attire, and exposed brick make it a chic spot for any Tampanian craving meat, craft cocktails, and good company. It’s also a perfect spot for large groups (not advisable during these times) with oversized and private leather booths.
Highlight: The short rib mezze app with pickled veggies and naan. I love a DIY situation, especially if it includes an explosion of Indian, Indonesian, and Szechuan-inspired flavors with tender meat as the foundation. In fact, I enjoyed it more than my actual steak!
Other Tampa Activities
My sister and I were hesitant to visit a theme park during our stay, but we were surprised to find that Busch Gardens is actually where we felt the most safe. It could be because we were outside and the park was not crowded in the slightest, but the cheery staff really went above and beyond to ensure guest safety with mandatory mask enforcement, social distancing in lines, and shockingly frequent sanitization of rides (which they would run without guests to air-dry—a comical, though sometimes jarring sight in this “new” world). The rides themselves were also socially distanced with empty rows and full hand sanitizer canisters available at every exit. It was a fun escape for a few hours, if only to realize that roller coasters are probably the only things capable of temporarily taking our minds off the anxiety of everyday life. Well, roller coasters and alcohol, of course.
Personalization and customization are so my vibe, and The Candle Pour offers an interactive (and socially distanced) experience for those who appreciate the simple joys of a soy-wax candle. The combinations are also endless (and somewhat daunting!) with more than 100 different fragrance oils to choose from, making this an ideal date spot as you unknowingly reveal more about yourself with every decision. And if this date goes awry, you’ll at least leave with a nice-smelling keepsake.