1. What’s the one place to go, or thing to do, that a conventioneer visiting Tampa can’t miss before they depart the city?
7th Avenue in Ybor City is a must. During the day, visitors occasionally can still see cigars being hand-rolled and munch a Cuban sandwich, while at night Ybor is the city’s nightlife district, drawing 40,000 visitors on weekends to dine at sidewalk cafes and drink and dance at nightclubs. Whether you explore during the day or at night, park your car in one of the many parking lots or garages (metered parking is strictly enforced 24 hours), and walk around or take the Ybor City trolley. You can still see a few little cigar shops and Latin social clubs mixed in with tattoo parlors and restaurants along La Septima (7th Ave., from 13th to 23rd Sts.). Walk by La Union Marti-Maceo tile mural (226 Seventh Ave.), pick up a copy of La Gaceta (the neighborhood’s Spanish-language weekly for nearly 80 years), and walk by the restored former cigar workers’ casitas on your way to buy a cigar at Metropolitan Cigars (2014 East 7th Ave., 813/248-3304), a 1,700-square-foot walk-in humidor, or to get a Cubano sandwich.
2. What is the local food specialty and where’s the best place to eat it?
In Tampa, the Cuban is the king of sandwiches, or should we say the earl of sandwiches. It starts with the bread. Eat anywhere in Ybor City and you’ve probably eaten Cuban bread. But why not go to the source? Rumor has it La Segunda Central Bakery (2512 N 15th St., 813/248-1531) churns out 6,000 Cuban loaves daily. The loaves themselves are about 36 inches long, with a zipper-like seam down the top. The third-generation owners of La Segunda have reason to be proud of their thin, flaky crust and their soft, pillowy interior. But where it gets interesting is when one is piled high with roast pork and Genoa salami (a strictly Tampa twist), Swiss cheese (some say Emanthaler), sour pickles, and spicy mustard—the whole thing warmed and flattened in a special hot-press. Outside crisp, inside warm and a little gooey. It’s perfection. Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia restaurants has spent years trying to recreate the great Cuban sandwich his great-grandfather and grandfather produced back in the heyday of Ybor City. He’s importing salami from Italy. He’s bought an outlandishly expensive steam convection oven to roast pork without a loss of moisture. He’s worried about not tasting enough caramelization on the glazed ham. The fruits of his labor have just gone on the menu and, as he says, “Heads will roll if I cannot produce the best Cuban in the world!” Those in the know have also directed my attentions to Brocato’s Sandwich Shop. Crowded at lunch, it indeed offers an excellent Cuban, generous on the meats, pressed aggressively. Columbia Restaurant, 2117 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City, other locations also; 813/248-4961. Brocato’s Sandwich Shop, 5021 E Columbus Drive, Tampa; 813/248-9977.
3. What’s the best bar for a late night drink?
It’s dark, it’s smoky, it’s cash only, and the drinks will grow hair on your chest. And those are all The Hub’s (719 N. Franklin St., Tampa, 813/229-1553) good qualities. A beloved dive bar where no one exactly remembers why they started coming, the drink of choice is the kamikaze, but frankly they aren’t particularly good until you’ve had your third. Under certain circumstances the jukebox is a masterful work of diabolical genius. It reads like a blue-collar bar, but many of the regular constituents are circuit court judges, lawyers, etc. lingering downtown for a grungy good time. For many Tampans, ending an evening here is a tradition.
4. Where’s the best place to go for a morning run or walk?
Bayshore Boulevard may or may not be the world’s longest continuous sidewalk, but it borders Tampa Bay for nearly five miles without a break in the gorgeousness. Joggers, walkers, skaters, and bikers dot its length, which goes from downtown through Hyde Park. Home to the fanciest homes in Tampa, the boulevard was named one of AAA’s “Top Roads” for its panoramic views. Even if you don’t feel like walking it, it’s Tampa’s most signature drive. Also, Tampa Preservation has an excellent driving tour of Hyde Park and a walking tour of part of the neighborhood geared for younger readers; for copies call 813/248-5437.
5. For someone who wants to mix political action with shopping therapy, what unique/quirky/artisan/good value shop(s) do you recommend?
Tampa’s downtown doesn’t really have a retail center. For that, you need to visit Hyde Park. It’s not vast, but the outdoor shopping area along Hyde Park’s West Swann Avenue, South Dakota Avenue, and Snow Avenue is the most appealing shopping destination in town, especially when the weather’s nice. There’s a large covered parking lot, free to shoppers, and a lovely landscaped plaza at the center. There are big chain stores (Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma Brooks Brothers, Anthropologie, etc.), but a number of independent boutiques, from lingerie to petwear, crowd the plaza. In the summer, Hyde Park Village (813/251-3500, store hours vary) hosts a free evening movie series, the classic films projected outside on a huge screen. The rest of the year, take in an indie or mainstream flick at CineBistro.