On the site of a failed entertainment district, the new Sparkman Wharf is emerging, and everyone's showing up for the food
On a Sunday afternoon in December, the temperature in Tampa had climbed well above eighty degrees, the sun was out, hot, and in one corner of the city, on the other side of town from where the Bucs were beating the Panthers, you couldn’t even move for the traffic. Then, once you found somewhere to put your car, there were the people to contend with. So many of them, everybody seemed to be down here, in a part of downtown Tampa they call the Channel District, which is where the cruise ships dock, where you will find a handful of the sort of things, beginning with a very popular aquarium, that keep cruise ship passengers, casual tourists and conventioneers occupied. The draw today, however, was the latest and greatest addition to the neighborhood, which wasn’t so much something new, but rather the reinvention of something old, something nobody really cared about, until quite recently.
The story of Sparkman Wharf, the new thing everybody was here to see, begins back at the turn of the century, back when the Channelside Bay Plaza was completed, an entertainment complex that from day one never really met its potential. Today, the complex is essentially shuttered, painted top to bottom in fashionable slate gray, but people are not interested in the building itself, but rather what has happened on the expansive waterfront plaza, right in front of the building, which will eventually be converted into commercial and retail space. All of that comes later, and is less interesting, honestly—right now, the people are here to eat. And they are eating very well, indeed—Tampa, itself no stranger to the food hall concept, has managed yet another such project, perhaps its finest yet, ten venues in total, many helmed by prominent local chefs and restaurateurs, working out of a speedily, cleverly put-together container park. Roof, walls, this is Florida in December, we're on the water, who needs them.
That Sunday, the wharf had been open for only a couple of hours, and already the Boat Run Oyster Co. had sold 1,500 oysters, shipped directly from a farm off of Cedar Key, just a couple of hours to the north. Good Baja California wines were flowing, and duck belly tacos, pork belly pastor tacos, all kinds of tacos, were practically flying out of the window at Gallito, the smart new taqueria from local restaurant power duo Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez (Rooster and the Till, Nebraska Mini-Mart). Next door, at The Corners, Noel Cruz (Ichicoro Ramen, Ichicoro Ane) had shut down his Detroit-style pizza place, just for a little while, allowing staff to catch up to the insane demand for authentic square pies.
Down the other end, past the banh mi joint, near the coffee shop, and the place selling fish and chips, Marty Blitz (Mise en Place) was standing outside in the sunshine next his tapas counter, Montados, slightly exhausted, but satisfied. The crowds were impressive, and everyone who wasn’t up, running around looking for food, or choosing from the dozens of well-curated taps at the onsite beer garden, was hanging in the carefully-programmed outdoor relaxation areas, watching the world go by, listening to good live music on a nearby stage, waving off a Caribbean-bound cruise ship. For a city that often has trouble drawing locals to the downtown area for reasons besides work and court, this seemed like a lot of people. This felt like a big deal.
This is nothing, people was saying. You should have been here yesterday.
If Sparkman Wharf vibes like something of a trial balloon, or a prelude to something much bigger, that's because it is; the project developer, Strategic Property Partners, is in charge of the three billion-dollar Water Street Tampa project, which will eventually take a total of fifty acres in the immediate vicinity, turning them into a mixed-use, live-work neighborhood. This project—by now well underway—has managed to snag some high-profile investors, and is widely seen as a key to bringing Tampa back to its long-neglected center. In short order, you’ll have everything down here from luxury hotels to high-end residential, all in close proximity to pre-existing draws—that aquarium, the Amalie Arena, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the city’s convention center. Anyone on the fence about the whole thing can just come down here on a weekend afternoon, and see for themselves. Tampa is liking this idea, and they are liking it a great deal—a representative for the developer reported 20,000 people tapping into the Wharf's complimentary wireless internet on the first day, alone.
While the immediate neighborhood may be a work in progress, for the time being, there’s lots to explore, nearby, once you've had your fill of tacos, of pizza, and of the decadent chocolate bread at Montados, involving liberal amounts of quality chocolate, good olive oil, and sea salt. Barely a block from Sparkman Wharf, you can sign out a share bike, and hook into Tampa’s Riverwalk, following it along the Hillsborough River for two and a half miles to another very popular new addition to the center of the city, the Heights Public Market at Armature Works. One of the most visually appealing food halls to debut in this part of the country, there’s plenty to eat here, too, and drink, including some of Tampa’s finest coffee, at Union. Also up this way, right along the river, look for Ulele, an ambitious and fascinating restaurant focused on foods native to Florida—what they can do with okra alone makes a stop well worthwhile.