Perched smack in the middle of the slowest part of the year and on the cusp of the frenetic days of the Republican National Convention, Dine Tampa Bay's Restaurant Week is perfectly timed for restaurant owner Jason Fernandez.
The two-week week (don't ask, just eat) starts today and ends Aug. 17 as a showcase for local restaurants to give customers a broad taste of the food they do best on a more-affordable level.
More than 125 restaurant locations are participating in Dine Tampa Bay this year, up from roughly 60 spots in 2011.
They include well-established brands such as Bonefish Grill, Carrabba's, Outback and Little Greek, all of which have multiple restaurants featuring prix fixe menus of $25, $35 and $45.
For small, independent, recently opened eateries such as Fernandez's Carne Chophouse, the event is a chance to build a customer base.
Carne is a classic steakhouse with a Latin flair, with such menu items as braised lamb shank and pork shoulder pot pie. It opened four months ago at Centro Ybor in the space that used to be the French cabaret bistro L'Olivier.
Opening during the slower summer months is a challenge for any business, much less a brand new restaurant. Restaurant week provides a crucial boost to the bottom line.
"Normally, this is a time when restaurants have to fight to get exposure," said Fernandez, who also owns the Italian restaurant Bernini of Ybor. "It couldn't come at a better time."
For $35, customers can choose among three appetizers (escargot, mini shrimp crab cakes and deviled eggs), three entrees (filet of beef, trout almondine and lamb cassalet and three desserts (rum caramel flan, chocolate cream pie, strawberry shortcake). As with other restaurants, tax, gratuity and beverages are extra.
"We wanted to get so many dishes out there to show customers the diversity of the menu and how beautiful the restaurant is," Fernandez said.
At Wimauma on South MacDill Avenue in Tampa, chef Gary Moran plans a display of the restaurant's use of seasonal ingredients, with such dishes as salt and pepper okra, duck breast with pickled cherries and braised Swiss chard and roasted beet salad with a homemade cottage cheese.
"I love that we make the cottage cheese ourselves," Moran says. "It's such a simple recipe, but it's a great touch. I love beets."
The restaurant opened in December with the goal of becoming a must-eat, neighborhood restaurant.
Moran said that when he worked in New York City, Restaurant Week attracted discount diners who visited only three- or four-star restaurants during that time of the year.
"If they come for restaurant week and they like it, hopefully they'll come back," he said. "My core business is as a neighborhood restaurant. If I'm not that, I'm nothing. I would love for people to come for destinations and holidays and birthdays, but I have to be a neighborhood restaurant first."
At Irish 31 in Tampa's Hyde Park Village, chef Michael Swords hopes to show that his 11-month-old restaurant in the former Wine Exchange space next to Cinebistro has more flavors to offer than the usual Irish pub.
Swords' concept after being hired by owners Bianca and Jay Mize was to create an affordable gastropub.
"We wanted customers to have great food in a place with upscale feel without feeling like they were breaking the bank," he said.
Irish 31 does feature the staples of fish and chips, bangers and mash and Shepherd's pie, but also serves crab cake sliders, fish tacos and turkey with avocado, sprouts, lettuce, tomato and onion on ciabatta bread.
One dish he plans for Restaurant Week will be a Tuscan rib-eye smothered in mushrooms with au gratin potatoes and steamed vegetables.
"It's just good, fresh food," Swords said. "I didn't want to go with straight Irish food, which is a niche market.
"You don't have to be so elaborate so that it takes 48 hours to make something," he said. "Just use salt, pepper, proper heat, use fresh herbs and let the food do the talking."
At AQUA at Westin Tampa Bay on the Courtney Campbell Causeway in Tampa, restaurant week gives chef Matthew Mangone a chance to reintroduce the menu to diners who may not have dined since the restaurant changed owners and names. (It formerly was Aquanox.)
Mangone revamped the menu, balancing the predominant seafood theme with more meat dishes and making it into more of an everyday restaurant.
To drive that point, his restaurant week menu will feature Colorado lamb osso bucco-style with faro pilaf and a Wagyu beef carpaccio that has become a signature appetizer. AQUA also recently won an award of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine for its moderately priced wine list.
"We want to show off our summer signature dishes with something unique," Mangone said.
Other new restaurants set to open in Tampa in coming weeks:
Edison: Food + Drink Lab – Chef Jeannie Pierola plans to open a permanent home on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa on Aug. 7 in the former space of Algusto and Knife & Co. At edison we want to offer really smart, fun and accessible modern cuisine mindfully created with classic cooking's respect for technique and ingredients," Pierola says.
Samba Room – Opening at the former space of Ceviche on South Howard Avenue in Tampa, the Latin-themed menu at the Gordon Davis-owned restaurant will feature Cuban, Brazilian, Peruvian, Argentine and Caribbean flavors.
Carmel Café – Scheduled to open Aug. 14 on Henderson Boulevard in Tampa, the third location in the Mediterranean-themed wine bar and restaurant group will be the first free-standing café in the chain.
The Crystal Dining Room and Sapphire Room – The Floridan Palace Hotel, built in 1927 in downtown Tampa, has sat dormant since 1989. Opening this week, its dining room can accommodate more than 150 customers. The hotel's Sapphire Room bar, once a spot where celebrities sipped cocktails, is expected to open this week as well.