By Janet K. Keeler
The word “sexy” comes to mind while bellied up to the bar at Fine & Dandy Cocktail Emporium. Maybe it’s the tasty rum cocktail called Rene’s Lament that’s fueling swanky thoughts, but the Heights Public Market at Armature Works in Tampa is beyond hip and cool. It’s sexy – the people, the vibe, the food and for sure the drink.
One of the coolest blocks in all of Tampa these days is a building that pretty much takes up a full city block. Under one roof are 15 food and drink purveyors with more planned for the 22,000-square-foot space. (The entire facility is about 75,000 square feet.)
Hungry BFFs and date-nighters take their pick from overflowing bowls with accents of all sorts, among them Cuban, Asian and health food. Cradling their noshes, they then birddog a place to sit inside at high or low communal tables, in the courtyard under a brilliant sun or out front in Adirondack chairs from which they can watch the action on the Hillsborough River. At night, the glittering lights of downtown Tampa provide another view.
The bowl-food kicks also come from containers of ice cream topped with potato chips crumbles, toasted coconut or marshmallow charms. There’s wine, too, plus wood-fired pizzas, sushi, burgers and sandwiches with the requisite fried egg on top, and ramen. Forget the avocado toast; ramen is what’s fueling the millennial generation, and those that came before are benefitting.
The food hall and event space opened in early 2018 and has seen a steady flow of visitors every day, up to 10,000 on the weekends, who come to eat and drink, work on their laptops and tablets, stroll the kiddos through the throngs and people-watch. Or maybe they’re looking to be seen. As you wander through, you’ll notice lots of people seem to already know each other. For visitors, a good sign of a good place is that the locals like it, too.
A perch at Fine & Dandy is just one of many spots to stalk the scene. The mixologists here, bedecked in skinny jeans and industrial aprons that look like they could be welding between pours, are entertaining and super friendly. A blond 20-something rocking a ‘50s pin-up girl vibe orders a Hard Candy cocktail. The guy near her is quaffing a Coppertail craft brew. And then there’s the dapper dude in the slim-fit sports coat in a color that Crayola would label cadet blue. He is scrolling his smartphone, oblivious to the world while awaiting his cocktail. On the sound system are Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and other 1970s musical giants. Dapper dude and pin-up girl mouth the words, proving that cool spans the generations in this historic building.
The Heights Public Market at Armature Works, part of a nationwide trend collecting a variety of food and drink sellers in one place, is in a formerly neglected industrial neighborhood that’s roared back to life. Historic buildings have been repurposed and a pedestrian and bike path called Tampa Riverwalk runs nearly three miles along the water. Pick up a bike share at the Armature Works and explore the area on your own.
The Armature Works was built in 1910 and was the city’s maintenance and trolley barn until the 1940s when cars pushed out the streetcars. In 2002, the streetcars came back to Tampa with a much smaller line. The trolleys run mostly from historic Ybor City to downtown with an extension to Tampa Heights in the discussion phases. That would mean multiple cool blocks would be connected by old school transportation. Imagine enjoying a hand-rolled cigar and a Cuba Libre in historic Ybor in the afternoon, jumping on the trolley to make it to a Lightning hockey game in the Channelside district and then finishing the evening with a few Cheeseburger in Paradise empanadas at Empamamas at Armature Works and still have time to catch the last trolley back to your car. Or maybe get an Uber to wherever you need to go next. An urban explorer can dream, right?
Near the Armature Works there’s more evidence of the area’s revitalization. Ulele restaurant, the brainchild of Richard Gonzmart of the iconic Columbia Restaurant family, opened in 2014 in the 1906 brick Water Works building.
A few blocks from Armature is the Hall on Franklin, another, smaller, food hall that has set up shop in a 1920s building that formerly housed an auto company. In between the two food hubs is Inkwood Books, a favorite independent bookseller that hosts regular author talks and book signings. Hidden Springs Ale Works is a quick walk, too. For just six bucks, a pint of Grapefruit Crush, a fruity American wheat, or the more curiously named Tiramoosu, can be yours. The latter is a milk stout with smoked chipotle peppers and cocoa nibs. That’s one way to get your caffeine fix.
But we’re headed back to the Armature Works to spend a long afternoon. If Fine & Dandy gets too crowded inside, they have an outdoor stall to serve the overflow. Grab a drink on a fine Florida day and play a game of chess or checkers on a walkable playing board. This is the area where the bands set up and also where the kids can run off a little steam.
We opted to be indoors where the air conditioning comfortingly pumps through the building. Don’t limit your gawking to people. Take a good look at what the designers have done to persevere the building’s historic features, melding them seamlessly with updated features. The skylights high above are original and the exposed brick walls plus some original paint maintain the authenticity. In the restoration process, several fireplaces were uncovered and they have been resorted. It’s difficult to tell where old ends and new begins. The massive, exposed air conditioning units high above are an obvious addition. In true, new millennium architectural style, the building is a celebration of hard surfaces and industrial touches that means it’s loud. That just adds to the party atmosphere.
Armature Works is a work in progress with plans for a rooftop bar and co-working spaces, plus more event spaces. Right now, there is slick kitchen where classes are being held, and other events, like Yoga on the Lawn, draw and entertain visitors. Vendors for the Tampa Indie Flea set up their stalls on the third Sunday every month. Shoppers can peruse jewelry, vinyl records, small-batch canned foods, beauty products that claim to do as much for you as the environment and T-shirts with pithy messages.
Oh, but you can see clever T’s anytime here. A cool, young mama struts in a bubblegum-hue T-shirt that reminds the world, “On Wednesdays, we wear pink.” That’s a line from “Mean Girls,” who might quibble that the shirt was spied on a Sunday. The cool, young mama didn’t look like she much cared. She walked through the Heights Public Market like most people, on a mission for food, drink and maybe even a dose of sexy.
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