Food & Wine Magazine
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.