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SoHot Style in South Tampa

Sunday, January 22, 2006

When in Tampa, by-the-book tourists stick close to Ybor City for mainstream nightlife muddled with more than a dash of debauchery. Cuban culture still exists in limited pockets, and no place parties harder during such annual festivals as Gasparilla and Guavaween. But there's a certain frat-house stench to the air in Ybor, and most of what you'll see on a casual stroll revolves around souvenir shops and tattoo and pizza parlors.

For a more refined experience, follow stylish locals to the leafy neighborhoods of South Tampa, a residential section of the city where cafes and boutiques prevail over cigar-themed attractions.

South Tampa's neighborhoods are fringed by Bayshore Boulevard, just south of the city's skyline. Along a promenade that winds for miles, enormous homes command waterfront real estate and joggers, bikers and Sunday strollers soak up the year-round sunshine.

Most of the area's hippest bars, restaurants and shops can be found along the palm-lined streets stretching back from the water in the neighborhoods of SoHo (named for its location on South Howard Avenue), Hyde Park and Palma Ceia.

Dining out is a veritable pastime in South Tampa, and the area's ethnic restaurants offer some of the sultriest surrounds. That said, you can't talk Tampa dining without mentioning Bern's Steak House (1208 S. Howard Ave., 813-251-2421). In business since 1956, Bern's is a Tampa institution and the city's most lauded restaurant. The off-white building vaguely resembles a funeral home, but a surprising Rococo-esque decor dominates within. Still, the food is the star with stellar steaks (including 17-ounce Chateaubriand for two, $64.50) and seasonal side dishes prepared with items from the restaurant's organic farm. The wine cellar -- stocked with more than 6,500 global labels -- is the stuff of sommelier fantasies.

Bern's executive chef, Jeannie Pierola, also has a spoon in the pot down the street at a sister restaurant, cheekily coined SideBern's (2208 W. Morrison Ave., 813-258-2233). SoHo hipsters flock here for innovative fusion fare in stylish surrounds. Baby blue and sage accents play off the blond-wood bar and suede wall panels. The menu changes regularly, with seafood and game figuring prominently. Hog snapper gets the tropical treatment with a coconut ginger lump crab topping and a side of tempura plantains ($33). Don't miss the seasonal stone crabs, served with soy mustard sauce and tempura asparagus ($35 for three-quarter pounds).

Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant (2109 Bayshore Blvd., 813-250-0134), tucked into a tiny space on the ground floor of a stately SoHo apartment building, sets a sexy tone with candles flickering atop Moroccan mosaic tabletops and the tapas du jour scribbled on chalkboards. House favorites are the serrano jamon (air-dried ham from the mountains of Spain, $9) and the vieras rellenas ($9), succulent grilled sea scallops served in their shells and topped with leeks and Manchego cheese. The beverage list boasts the best in Riojas, sangria, port and sherry, but pinkies-out regulars swear by the Dirty Bird Martini ($8), made with vanilla vodka, coffee liqueur and a shot of fresh espresso.

Byblos Cafe (2832 S. MacDill Ave., 813-805-7977), a Lebanese standout in Palma Ceia, has a similarly romantic ambiance with wrought-iron candelabras, inlaid wood tables and votives everywhere. The Byblos Mezah sampler for two ($21.95) offers a generous spread of hummus, baba ghanoush, labneh, falafel, grape leaves and more. Anything made with lamb, marinated for 24 hours in a house recipe, is a sure bet.

Head to Restaurant BT (1633 W. Snow Ave., 813-258-1916) at upscale shopping plaza Old Hyde Park Village for exquisite French-Vietnamese fare. Woven bamboo peasant hats from Vietnam double as lampshades and a spread of black-and-white photographs behind the bar tributes loyal customers and employees. The menu is as subtle and elegant as the decor. Start with an appetizer of bo tai chanh ($9.95), thin slices of rare filet mignon tossed with fresh lime juice, chili and ginger and topped with crushed peanuts and roasted shallots. Entrees include baked sea bass ($24.95) with haricots verts and lemongrass infused rice, and the cognac-seared shaken beef ($22.95).

Much of the area's best nightlife can be found in nosh spots, too. With the exception of Bern's Steak House, all of the above restaurants boast lively bar scenes, particularly on weekend nights (regulars even call ahead to reserve bar stools at SideBern's).

Other spots worth checking out include Hyde Park Cafe (1806 W. Platt St., 813-254-2233), known for Tuesday-night garden parties with DJs spinning everything from old-school hip-hop to '80s funk. The outdoor patio is lined with tropical plants, and terra-cotta tile floors pair with lush red curtains to create a South Beach-style indoor-outdoor experience.

Across the street at The Rack (1809 W. Platt St., 813-250-1595), eight pay-by-the-hour mahogany pool tables share the limelight with the raw stuff (served till 2 a.m. on weekends and 1 a.m. weeknights) at this pool hall/sushi bar hybrid. Try the volcano roll ($11.95), a California roll with cream cheese, wrapped in avocado and topped with five different types of fish.

Whiskey Park SoHo (720 S. Howard Ave., 813-259-9669) is South Tampa's main meet market, and if it's a party you're after, you'll find it here nearly every night of the week. Surgically enhanced sorts of all ages (silicon and Botox are practically de rigueur among this crowd) come out in force, and people-watching is a highlight. A rustic wood bar dominates the front patio and lush greenery obscures would-be parking lot views. Tables topped with candles and red tablecloths make for a romantic vibe at night. Inside, shake your thing on the packed dance floor or chill in an intimate elevated room with velvety tables to set your martini on.

For something more low-key, head to St. Bart's Island House (1502 S. Howard Ave., 813-251-0367), a Caribbean/French Indies restaurant that attracts a mellow bar crowd on Thursdays for live reggae music and $3 specials on Red Stripe beers and spiced rum drinks. Brick walls painted red and turquoise are hung with tropical paintings, and colorful striped couches centered on wood tables make for comfy lounging.

The South Tampa crowd isn't one that likes to blend in with the mall masses, so shopping at the area's independent boutiques is the retail trend.

Fashion-forward females love Deborah Kent's (2120 S. Dale Mabry Hwy.), a boutique that's been around for roughly 25 years but always stays au courant. In addition to international couture, look for vintage silk and crewel-embroidered handbags with 1930s Bakelite handles designed by owner Barbara Kent ($250-$300). Local designer Judy Tampa's designs can be found here, too -- her "Frida" skirt, a boho-chic garment tiered with gray, blue, brown and green silk swatches, sells for $231.

More affordable fashions and retro home furnishings can be found at Squaresville (508 S. Howard Ave.). Owner Craig Greabell hits flea markets and estate sales to add to his cache of mullet wigs, fantastic plastic go-go boots ($39.99) and vintage Bucco Bruce mascot collectibles for old-school fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Get your bling on at DKM Accessories (3102 W. Palmira Ave.), a 1920s-style bungalow that is chockablock with glittery costume jewelry and unusual handbags, including one line of purses created from interwoven seatbelts (Harveys Seatbeltbag, from $70).

-- Terry Ward

For more information, visit SoHoTampa.com (http://www.sohotampa.com)or contact the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce (813-637-0156,http://www.southtampachamber.org) and the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau (813-223-1111,http://www.visittampabay.com).

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