Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe = Good Eats, Funky Atmosphere In Seminole Heights, Tampa

The sprawling metal horse on the lawn outside of Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe may be the first thing to catch your eye.

But then you'll probably notice the colorful bowling balls bordering the restaurant's front lawn.

And, that's just a glimmer of the visual feast that awaits you.

Step inside the restaurant at 5119 N. Nebraska Ave. and you'll see an airy two-story dining room, with tables in the loft overlooking the main dining space and its prominent bar.

Fun and funky folk art pieces deck the walls and fat menus include not only descriptions of Ella's food, but also short bios about the artists whose works help to enliven the place.

Owners Melissa Deming and Ernie Locke opened Ella's a year ago in September.

But much of Ella's menu started in a collection that Locke has been compiling for about 25 years.

Locke, a musician and a cook, says he used to spend a lot of time on the road with his former band, "Tenderloin." Whenever he'd eat a particularly good dish at a restaurant, he'd figure out the ingredients, jot down a recipe and save it.

He estimates about three-quarters of the foods on Ella's menu came from those days on the road.

He also credits the restaurant's top chef, Suzanne Crouch, for her ingenuity. She's the kind of cook who can take a quick look at the contents of a refrigerator and combine seemingly stray items into a banquet, Locke said.

"She is an extremely inventive chef. She has an incredible imagination and an amazing palette for taste and flavor," Locke says.

Menu items at Ella's include soups and salads, gourmet pizza, burgers, fish, pork, beef and chicken dishes, appetizers and desserts. The restaurant also serves beer and wine.

Moving To Tampa

When Locke and Deming moved to Tampa in 2001, they knew they wanted to open their own place, Locke says, noting they met during the 1990s when he was touring with the band and Deming was tending bar.

They moved to here after Deming's parents -- who worked in construction -- moved to Florida. Locke said he and Deming scoped out both Orlando and Tampa, with an eye toward moving into an emerging neighborhood. They decided on Seminole Heights.

Deming's family constructed the building, with Deming working closely with the architect on the design.

Her sense of aesthetics is what makes the place, Locke says.

"She was in control of all of the colors, all of the design, all of the art, all of the applications," Locke says. She has such a good eye that even the acoustical tiles look great.

Besides being a showcase for the couple's folk art collection, the restaurant also is a venue for music. It has live music on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons and plans to add it on Friday nights, beginning in August.

The idea is to have a place where people can gather to eat, laugh, listen to music and talk, Locke says.

Comfort is big in his book.

The booths on the first floor, which Locke describes as being somewhat "Dr. Seuss-ish," are enormous.

There's a reason for that.

"You can sit back and relax," Locke says. "I'm a portly guy. I've been in places where my belly is right here," pointing to a spot over the edge of a table. "This isn't any way to eat."

"We could shove a lot more tables in there, but we don't," Locke says.

The couple doesn't believe in rushing diners through their meals.

"You are not cattle. I'm not here to get you in here and get you the hell out of here," Locke says.

Ella's is not aiming at any particular part of the market.

"We don't really have a demographic that we're shooting for. We've got young hipsters, we've got older people. It's a complete cross-hatch of humanity. Color. Lifestyle. Age. The whole thing."

Pull Up A Chair, Sit For Awhile

On a recent Thursday evening, Bruce Slater, who lives in Carrollwood, was there with his wife, Shelley. Both are in their 50s.

Slater says he likes eating at Ella's because of "the food and the atmosphere and the people."

Shelley Slater, a vegetarian, says the menu choices at Ella's please her dietary choices. "I really like the food. It's a little different."

Twenty-somethings Tim Wise, Kristina Green and Jen Engelhardt, who lives in Seminole Heights, were at another table.

Engelhardt brought her friends because she wanted Green to see the place.

"She (Kristina) is an interior designer and I knew she'd enjoy it," Engelhardt says.

Wise and Green, who live near the University of South Florida, say they plan to return.

Although Ella's is less than a year old, Locke and Deming get a thrill from watching their vision play out.

"Melissa and I sometimes sit up here (on the second floor) on a Saturday night and see the place is rumbling down there and we're like, 'My God, we actually did it.' '' Locke said.

He recalls a particularly poignant moment on a recent Sunday.

"It was about 11 o'clock in the morning. I came down the stairs. The place was fully full with all kinds of people.

"People who were just coming in from church. People who had just woke up and needed a bloody Mary.

"We had whole tables-full of kids, and everybody was eating barbecue and soul food and everybody looked happy.

"It kind of just dawned on me, it was kind of a mystic moment, I was like:  'Wow. I finally got what I wanted. It just broke me up. Finally, the dream came true.' ''

B.C. Manion is a freelance writer working out of her 1932 bungalow in South Seminole Heights. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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