Next stops along the Tampa Riverwalk? Food, drink and more fun things to do

Kevin Thurman is a millennial who loves Tampa’s urban scene, especially the Tampa Riverwalk. 

Thurman and his dog Eisenhower are regular recreants at the waterfront stroll-way and the parks that line it. He says the completion of the 2.5-mile Riverwalk’s last segment earlier this year was an exciting step for Tampa and the area at large. Something is still missing though.

“You can do a variety of things there right now,” Thurman says. “You can go to five museums, but you can only get a drink at maybe five places.”

Thurman isn’t the only Riverwalk user who has noticed the relative scarcity of watering holes along the Riverwalk. Shaun Drinkard, Executive Director of Friends of the Riverwalk, told attendees at an August meeting of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute that increasing the number of food and drink outlets was a priority for Riverwalk supporters and adjacent businesses.
“Moving forward, I would venture to say every property owner now operating there is looking for a way to expand on the Riverwalk,” Drinkard tells 83 Degrees in a recent interview.

Hotel bars coming, later rather than sooner

Don’t expect a bevy of bars and food kiosks to mushroom along the Riverwalk overnight. Managers of hotels and museums along the Riverwalk say they do have plans for moving food and drinks closer to Riverwalk walkers, joggers and cyclists. Some of those plans, however, are still in the blueprint stage. Others haven’t been given final approval by corporate executives.

An example is the Sheraton Riverwalk, a hotel with one of the downtown access points to the Riverwalk. The hotel has plans for a full pool-side lounge where Riverwalk strollers can order liquor and beer, including tap brews, and a light food menu. 
The lounge is still in the planning stage, however, and may have to wait until renovations to the hotel building are finished, says Charles Coe, executive chef and director of food and beverage at the Sheraton.

“We’ve had some physical renderings done,” Coe says. “We want to make sure we do it right and that it’s the right bar in the right space.”

Toward the Riverwalk’s southern end, the Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina is considering rebuilding the back of the property to make its patio more accessible to patrons from the Riverwalk. Large planters and railings have to be removed and steps rebuilt, says Ron McAnaugh, the Marriot general manager. The hotel is also considering an outdoor bar.

But McAnaugh says the project is not far enough along to forecast when it will open. Right now, hotel executives are working with structural and landscape architects and plans are nowhere near conclusion.

“It takes a little bit of time and money,” he says.
Farther north, managers at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts are planning a Riverside Bistro offering food and alcoholic beverages along with a small stage for live entertainment.

Forecasting an opening date for the Bistro, however, would be “premature at this point,” says Straz COO Lorrin Shepard. The reason is the riverside bar and entertainment center are pieces of a much larger master plan for the center.
“A key component is our engagement of the river,” Shepard says. “We’re looking at food and beverage amenities much closer to the river. We feel like that’s something we really need to pursue in the plan.”

The Straz is in the midst of a financial feasibility study looking at funding sources for what is estimated to be a $65 million to $100 million renovation project based on the master plan.

Riverwalk completion: a real ‘game changer’

If it seems like riverside businesses and institutions are a little slow to get moving, one must remember that the final leg of the Riverwalk, from the Straz Center north to Water Works Park, wasn’t completed until earlier this year.

And it wasn’t until 2015 that a key 1,460-foot stretch of the Riverwalk, built over the water and under the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge, was finished. Drinkard, the Friends of the Riverwalk Director, called completion of that segment, so close to the heart of downtown, “a game-changer.”

Yet well before the Riverwalk’s final two segments were completed, Tampa government officials were working on ways to make alcoholic beverages available all along the waterfront. Lee Hoffman, who oversaw the Riverwalk’s development starting in 2004, says the city began seriously working on the issue in 2013.

“The public constantly said, ‘We want a place to go where we can eat and drink along the Riverwalk,’” Hoffman said. “We followed up with the restaurants.”

The city took advantage of a Florida statute that allows a city that meets certain criteria to establish a “specialty center.” Within the center, people can buy an alcoholic beverage and walk anywhere with the drink as long as they stay within the center’s boundaries. Without the designation, customers would be prohibited from crossing “wet zones” established around businesses with licenses to sell alcohol.
The city formed a working group that included Hoffman, then-Police Chief Jane Castor and representatives from various city departments. The working group talked to Tampa City Council members and businesses as they crafted the law. Hoffman called several cities around the country that had similar laws to see what worked and what didn’t.

“Of all the things I’ve done, that’s probably the most methodically crafted,” he says. “We didn’t want to have problems along the Riverwalk, so we made sure everyone was involved in the process to make sure it worked like it needed to.”

Sail Pavilion was pioneer

Managers of hotels and institutions along the Riverwalk eagerly anticipated the law, which was signed by Mayor Bob Buckhorn in November 2014. They had seen crowds drawn to The Sail, a 360-degree, waterfront bar that the Tampa Convention Center opened as the Sail Pavillon in 2010. 

“It was the first bar on the Riverwalk,” Drinkard says of the renamed The Sail. “I think people saw the growth. … That really kind of started the discussion.”

One of the first businesses to take advantage of the Riverwalk was Columbia Restaurant Group, which late last year expanded the Columbia Café’s outdoor presence at the Tampa Bay History Center. The café, a smaller version of the historic Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, put additional tables outside the History Center along with a permanent outside bar and awnings for shade. 

“Since we’ve done that, the business there has increased tremendously,” says Michael Kilgore, Chief Marketing Officer for Columbia Restaurant Group. “A lot of people said they didn’t even know we were there. … The additional visibility along with the additional capacity drastically increased our business at the History Center.”

Now, the Columbia group is adding an additional outdoor bar at its Ulele restaurant, which opened in August 2015 next to Water Works Park. The bar’s fare will mirror what’s available in the restaurant, including wines derived from company-owned vineyards and beers from the Ulele Spring Brewery.

Armature Works bar below water tower

But Ulele’s new bar won’t be the only one on the Riverwalk’s northern fringe. A waterfront bar will be one element of the Tampa Armature Works, a mixed-use project opening next year north of Ulele. 

The former street car maintenance and storage building is being renovated to house a 23,000-square-foot market hall, two restaurants, a rooftop bar, a theater and event space. It will be the focal point of The Heights, a 43-acre commercial and residential development being built by Tampa-based SoHo Capital.

The waterfront bar and restaurant will nestle up to a 1,200-foot extension of the Riverwalk that SoHo Capital is building, taking the walkway to the Eugene Holtsinger Bridge. Visitors from the Riverwalk and from boats and water taxis will be able to tipple in the shadow of a 160-foot-high water tower emblazoned with “The Heights” on its reworked surface. 

“For our project, the way we designed our master plan, everything focuses around the Armature Works and the Riverwalk,” says Chas Bruck, a Principal Partner in SoHo Capital. “The Armature Works in its relationship to the river and the Riverwalk is the true meeting place of our project.”

The Gazebo-covered bar will take up 1,200 square feet on the south side of the building, with equal space on the north side housing an activity shop where people can rent paddle boards, kayaks and bikes.

Bottom line: The bars and restaurants are coming to the Riverwalk, some sooner than later, but they’re coming. 

“One thing I think it’s important to remember: It took a long time to build the Riverwalk,” says Thurman, the urban dwelling millennial who named his dog after a U.S. president. “It’s going to take a long time to build the places along the Riverwalk. I hope it doesn’t take 40 years, but it will take a few years.”

Read more articles by Mike Salinero.

Mike Salinero is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
Signup for Email Alerts