A winning combo: Bae’s Burgers in Tampa tempt your tastebuds while images of Florida feed your soul

Stop by Bae’s Burgers and Wings and you can bite into what owner Vasilis "Billy'' Liarikos says are the best burgers and wings in town. He’s the chef at the grill cooking made-to-order requests.

But look around while you wait and you'll find extra nourishment for the soul and the heart on the walls of the almost-year-old restaurant, where a free gallery of images from award-winning photojournalist Fred Bellet awaits.

“You Can See That Again” includes more than 180 photographs reflecting what Bellet describes as “a visual obstacle of fun, creative, and diverse photography.” His 40-year-plus career is a look back at Tampa and Florida history from 1979 to present, from breaking news to heart-breaking news.

Photographs framed on the walls include Tampa Bay Devil Rays Wade Boggs; musical icon Frank Zappa at the former Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory; Hurricane Elena; the funeral of Tampa Police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab; and Babe Ruth’s fishing guide from Aripeka, a small community on the Gulf coast at the border of Pasco and Hernando counties.

Bellet captured the pictures of daily life and unusual life in the neighborhoods of Tampa Bay from Hernando County to Pasco County and back again to Tampa and Hillsborough County.

The gallery showing happened by chance when Bellet walked past Bae’s and greeted Liarikos as he worked on a sign outside his restaurant. Their conversation turned easily to Bellet’s photos and Bae’s empty white walls.

“I really didn’t have a thing on the wall. He’s pretty much put up a full gallery,” says Liarikos. “I couldn’t wait for it to go forward. People are seeing themselves or people they know on the wall.”

Bellet occasionally can be found in a back booth willing to reminisce with diners and gallery viewers.

Ask Bellet why he became a photojournalist and the self-deprecating answer will be “I couldn’t get into medical school.”

But anyone who knows Bellet understands photography and news are his lifeblood.

His first photos found life in The Oracle at the University of South Florida. He also shot photos for the former Temple Terrace Beacon including a photo of Iranian hostages soon after their release in 1980. The Beacon sent him to New York for the assignment.

Bellet became a Tampa Tribune photographer in the aftermath of Hurricane Elena in 1985. He worked in the Tribune’s photo lab, but a short-handed assignment editor sent Bellet searching for breaking news. A photo of a man retrieving his belongings from an overturned houseboat made it to the front page of the daily newspaper. Bellet modestly says it was “below the fold” but 1A, nevertheless.
 
Like so many long-time journalists, Bellet lost his full-time job in 2011 in the wave of layoffs and buyouts. He now freelances for newspapers including The Laker/Lutz News.

“I’ve been full circle. I’m a stringer,” he says.  “I wanted to be in newspapers. Some people wanted to do other kinds of photography.”

He misses journalism as it used to be.

“When we were shooting, there weren’t 500 cell phones behind us,” says Bellet. “There was exclusivity to the picture. I like when we worked when we did. Before we were out-numbered.”

Liarikos appreciates when customers stop in for a meal and get the bonus of Bellet’s photo gallery.

The Seminole Heights’ resident opened Bae’s in June 2020 at 9714 N. Nebraska Ave., sprucing up a former Haitian restaurant with “a lot of painting,” a floor redo, and new kitchen equipment.

The location, north of Busch Boulevard and south of Linebaugh Avenue, is tough terrain for a new business and for people who live there. Used furniture stores, used car lots, and vacant lots define a part of the city that hasn’t seen change in a long while. But Bae’s is within two miles of the ever-evolving culinary scene in the re-emerging and historic Seminole Heights.

Liarikos sees potential, and he likes new challenges.

The pandemic didn’t slow him down either.

“I was on a schedule to open so we went ahead,” he says.

At age 35, Liarikos isn’t new to the restaurant business. It’s more like a family affair. He grew up helping out at his family’s Rodie’s Restaurant in Tarpon Springs. He opened a second Rodie’s location for the family in Clearwater at age 24 and operated it for about eight years. Bae’s is all his own.

“I like Tampa, generally, being supportive of lots of choices of restaurants and gentrification,” he says. “This was a good real estate project.” 

Everything new is about learning by doing, Liarikos says. 

He keeps his menu simple, catering items to what customers like. His ingredients are fresh and his burgers are made-to-order.

Bellet likes the sweet chili chicken. But the menu also includes smoked wings, Tex-Mex burgers, Tampa Bay burgers, coconut shrimp, and Greek or Cajun fries.

“You have a vision. You know what you’re trying to do,” Liarikos says. “You build on that idea. I enjoy things which start from a blank canvas to trying to find your business.”

He lives in Seminole Heights in a newly built apartment building in the heart of the Heights’ restaurant revival. “I like to live where I work,” he says.

So, the future might lead his restaurant dreams to the Heights. Or even a return engagement in Clearwater.

“It’s the best part of it. I have no long-term plans,” Liarikos says. “You never know what opportunities you’re going to have tomorrow.”

Bae’s hours are Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sundays, 8:30 a.m. to noon.
 

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.  
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