Experience 24 Hours in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa

Seminole Heights is to Tampa what Brooklyn is to New York.  

Sure, it’s a stretch, but keep an open mind. It’s a place to live, work, and play just outside “the city” with enough art, entertainment, and character to please all types. Historic structures, cutting edge culinary ventures, and corner taverns intermingle with mom-and-pop shops, up-and-coming young professionals, and old-school holdouts.

It deserves a bigger moniker than the Tampa neighborhood, it’s a unique destination all its own. So why not dub it a borough?

While there’s no subway and there are often several vacant blocks between favorite spots reminding you that it's still evolving, on a Friday night when the craft beer and cocktails flow, kitschy art is in the spotlight and the culinary stars twinkle. If you squint just right, don’t you see the resemblance? 

5 p.m. — Ramen waitlist, antique appetizers 

The folks behind Ichicoro Ramen must have seen it. Chefs Noel Cruz and Masaru Takaku and even head Bartender Jessie Wohlers were all established in the New York City food and drink scene before setting up shop in the Seminole Heights neighborhood just north of downtown Tampa. 

Their plan got a jumpstart as Ichicoro was the first guest concept at the Ramen Lab in Manhattan, which describes itself as “the first restaurant incubator dedicated exclusively to ramen.” The 3-week stint including “Tampa-style ramen” was a hit and that success followed to Seminole Heights. The first week the restaurant was open, people were waiting over an hour to be seated, and now, weeks later, there’s still a wait. You could sit at the bar, but why not step back in time instead.

Next door at Sherry’s Yesterdaze Vintage Clothing & Antiques a ‘60s style mannequin stands next to a rack of furs resembling a waiting list for Noah’s Ark. A nearby display flaunts men’s footwear ranging from the still relevant Converse All-Stars to a motley colored crew of bowling shoes. There are even men’s platform shoes for rent ($25 rental, $50-$75 deposit) for that special occasion calling for masculine high-heel pimp shoes. 

Each section drifts through the decades, tragically hip clothes fallen on hard times and abandoned, now ready to be reborn with a new generation looking for self-expression, even if it comes from someone else’s closet. Looking for something a little more personal, how about some vintage snapshots from other people’s weddings? And yes, they have lay-away for your vintage shopping needs.

5:30 p.m. — Back to Ichicoro Ramen 

Irasshai mashita …or was it Hajimemashite! 

In Japanese one supposedly translates to “Nice to meet you!” while the other is an abbreviated “Welcome!” so no matter the mystery phrase the staff yells out when you walk into the dining room, it’s obvious they are happy to meet you, in a hip Huddle House kind of way. 

Before ordering, consider a drink from the highly acclaimed bar, though be warned, a frozen Kirin Ichiban ($5) sounds fun, coming out looking like it’s topped with whip cream, but frozen beer head doesn’t taste any better than unfrozen beer head and it adds the danger of brain freeze. On the plus side, it does keep the beer chilly. If you’ve disregarded the warning, fear not, a steamy bowl of Champon ($16) will come to the rescue. A large grilled gulf shrimp, chasyu asado (Cuban inspired pork), ginger tempura, scallion, corn, shitake, and sesame seeds float in the savory pork and chicken broth bath and the first wooden spoonful is a little slurp of heaven. The corn is a sweet surprise and perfect counterbalance to the smokiness of the shrimp and fantastically fatty pork. Extras can be added like homemade bacon for $2 or ontama (poached egg) for $3 or nori (toasted seaweed) $2. Solid snack options include two Pork Steam Buns with pickles, citrus hoison for $7.

In the dining room, bar seats facing the open kitchen are the centerpiece allowing diners to watch the ramen army in action against a steamy backdrop. The rest of the restaurant looks a bit like a combination of a former Jiffy Lube and a fallout shelter, with garage doors and blank concrete walls, but in a cool way thanks to small touches like the modern wooden seating and bumping music. If you think about it, what could be more comforting than a bunker full of ramen? Bombs away!

Now that you’re a member of the #RamenArmy, it’s time to draft a D.D. or commandeer a taxi, cause it’s time to join the American Legion.

6:55 p.m. — American Legion Seminole Post 111

While a fish fry takes place in the adjoining hall, a mellow crowd sits under plastic stars and stripes banners in the lounge, where bartender Connie Fojaco pours two fireball shots dangerously tall to a younger couple. A few stools away, another patron remarks “that’s a good pour.” 

“She’s a good woman!” replies Kasey Moneyhan with a nod in Fojaco's direction.

Moneyhan and Fojaco continue carrying on like a mother and daughter, and many of the locals in the lounge join in the banter like family, teasing and poking, yet careful not to step on toes too much. 

When a first-timer to the lounge joins the conversation asking how long the Legion has been here, Fojaco welcomes them to the family with the same quick wit. “Since God,” she quips with a mischievous smile and moves on to the next thirsty customer. 

At this time of day, aside from the extra tall pours and $2.75 - $4 beers (including $3 Reef Donkey draft!), the main entertainment consists of small talk and reading the local Penny Saver Weekly News (Jeremy Wayne Ewbank is available for Elvis Tribute Shows!). But if you stick around late, things can get pretty lively.

A slim older man with lively eyes, Commander Rick Martino strolls with a comfortable demeanor through the lounge. His crisp white American Legion uniform shirt stands out in the dim lighting. Martino is happy to expand on Fojaco’s history lesson, informing how the original structure was across the street on what is now American Legion Park, but it burned. But that’s the past and Martino is thinking about the future. With the number of legion members dwindling, Martino says that if they didn’t take advantage of the fact that the lounge is open to the public, which isn’t true for all American Legions, they’d be bankrupt by now. So less than a year ago, to the surprise of some Legion members, they started allowing late-night, live punk shows.
“I’m 78-yrs-old, but I still got a young mind,” Martino says, “If you don’t change with the times, then you are going to be left behind.” 

“Is it a little different to see? Yeah, it is,” Martino continues, “But when they were doing the twist, that was different to people too.” 

“The thing I’m trying to do is get the office crowd in here from 5:30 to 8:30. Then around 10:30, the younger group comes in and they support the place quite well. I, personally, and a lot of people on our staff welcome it. It’s taking them a while to get used to it and there’s some that definitely don’t want it …but like I tell them, (by) 7:30 or 8:30 they’re gone. So what happens after that, what do you care? It’s paying the bills.” 

“If we had problems here, I’d put an end to it, but there have been no problems. As long as they contain themselves like ladies and gentlemen, the place is open to them. We welcome ‘em. … Everybody’s coming out a winner.” 

8:30 p.m. — The Mermaid Tavern

On Nebraska Avenue near the Sligh Avenue intersection, among car lots and repair shops, sits a nautical-themed oasis called The Mermaid Tavern. The patio is packed and inside has all types including a young couple playing Battleship, a four-top sharing a family-style dinner, and two ladies sharing a wine tasting. You can tell The Mermaid is used to serving locals who know its quirks when a patron requests a pull from the handle labeled porter and the bartender replies that you can’t look at the taps (implied “duh”) because what they say doesn’t match what they are. Point taken. 

With a glance at the menu, the kitchen justifies the attitude. Start with The F**k Monsanto Salad #2 with organic roast beets, asparagus, honeybell orange, feta, arugula, quinoa-walnut pilaf with coriander vinaigrette ($9.50). The Blind Tiger Grilled Hanger Steak is Blind Tiger coffee-marinated, grass-fed beef from Adena Springs, FL, served with mashed potatoes, watercress puree, and pole beans ($18.50). Pair that with an Escape High Fen Robust Porter ($6.50) ordered from the chalkboard draft list AND NOT FROM THE TAP HANDLE and all is forgiven. The Bacon-Brussels Sprouts and House Gnocchi is a small dish that is still a heavy-hitter. The hunks of Duroc bacon bathe with savory Florida oyster mushrooms in lemon butter, which sounds heavy, but cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and chipotle highlights give a spicy sweetness to the brothy sea surrounding little gnocchi islands and Brussels sprout bundles. 

Speaking of little bundles … In a curtained corner, psychic counselor Edward J. Sevilla deals Tarot cards by candlelight for a couple cuddled across the table. While the reading is directed toward the lady, according to Sevilla, the cards are speaking to both. The lady nods in agreement as he forecasts changes in work, life, and love, but all eyes grow large when he flips the fertility card, and they practically bug out when he further explains the first will be a girl, then twins. Noticing their demeanor, Sevilla explains, “It just means that for the next 6 months your fertility cycle is good. If it’s going to happen, you should do it now.” 

The reading finishes with a card of happiness. 

“Nailed it” is whispered as they drop $10 in the tip jar and walk away with shell-shocked expressions. The lady, who asks not to be identified, later admits she is already pregnant but hasn't announced yet and didn’t tell Sevilla. “I think I have to go to him as my life coach!” she exclaims.  

9:30 p.m. — Rock n’ roll the night away 

At the Red Star Rock Bar, Mick Jagger gets all up in your grill as soon as you pull up. A 10-foot mural of the rock icon floats above the parking lot on an intense red wall. Out back, white canvas sails against black sky offer a fitting zebra pattern view into the cool night bringing the first goosebumps of fall after a long hot summer. On a recent visit, an Equality Florida meeting is winding down while the band Restless Soul warms up the dance floor making the atmosphere too loud for conversation, but there’s no complaint since happy hugs appear to be the preferred method of communication. 

Red Star is a new addition to The Heights, but its ode to rock n’ roll gives it an old-time rock institution feel. Inside, Rambo and Shadow lay comfortably in front of a vintage cigarette machine for ambiance only. The two dogs are hanging out with their humans who scored corner chairs under giant paintings in the full house, with patrons tucked into every seat and packed in along the bar.

Before you leave, pause for a game at the Ms. Pac Man machine, and don’t forget to ask your bartender about Rock and Roll Prayer Candles.

The lot next door serves as a sort of rotating venue for food trucks and activities including the new Monday Night Moonlight Market held on the last Monday of the month. One of tonight’s offerings is the Tongue Thai’d Thai Fusion Food Truck, which offers a tasty $4 spring roll and $5 pork dumplings. The calorie intake comes in handy to keep on rockin’ at Red Star, but take the show on the road, there's still plenty to explore.
10:30 p.m. — Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe 

True to its name, everything about Ella’s -- from the phenomenal food to the eye candy décor -- is fantastically funky and folksy. Bowling balls and rusty metal animal sculptures adorn the front entrance, and inside, the Black Coast Royals are playing folksy rock among wall-to-wall folk art. It feels more like a folk museum that just happens to have tables. Outside, string lights drape a giant oak tree in a boardwalk-style backyard setting. 

Any day of the week you’ll be pleased with what lands on your table, but check out Ella’s Soul Food Sundays for a real treat. With classics like fried chicken & waffles ($13), collard greens ($4) and okra succotash ($3) to interesting twists like the Funky Monkey Waffle topped with Nutella, banana, and toasted peanuts ($6.50) and smoked watermelon & apple slaw ($3.50). Or try a liquid take on the morning meal with the Breakfast of Champions cocktail ($6), which consists of a shot of Jameson and butterscotch schnapps with an orange juice chaser (described as tasting like pancakes and syrup). Finish it off sweetly with the Chocolate Covered Bacon Duo ($5.50) or the King Killers banana and peanut butter chimichangas ($10). Must be an ode to Elvis who has not left the building. There's a small shrine to the King and he's painted on velvet and framed in the men's room.

11:15 p.m. — Corner Club 

You might think the Corner Club is a vacant building -- if not for all the cars parked outside. Perhaps the neglected rough exterior is a strategy, someone hiding the dive bar jewel inside. As the front door opens, the music of Hank Williams Jr. welcomes visitors. Though it’s soon evident, it’s not Hank on the mic. This is down-home karaoke done right. There’s a good chance if you pick the right song, the bar will be singing along louder than vocals amped from the speaker. 

With the combination of classic Budweiser décor, cheap beer ($4 Maduro on the high end), and free cheese balls offered by the little ol’ lady bartender in a Rolling Stones T-shirt, it feels like a “hell yea!’’ is in order. She grandmotherly calls out to one of her regulars, uniting him with his lost beer, presumably misplaced because he’s fatigued from an epic karaoke masterpiece performance of Send Lawyers, Guns and Money by Warren Zevon. The song was crap with long uncomfortable gaps between vocals spent watching the lyrics scroll slowly on a TV straight out of the ‘80s, yet it still brought mighty applause from the audience. There are no fancy laptops and projectors here in this karaoke operation and an old school soundboard takes up half the stage. The song catalog probably should have gone extinct long ago, but the Corner Club crowd delivers the tired lyrics with new life and such enthusiasm that they almost seem good. It’s an acquired taste with overwhelming secondhand smoke, but dive bar aficionados will not be disappointed. Sit back and enjoy the cheesy poofs and the closed-circuit TV showing the parking lot in a crowd that harkens back to the glory days before anyone dared mention the words hipster and Seminole Heights in the same sentence. 
11:45 p.m. — Cuban bread nightcap

Six-and-1/2 days a week, bakery employees work around the clock on display through the large plate-glass windows of Mauricio Faedo’s Bakery. They pull, push and ply powdery dough in unison, spreading their work out across a sea of large tables that fill the cavernous bakery. Soon-to-be-baked 1- to 3-foot sections lay side by side like thick rope knotted on each end. Trained hands move smoothly yet forceful in the final shaping, an act of muscle memory and rhythm similar to a sculptor working clay but with a baker's pale palette of dough and flour. Unlike the potters who carve their names on the bottom of their pots, these artists leave their mark on the top of their loaves, finishing off the artistry with a strip of palm leaf carefully tucked about an inch deep into the doughy length. The cradled leaf becomes the signature split top of Cuban bread. Before the dough can droop into its final resting position, they move on to shape their next doughy masterpiece. 

It’s the type of place that feels like it has been there forever, but when you ask the workers, their math is fuzzy. The consensus seems to be about 30 years as Master Baker Francisco Vargas adds, “The other place, La Segunda, has been here about a hundred years -- but we’re better,” he says laughing. “Obama came here and had our bread.” 

Grab a 3-foot loaf of Cuban bread for precautionary padding and some flaky baked guava goodness for breakfast in the morning, a classic ending to a night in the Heights.
9:30 a.m. — Coffee and canoes
Wake up and walk the plank to the floating dock of your Airbnb lodging. It’s steep now thanks to the sinking tide, which has revealed a series of small cascading falls hinting at one of many springs that feed the Hillsborough River near this spot. Enjoy your Keurig coffee from an Adirondack chair while leaves drift into golden sunlight before gracefully landing on the river's glassy surface. Palms and oaks line the banks between backyard boat decks while wind chimes and birds send tiny pinging sounds into the air.

Jamie Randazzo welcomes guests to the Airbnb Hillsborough Riverfront home he shares with his wife Melissa and their two dogs Sophie and Ruby. Sophie joined the family after Melissa spotted her floating down the river. Knowing that some pretty big gators frequent the area, she jumped on her paddleboard and scooped the pup up. She’s been there ever since. Jamie goes on to tell neighborhood tales about a nearby house with a boat entry once used by gangster types during Prohibition for bootlegging and legends of secret tunnels leading beneath streets and cockfights held in basements. Today’s scene is much posher with an infinity pool, outdoor shower, and SUP or canoe usage included in your stay to check out the river. But first, breakfast.

10:40 a.m. — Homemade biscuits and plastic roses

The restaurant now known as Nicko’s Fine Foods has been in business since 1951. The diner is reminiscent of a train car ready to leave the station or something that came out of a Detroit factory in the Motor City’s heyday. Elvis stopped by in 1956 for some grub when it was still known as the Ayers Diner and a small shrine of albums and photos commemorate the booth where he sat. Presley paraphernalia is sprinkled throughout. Nick Liakos’ family bought the diner in 1980 and, after his father died, he took over. Nick himself is likely to greet you at the door with a casual greeting like a family member welcoming you home for dinner. 

Hungry Like a Wolf pumps from speakers like a theme song for the mix of diners from all walks of life binging on breakfast staples. A plate of biscuits comes up with a sweet chicken-based gravy ($5.10), tomato, and a simple breakfast sandwich (bacon and egg on whole wheat $3.95, add a big beautiful tomato for a measly $.25) is served up on a clean, yet chipped, plate. To top it all off, a plastic rose with fake water droplets adorns the cracked tabletop, under duct-taped mirrored panels framing the booth. This is the foodie equivalent of a dive bar, and it's fantastic.
12:15 p.m. — Canoe the Hillsborough River
Paddles pause and the canoe drifts closer to the seven-foot alligator sunning himself on a muddy bank below a mix of shotgun houses and million-dollar homes. Sulphur Springs Water Tower looms on the horizon, its pale reflection growing with each stroke until finally the cool clear springs meet the tannin flow of the Hillsborough and they blend into one. That’s how it is on the river in Seminole Heights. Old Florida intermingles with urbanity. A gator drifts silently by and disappears below the surface before passing under the Nebraska Avenue bridge during lunchtime traffic. Wading birds perch in Everglades-like scenery, interrupted by the occasional hobo hangout and a partially submerged shopping cart. It’s a beautiful, strange, and murky mix that makes up one of the wildest paddles in a major metropolitan area in the U.S.

1:20 p.m. — Getting the goods

Cruising through Tampa and remember that you forgot to pick up your raw milk, fishing worms, or local honey and craft beer? Drive down Florida Avenue until you see the bright red tractor. The Seminole Heights General Store is a co-op of sorts with different vendors selling their goods under one roof. Picture walking into a Florida cracker museum, but everything is for sale. 
1:40 p.m. — Blind Tiger / Cleanse Apothecary / Christopher Wayne Home

Blind Tiger is more a coffee nook than a shop among the cozy furnishings Christopher Wayne Home. With tasty cold press coffees and Mother Kambucha fermented teas (made in St. Petersburg), people may try to move in permanently. But the smell of coffee gives way to an aromatic cloud wafting spa-worthy scents, through the shared door with Cleanse Apothecary

Cleanse Apothecary owner Greg Curtis says the businesses don't just share space, but compliment each other. “It’s a cool thing, David’s (co-owner David Hansen at Christopher Wayne Home) customers might be looking for candles and mine are looking for furniture.” And everyone is looking for coffee.

2 p.m. — The Heights Barbershop

The driving beat of a Dropkick Murphys song combined with conversation and three barbers wielding hair clippers has The Heights Barber Shop buzzing. Album covers line the ceiling and velvet versions of John Wayne and Elvis hang on teal walls. 

“Huge” is the word owner Chris Copeland uses to describe the increase in business since he opened. “I was the first one. … the whole building was empty, except for me,” Copeland was born and raised in Seminole Heights but moved away for a few years. “I decided to come back and open a business.” 

Copeland, the other two barbers, and his client, Julio Espin, are all laughing about the handlebar mustache Copeland is wearing today as a joke, not realizing a photographer would show up in his shop unannounced. It’s barbershop humor gone wrong. 

Espin, freshly frothed for a straight razor finish with his haircut, says he’s been a regular pretty much since they opened. “I like the music, I like the atmosphere (and) I like the conversations that we have as well as supporting a local business.” 

2:30 pm — MicroGroove

After his trim at the barbershop, Espin heads down the road to another favorite spot, MICROGROOVE Records. Kenny Crum stands behind the counter shammying vinyl in what feels like a scene straight out of the movie High Fidelity but with references to local musicians and low fidelity records. Crum and MICROGROOVE owner Keith Ulrey don’t just sling local vinyl, they each run their own independent record labels. Crum’s operation is called Wohrt Records and Ulrey heads New Grenada and is also a member of the band Zillionaire. 

More local love in the shop comes in the form of a listening station allowing you to check out music produced by local labels and regional musicians including the bands Atlantic Oceans, Alexander & The Grapes, Fistful and Rec Center

3:30 p.m. — Fodder and Shine

Red-white-and-blue Pabst Blue Ribbon umbrellas and lime green aluminum lawn furniture bling against concrete tables. Old furniture resembling dismembered picnic tables turned mod thanks to steel framing. Classic arcade games and old punk show posters on the walls in the bathroom. Pallet planters hang on industrial looking walls and old windows form a gateway into the main dining room. Florida Shabby chic art decorates the packed bar on a breezy afternoon perfect for a $2.50 tallboy matches well with a fried chicken biscuit and pulled & chopped BBQ pig open-face sandwich. The fry is an interesting texture resembling a southern fish fry. Despite being a word you may have never heard of, malonesa offers a nice twang to the crumbly biscuit. The BBQ has a nice lingering heat on hearty bread with a damn tasty pickle that unfortunately is just a sliver, the twang is a nice counter to the slow burn.

For those anti-Happy Meal parents out there, Fodder & Shine also offers Parent Happy Hour every Sat. from 1-5 p.m. with food and drink Specials with "Young Tyke" activities advertising “Dear Parents: Come back into the world of socialization and don’t feel like you have to leave the kids with a sitter.”
4:30 p.m. — One, or more for the road 

Though one could keep the fun going with plenty still to do in the Heights, the clock is winding down on this 24 Hours adventure, so grab some Seminole Heights goodies to go.

Angry Chair Brewing offers a tasting room with growler fills for the road and while Florida Ave. Brewing Co. closed in December, it will reopen in early 2016 as the new, fully-renovated brewery and tasting room for another Tampa Bay beer-lovers' favorite, The Brew Bus. The folks at The Brew Bus promise to continue brewing Florida Ave. beers along with their own tasty creations and the North Florida Avenue location will serve as the departure hub for their beer bus explorations around Tampa Bay.

If beer is not your thing, Twisted Sun Rum is soon to open in the Heights boasting to be Tampa's first craft distillery and first rum distillery since prohibition. 

For a one-stop local-centric shop, The Jug and Bottle Dept. describes their offerings "With a heavy slant towards Bay-area vendors and breweries, we’re excited to provide locals and curious out-of-towners with a distinctly Tampa (Seminole Heightsian?) shopping experience." 

Pick up a local six-pack or try one of the Florida brews they offer on tap while shopping for other locally made goods. Keep an eye out for ice cream and wine tasting events, as well as a symbol of Seminole Heights history and mystery in the form of a small white flag bearing a two-headed alligator, the supposed seal of Old Seminole Heights. 

How did a two-headed gator become the seal? A short unscientific survey reveals it's a bit of a mystery. Ask around town, and most people have no idea. Social Media inquiries to history groups yield several "likes" and more confusion, but no answers. The only piece of evidence comes in the form of a picture on Wikipedia describing it as the "official seal made by T. Roy Young in 1911 for his Seminole Development Corporation" and a picture of said seal used in an ad from a 1912 Hillsborough High School Yearbook.

By coincidence or not, in 2014 a fishy photo on Facebook put Seminole Heights and a two-headed gator in the headlines. The photo depicted a supposed two-headed gator seen on the banks of the Hillsborough River and made the rounds in media across the country, even landing on the front page of the TBT before being debunked. Since then the two-headed gator has popped up in art around the Heights including a small stuffed version at one of the earlier mentioned spots. Is the seal the real deal or are we all part of a long-running joke? 

One of the most obvious ways that Seminole Heights resembles Brooklyn is that both places were first well-known for affordability, but are now known for desirability and the gentrification that threatens their character. Community leaders dealing with the growing pains will need to seek out smart growth solutions like The Warehouse Lofts at Seminole Heights project which is repurposing an old Florida Avenue warehouse into 54 stylish loft apartments targeting young professionals while figuring out how to keep reasonable options for the families and businesses that want to call it home. 

In this aspect, it's a safe guess that Seminole Heights doesn't want to be the next Brooklyn. It would prefer to be like that two-headed gator, an exception to the norm. 

If The Heights can continue growing while keeping the artists and innovators who turned it into the cool, character-filled place it is today, maybe Brooklyn can take note and become the next Seminole Heights. 
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Read more articles by James Branaman.

James Branaman is a photographer and feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.