Five years ago, the Epicurean Hotel, Autograph Collection became the first hotel in Florida to be dedicated wholly to the love of food and wine. I attended its opening in 2013 and have been back many times since.
In my most recent visit, I served on a panel of judges for the Epic Chef Showdown, the annual competition-style charity event benefiting Feeding Tampa Bay, in August. At that time, I had the opportunity to hear about some changes taking place at the Epicurean from its general manager, Kevin Scott.
Among those changes, unveiled this month: A new co-working space and art nook in the lobby, the expansion of the lobby bar to be a full-service restaurant and a reimagining of the Elevage signature restaurant.
According to Scott, the changes are a direct response to customer feedback and the needs of the community at large.
The art nook and co-working space are the first new areas guests will encounter upon entering the hotel.
"We partnered with the CASS (Contemporary Art Space & Gallery) in downtown Tampa to feature an art wall that showcases every artist we've exhibited here at the hotel, past and present," said Scott. Under the wall is lush, cognac-colored leather seating.
The co-working space replaces what was originally a culinary-themed lounge area and library. The bookshelves with the cookbooks still exist, but the couches have been replaced with long, wooden tables with chairs more apropos of conference calls than cocktails. "We wanted a place where our guests could meet and work, and then at night, the area turns into a family-style watering hole once the bar opens," said Scott. The Epicurean Hotel is part of the Marriott hotel portfolio, so it makes sense that many guests might be traveling for work and thus may have business on the brain during the day.
The lobby bar area is now, formally, the Lobby Bar restaurant, which serves three meals a day plus late-night dining and weekend brunch. Previously, the bar only took up one corner of the ground floor, with just a few high-top tables for chatting. Now, it's a sit-down restaurant serving chef-inspired plates and cocktails showcasing well-made classics as well as inventive signature drinks.
As part of the redesign, the Lobby Bar also now features patio seating and two flat-screen TVs.
Dishes served at the Lobby Bar include the Diner Burger, with cheddar, bread and butter pickles and "comeback" sauce. One dish that made the shift from Elevage's menu to the Lobby Bar is the Homage to Bern's steak sandwich, made from steak tips coming from the prime, dry-aged meat temple Bern's Steakhouse, just across the street. "We have a robust partnership with Bern's, and that's a story we want to keep telling," said Scott. The Bern's Wine Shop is also located in the Epicurean Hotel, and a new sweets shop by Bern's is likely opening in the former Chocolate Pi pastry shop space in the hotel.
The hotel's signature restaurant, Elevage, has lost a little bit of its footprint in the expansion of the Lobby Bar, and also has a new menu. "It's Southern soul with French technique," said Scott. "Elevage only serves dinner now, and the more intimate space feels more exclusive." Some of the dishes from the new menu include handmade goat cheese and sweet potato agnolotti, a filled pasta with goat cheese, roasted sweet potato and pureed black truffles; and brioche-crusted halibut with a modern twist on the classic sauce Veronique.
The changes were directed by executive chef Chad Johnson, who has been twice nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award in the Best Chef: South category, in 2012 and 2014.
The hotel's rooftop bar, Edge: A Social Drinkery, is next for a refresh. The cocktail bar and lounge will have a new name and be transformed into a "modern tiki lounge," according to Scott, with a menu that will reflect Polynesian culture. The team is pulling permits for the update now, and the space will be revealed later this fall or early winter.
Tampa's food and beverage scene is on the national radar, especially with developments like the food hall Armature Works and outdoor food complex and biergarten Sparkman Wharf, and the Epicurean wants to remain relevant throughout these changes. "There's a lot of attention on Tampa right now," said Scott. "We want to strengthen our position as new players enter the scene and maintain our standing as Tampa's favorite culinary-themed hotel."