Seldom has Tampa seen such excitement over the opening of a new restaurant. Whether it’s because of the romantic legend behind it, unique flavor combinations, a scenic location or the involvement of well-known local restaurateurs – who’s to say?
What is for sure is that Ulele Restaurant (pronounced you-lay-lee) opened at the end of August to tremendous fanfare and a full book of reservations.
Legend has it that in 1528, a young member of the Spanish Narvaez expedition got himself in some serious trouble. The local Tocabaga chief Hirrihigua was set to roast him alive. Out of love, or perhaps pity, the beautiful Ulele, young daughter of the chief, threw herself over the boy’s body and thus saved his life. This heartwarming legend has endured, and it served as inspiration for Ulele.
Ulele is perfectly positioned to catch spectacular Florida sunsets — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
The Ulele legend inspired both the name and cuisine of the new restaurant. Chef Eric Lakey has created a menu that draws upon the diet of the area’s original peoples. Incorporating fresh and local ingredients that could’ve been on the Tocabaga’s menu hundreds of years ago, Ulele’s delectable dishes are both unique and flavorful.
Further inspiration for the menu comes from the first European settlers, including high-quality beef sourced from a local family ranch.
Dishes such as mahi mahi with coriander and juniper berry and the crackling pork shank with apple craisin chutney are drawing rave reviews, as are the alligator hush puppies and candied duck bacon maple fried ice cream.
To complement these inimitable flavor combinations is a specially created menu of signature cocktails and a selection of exclusive beers brewed on-site at the Ulele microbrewery.
Tampa's Ulele Restaurant features unique flavor combinations and fresh Florida ingredients — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
The location is spectacular and serves as the perfect accompaniment to a memorable meal. Nestled on the banks of the Hillsborough River, Ulele is perfectly positioned to catch the spectacular Florida sunsets framed by recently planted palm trees.
The restaurant overlooks a restored fresh-water spring, also called Ulele, that was the city’s first source of water and now serves as home to native plants and refuge for river fish and manatees.
Ulele occupies the city’s old and abandoned water works building, which has now been painstakingly and lovingly restored to a glory it never knew.
The interior features brick, metal and concrete, creating an impressively open and airy dining space peppered with whimsical elements that refer back to the building’s original use.
There are also plenty of natural and historic items integrated into the design, such as the use of Florida reclaimed wood and the arrow heads embedded in the bar counters. Outdoors features patio dining, beer gardens and rooftop bar.
The interior of the renovated water works building is light and airy — Photo courtesy of Skye Rodgers
The involvement of the well-known Gonzmart family of restaurateurs has also added to public interest in the project. For over 100 years, the Gonzmarts have owned and operated the popular Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, the oldest restaurant in Florida, along with other locations throughout the state.
In fact, their family history has now come full circle, as brothers Richard and Casey grew up in their grandparents’ home, drinking water from the Ulele spring, just four blocks from their innovative new restaurant.