If you look for it, Tampa’s history is everywhere at Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits.
The restaurant sits at the southern edge of Tampa Heights, the oldest neighborhood in the city. A century ago, this 6,800-square-foot brick building was a pump station that supplied Tampa with water from an on-site freshwater spring.
Inside, arrowheads found nearby decorate the walls and diners sit on benches salvaged from the old federal courthouse downtown.
The restaurant’s name, pronounced you-lay-lee, comes from the Native American princess Ulele who convinced her father to spare the life of one of Tampa’s early European explorers, a story some believe inspired the legend of Pocahontas.
Even Ulele’s menu pays homage to the city’s past. Oysters, fish and crabs once harvested by Tampa’s Tocobaga Indians are the stars of the show here, as are the pork products brought over by the European explorers who first sailed in to Tampa Bay.
But what’s most exciting about Ulele is that you can also feel the city’s future here.
The restaurant serves as the final stop of the Tampa Riverwalk, a series of parks that hug the Hillsborough River as it weaves through downtown. When we first moved to Tampa a decade ago this strip was mostly parking lots and chain link fences. Today you’ll find large parks, concert venues and riverside promenades.
Next door to Ulele is a brand new $6 million water park, playground and amphitheater. On its northern side is the old Armature Works warehouse, another historic building slated to house more riverside restaurants and retail. A few blocks to the east, condos are rising on the city’s formerly dilapidated Central Avenue, the site where Ray Charles recorded his first song and the dance the Twist was supposedly invented.
Tampa’s foodies have been awaiting Ulele’s opening since construction started last summer. We were invited to a media party two days before the restaurant opened to the public. Based on our experience we’re confident Tampa’s newest restaurant will live up to its hype.
The Ulele Story
The restaurant has loosely been in the works since 1998 when the city first started throwing around ideas to revitalize the historic Tampa Heights neighborhoods. The Great Recession stalled the project for a few more years. In 2011, the city called for bids from developers interested in renovating the neighborhood’s old pump station.
The most enthusiastic proposal came from Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. More than a century ago, Richard’s family opened the nearby Columbia Restaurant, today the oldest restaurant in the state. Richard was born just three blocks from where Ulele stands today. He grew up water skiing on the river flowing behind the restaurant. He won the bid.
The city invested in clearing the abandoned Ulele spring on the restaurant’s south side. The morning after the spring’s restorations were complete, manatees were spotted swimming in a natural pool near the restaurant’s entrance.
Ulele’s reputation started to build. The mayor called it Tampa’s Tavern on the Green. For months, Ulele teased the city with opening dates: early 2014, spring 2014, late spring 2014.
Finally the grand opening was set for the last Tuesday in August.
Local ingredients and sustainability are the name of the game at Ulele. At the media party we ate grilled oysters, raw oysters, and oyster shooters swimming in tequila. Juicy shrimp as long as my hand were served with cocktail sauce. The humanely-raised Florida beef was served medium rare with a side of okra fries and homemade ketchup.
Everything was delicious and tasted minimally processed, allowing the natural flavors to shine through.
For me the highlight was the crab claws. I’ve always had trouble hacking through the shells of this local delicacy to get the buttery meat inside. At Ulele, the crab claws were already prepared and served in perfect bite size chunks.
The house beers brewed with water from the Ulele spring were a light and refreshing complement to the seafood main dishes. The red was our favorite. We may have just imagined it, but we swear we could taste springwater in the ales.
“There’s something native to Florida tied into everything on our menu,” said Executive Chef Eric Lackey who sat with us for a while at the party.
He pointed out his mom in the crowd. She had surprised him by showing up at the media event. When he tells us this he chokes up for a minute.
His mom was single. Her family came from France and he started his restaurant career knocking on the doors of European restaurants looking for work during trips to visit her relatives. Like Ulele does for Tampa, the restaurant also serves as a way to honor his past and future.
“I take a lot of pride of who I am and where I came from,” Eric told us. “When I learned what this restaurant is doing for the community, I knew it was where I wanted to be.”