I still remember going on my first food tour four years ago in London. At the time there really weren’t that many culinary tours offered around the world; a fact that seems shocking given how many there are today in 2020. Almost every city I visit has a version and it’s my favorite way to explore any new destination. In addition to delicious food, I always learn more about the culture while on these experiences, and that was especially true when I visited Tampa, Florida. Tampa may not be the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of culinary tourism, but it should. Like most major metropolitan areas around the world, its food scene has grown and evolved in recent years and today offers some truly incredible culinary experiences. As is always the case when I write about food tours, I won’t share all of the secrets and stops, but I do want to highlight both the company and some of the restaurants we visited on a fun afternoon walk around Tampa.
Tampa Bay Food Tours
One great aspect of the rise in interest for food tourism is that it has empowered people to become entrepreneurs, as with the owner of Tampa Bay Food Tours and my guide for the afternoon, Kimberly McAvoy. A few years ago she noticed a gap in the market, a need for food tours not only in Tampa but throughout the region and, given her own experience and interests, she knew she could craft experiences that locals and visitors would both love equally – and she has! The initial impetus was really to introduce locals to restaurants, bars and cafes they may not know, a fact that’s especially true in Tampa where the downtown has come roaring back to life in recent years.
A Different Approach
Almost immediately I could tell that the Tampa Food Tour was a little different from others I’d experienced. Instead of racing through a dozen stops attempting to tell the story of Tampa through its food, this tour instead seeks to introduce people to interesting spots they may not know about. And to be clear, these aren’t tasting bites, they’re full-fledged dishes that, when paired with wine, make for the perfect progressive meal out and about. I really enjoyed this more laid back and casual way to exploring the foodie side of the city, but of course a couple of stops made more of an impact than the others.
Tampa Foodie Highlights
The tours starts in one of the city’s newest must-see spots, the Oxford Exchange. Sometimes all it takes is for one or two creative and passionate people to bring life back to neighborhoods and even entire cities, and that is best seen in Tampa at the popular Oxford Exchange. Located across the street from what was once the legendary Tampa Bay Hotel, what is today the Oxford Exchange was originally built in 1891 most likely as a stable complex for horses and associated gear. In the 1920s, an arcade of local shops and businesses occupied the space and it’s this more lively decade that the owners tried to echo when they brought the long vacant building back to life. Today it’s all about community, a place to spend some time, chat with friends, enjoy some great food and just disconnect for a while. It was also the ideal spot for some bubbly and snacks, incredible bites fine-tuned by the OE’s amazing culinary team.
From there I enjoyed a fun walk along the Riverwalk and back into downtown Tampa, stopping along the way for more bites and sips, including one that I know I won’t soon forget, the Osteria by celebrity chef Fabio Viviani. The restaurant calls itself a mix of the rustic and refined, which I think is the best combination when it comes to incredible Italian cuisine. Inspired by the Italian countryside, Viviani takes those classic dishes we all know and love and elevates them in ways that are both creative and delicious. While it’s an upscale restaurant, it’s also a place for community and an easy place to sit back with friends and family, enjoy some wine and yummy bites and spend an incredible evening out on the town. Osteria is just one of many just spots in downtown Tampa though, bringing back to life an area that many locals forgot existed.
There were more stops of course, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise for those taking this fun and immersive tour. Kimberly was smart in crafting these experiences a little differently. By showcasing the restaurant scene in Tampa, she’s still telling the story of the city, but of the modern metropolis. This means that, unlike some other food tours around the world, it really is perfect for both locals and visitors. Locals will learn more about their own city and see for themselves how its foodie scene is evolving at lightning speed. Visitors will get to see some gorgeous parts of Tampa, be introduced to delicious bites and find some other spots to enjoy a meal before they leave town. It’s the perfect mix and was one of the highlights of my time in the city.