From rolled cigars to hand-rolled meatballs, Ybor City Italian restaurant combines history with hearty meals.

The Spaghetti Warehouse is in the historic part of Tampa's Ybor City Latin Quarter.

YBOR CITY — Consider this: the building that houses the Spaghetti Warehouse in Ybor City used to be a cigar making factory — and every first Monday of the month, this very good Italian restaurant hosts an Elvis Fun gathering.
Stogies, spaghetti, and Elvis … I suspect there’s a really good punch line in there somewhere, but at the moment it sadly escapes me.
No matter. In a state where history sometimes feels like anything built a year or two before the last colossal, high end subdivision opened its doors, one of the things I like most about Tampa’s great Latin Quarter is the red brick buildings that housed the cigar factories that put Ybor City on the map.
If Ybor City’s New Orlean’s-style 7th Avenue is better known today for its party-hearty night life, the truth is it also has more preserved history than so many other overdeveloped sections of Central Florida. Martinez Ybor opened his first cigar factory here in 1868, and that building still stands today, like so many other historic red brick structures along Ybor City’s La Setima (7th Avenue).
Just a few blocks away is The Spaghetti Warehouse Restaurant, located at 1911 N. 13th St., at the corner of 9th Avenue. Still a part of the historic section of Ybor City, it takes up part of a factory that continued hiring workers to roll fresh Cuban cigars straight into the 1980s. Spaghetti Warehouse is the kind of place that works hard at creating a spirit of fun and enjoyment, by celebrating things like Meatball Madness day (when $4.99 Spaghetti & Meatballs meals get served all day.)

The Spaghetti Warehouse is in a former cigar factory in Ybor City.

It’s also the kind of place that, as previously noted, hosts Elivs Fun Gatherings every first Monday of the month from 6-9 p.m. — better known as Jeremy Ewbank, a 42-year-old Tampa resident who owns a carpet cleaning business and does Elvis impersonations for fun and to entertain the spaghetti eaters. The Spaghetti Warehouse is nothing if not about the sheer pleasure of getting outdoors with friends and family for a relaxing meal. The decor helps set that mood. It’s a spacious restaurant, with three separate dining rooms, each one surrounded by those magnificent and all-too-rarely-seen (in Florida, anywhere, if not Pittsburgh) red brick walls. There are giant billboards decorating the walls, obviously collected from decades past — “Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, World’s Biggest Menagerie” reads one, with a painting of a rhino racing across it.
But the best is the trolley car located inside one of the dining rooms, with a flashing green traffic light hovering just above the front end — as if giving that trolley car the signal to start its engine. Happily for the diners who get to sit at the tables inside the trolley car, it never does. But considering that Ybor City still has a trolley system that takes visitors around town, it’s a fitting tribute to both the city’s history and Spaghetti Warehouse’s penchant for making it all a playful experience.
And then there is … l’alimento. Eccellente, i miei amici! Consider these choices (and ponder the dilemma I faced narrowing it down to one): You can be very traditional, and try the spaghetti and meatballs plate, which offers pasta topped with homemade tomato sauce and two hand-rolled meatballs.
A bit more adventurous, you could have the Incredible 15-Layer Lasagne — noodles baked with layers of meat sauce and a blend of cheeses, herbs, and spices.
The Fettuccini Alfredo, which I ordered and found to be an absolutely delicious gourmet meal, won me over, though I did still have the temptation of trying the Four Cheese Manicotti (two pasta tubes filled with a blend of cheeses, and topped with tomato and alfredo sauce), or the Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad.
Your waitress starts you off by bringing to your table a large bowl filled with house salad in Italian dressing for everyone in the party to share, along with sourdough bread served hot and fresh from the oven. The main dishes arrive quickly — the service is prompt and friendly.
That, the quality of the food and the appeal of dining in one of those historic brick buildings all sold me rather quickly on Spaghetti Warehouse’s appeal. And as I was leaving the restaurant and walking back to my hotel, the feeling of satisfaction after a good meal slowly morphed into a question that began to haunt me.
From hand-rolled cigars in the “Cigar Capital of the World” to meatballs in a trolley car — I know I’m missing a good one-liner here somewhere. I spent hours trying to think of a clever gag, but my mind kept going blank.
Oh, well. I do know this: the real joke is on anyone who visits Ybor City and bypasses Shaghetti Warehouse. Dining rare seems this fun, or rich, or tasty.
To learn more, call the restaurant at 813-248-1730.

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Start the countdown: At La Creperia Cafe, there are 66 heavenly crepes to pick from.

La Creperia Cafe is in the heart of Ybor City.

YBOR CITY – It’s called Last Wish, and as a final treat, a parting gift to yourself on the way out, it seems to me nearly impossible to beat.
Last Wish isn’t a final rite or ceremonial act, but a sweet crepe, made with baker’s flour and served with whipped cream and powdered sugar. This particular crepe comes filled with nutella, banana, walnuts and Grand Marnier.
So if you’re vacationing in Ybor City and it’s your final night in town, here’s a smart tip to take to the bank: make reservations for yourself and your family at La Creperia Café, and then order Last Wish as your final local meal. You’ll find yourself sitting in this quaint bistro wishing you could take the place home with you for regular crepe fixes.
Anyone who has been to Ybor City knows what to expect: a kind of New Orleans’ French Quarter in the Tampa Bay area, the ultimate party spot for a night of revelry, a place to see drag shows, to smoke at the Hookah lounge, to find people who think early evening begins around 1 a.m. Don’t expect much to be happening in the morning hours in Ybor City, because the folks who know where the fun is are fast asleep around 11 a.m.
Ybor City is also a peerless place to eat, since it hosts some exquisite restaurants — and offers an interesting mix, too, from Cuban and Italian to seafood and Greek and French … which happens to bring us back to La Creperia Café. It’s not a huge restaurant, although there are two small tables out front if you want to sit outside. There are a decent number of tables in the bistro itself, and once you’re seated, you may spend quite a long time reading over the menu. Order drinks first, and don’t be in a rush to call the waiter over.
Why? Well, it’s happily a diverse menu, one that includes pasta dishes (Marinara with homemade tomato herb sauce with mushrooms for $9.95, or Penne a La Vodka, topped with Pamesan cheese, for $13.95), Panini’s (the Cordon Blue is grilled chicken with spinach, ham and Swiss Cheese, for $9.95, or the Rossi is Italian salami and provolone cheese, for $9.50), salads, homemade soups (French Onion, $5.75), and “Wrap Delights” (the Santorini gives you Romaine lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and feta cheese with olive oil and Balsamic viniagrette wrapped in a spinch tortilla, $8).
Any of the above would make La Creperia Café a great lunch spot, and the bistro’s list of specialty coffees, frozen drinks, fine wines and imported beers doesn’t hurt, either. It has the look and feel of a bistro in either New Orleans or Paris, complete with the busy foot traffic right outside the window as you sip your Espresso and casually watch the world go by.

La Creperia Cafe has the look and feel of a French Bistro in the heart of Paris.

But this bistro’s true raison d’etre is the bistro’s impressively lengthy list of crepes. And more crepes.
There are Sweet Crepes, which include not just the Last Wish but The Apricot (cream cheese or Brie cheese with apricot and lemon juice), the Butterball (cream cheese, almonds and butterscotch topping), Sunflower (honey, walnuts, lemon juice and bananas), and Musique de Chambre (Ricotta sweet blend and chestnut cream puree), all ranging in price from just $5.50 (The Hot Feeling, which comes with sugar, butter and cinnamon), to $9.25 (The Marie Antoinette, with nutella, banana, strawberries and Bailey’s – wow!). A sweet tooth never had it so good.
There are also Savory Crepes, made with whole wheat flour, and garnished with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. If you order a complete dinner, the bistro tosses in a French baguette and your choice of a House, Caesar or Greek salad.
There are also breakfast crepes – in fact, the list of crepes is so lengthy there are 66 to pick from. If you’re a fan of crepes, you could be tempted to starve yourself for a day or two, then show up and make multiple selections at one sitting. It’s hard to imagine you’d be disappointed after doing so.
La Creperia Café, the Bistro & Espresso Bar, as its full title states, has been around for 20 years, and one of the genuine treats about dining here is the opportunity to watch the chefs demonstrate the art of crepe making, as they pour, twirl and flip those dishes to perfection.
The restaurant is at 1729 E. 7th Ave. in Ybor City, part of a complex that starts with the historic L’Unione Italiana (The Italian Club) and includes an Italian restaurant (La Terrazza Ristorante) and the Ybor Cigars Plus cigar shop – and interesting mix, with crepes for dinner and a Cuban cigar to smoke afterwards, if you’re so inclined. There’s a tatoo shop across the street, so depending on how adventurous Ybor City makes you feel ny nightfall, you could stuff yourself in La Creperia and then get a Bolero Crepe tattooed onto your shoulder right after dinner. Ybor City has a way of casting spells on you like that, be forewarned.
The cigar shop and tattoo parlor are fringe benefits, though, to the real joys that La Creperia Café offer.
“A French tradition to Breton families for many years, sweet and savory crepes were originally a basic element in dining,” the restaurant’s menu notes. “Cooked on a large cast iron plate heated over a wood fire, the fine art of crepe making has been improved with the introduction of the electric crepe maker.”
However they cook it these days, the results are delicious. Plus, I love the entire concept of this bistro – find out how many creative varieties of crepe there are to be made, and select your favorites. I has a marvelous time devouring the Vegetarian Savory Crepe, which mixed in cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, Greek olives and spinach. If you think French cooking is high end and prohibitively expensive, that meal cost me $9.95 – not exactly budget busting these days. And there are so many other selections that tempt me back there – the Texan Savory Crepe (cheese, chicken, olives, sweet onions, and barbeque sauce). To Your Health Breakfast Crepe (yogurt or ice cream, honey, walnuts, strawberries and bananas). The Exotica Sweet Crepe (nutella, coconut and banana.) So much to pick from, so little time to explore each and every one. Sigh.
To learn more about La Creperia Café, call 813-248-9700, log on to, or email Ybor City is justifiably known as a wild night spot, but La Creperia Café is the kind of restaurant you’ll be more tempted to enjoy for a lengthy lunch or relaxing dinner, long before the partying begins.

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Review: Why, oh why isn’t Orlando promoting a fun spot like Waitiki’s?

Need the perfect happy hour spot in downtown Orlando? Waitiki's in the Wall Street Plaza is tough to beat. (Photo by Dave Raith.)

ORLANDO — This past winter, a report on The Weather Channel caught my attention one frigid morning. The station noted it had snowed the day before in 49 of the 50 states.
I was trying to figure out where in Florida — the Panhandle, I presumed — the snow was falling when The Weather Channel corrected me. Florida was the lone state to miss the white stuff.
That surprised me, because I had always assumed that Hawaii was the one state most certain to avoid snow. I was wrong — the mountains of Hawaii had indeed joined 48 of the continental states in experiencing a bit of snowfall. Florida truly was the lone spot to be able to say, Sick of the snow? Come on down!
As the two states least likely to experience anything remotely resembling winter, I’m always amused at the entertainment venues in sunny tropical Florida that offer a Hawaiian ambiance — Disney’s Polynesian Resort, for example, with its thatched roofs, koi ponds and Tahitian look.
Closer to this city, there’s the Waitiki Retro Tiki Lounge, known for its Hawaiianesque design, menu loaded with fresh seafood items that make it seem like the chefs just got off a fishing boat, and reputation for serving some of the largest burgers in downtown Orlando — “The Big One.” I’ve sampled these burgers a few times, and I have to tell you, when the restuarant advertises that if you can finish it in 25 minutes, you get it for free, I’m not sure if that’s a promise or a threat.
Considering that Florida already has plenty of beaches, resorts, sandy shores, and nightclubs with a view of the ocean, I always wonder why we immitate another state that competes with us for tourist dollars. Somebody else can answer that riddle, but to me there’s no mystery why Waitiki keeps racking in the crowds. It’s a fun spot from the moment you walk inside — and not just because of the restaurant’s funky decor, music that includes reggae bands, acoustic singers and DJs, or their daily Happy Hour. It’s hard to imagine a better location for a restaurant like this than at the Wall Street Plaza.
If downtown Orlando is going to survive and thrive beyond this economic downturn and the resulting double-digit unemployment rate we’ve been stuck with, I think the city would be wise to worry less about a new, costly performing arts center and devote more attention to getting the word out about what downtown already has. Church Street is experiencing a nice revival, and if you’ve ever been to Wall Street Plaza when they’ve sectioned it off for special events, fund-raisers and concerts, you know the crowds can get so thick on that street that moving a fraction of an inch becomes problematic. And if the city wants a spot like Wall Street Plaza to continue attracting crowds, why not advertise the anchor restaurants in there more often — like Waitiki’s.
And what’s so cool about this place? Ok, you may be right in the midst of a busy urban downtown with not a spec of sandy beachline for miles, but you’re likely to get that “Surfs up” feel the instant you walk in. From the tiki lounge bar to the Polynesian Lemonade drinks to the Polynesian Pork Skewers on the menu, Waitiki’s doesn’t feel like a chain restaurant with a by-the-numbers design. It feels relaxed, fun, and mellow — an ideal happy hour spot for anyone who works in downtown and needs that time right after they leave the office to sit back and unwind from the daily grind.
The Waitiki menu is fun, too — you’ve got those massive burgers, plus traditionally-sized sandwiches to pick from, and steaks and fish, but with the occasional Tiki twist — like the Polynesian Cobb sandwich for $8.99, which tosses grilled chicken, bacon and pineapple in with the greens.
In keeping with that “the ocean is calling out to you” mood, there’s plenty of fish on the menu — including grilled or blackened Mahi on a Kaiser bun ($8.99). You can switch instead to a Steak Philly sautéed with onions and peppers and topped with Swiss cheese on a Vienna roll ($8.99), or sample the Waitiki Club — wheatberry bread hosting a mix of turkey, ham, bacon, American cheese, lettuce, tomato
and mayo, for $7.99.
Waitiki’s is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Happy hour is from 4-7 p.m., and if you don’t think Waitiki’s is serious about helping you unwind, consider that all Tiki drinks are half price during happy hour, and you can get Red Stripe and Red Stripe Light at $2.50 all day, every day. More importantly, the cocktails are endlessly tempting: the Island Margarita, the Sinapour Sling, the Nui Nui and my favorite, the “Painkiller” — Russian Rum, pineapples, oranges, coconut and nutmeg, priced at $8. I rarely experience anything remotely resembling pain at Waitiki’s.
But it’s not just happy hour when Waitiki’s comes alive. This is a great place to party during the evening hours, since both Waitiki’s and Wall Street Plaza host plenty of regular entertainment to entice a crowd or two. At Waitiki’s alone, John Neff performs on Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. and Thursdays from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., there’s Kona music every Monday from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and Wednesdays gives the crowd Reggae with the 506 Crew to dance to into the wee hours. If you’re bored here, chances are you’re slipping in and out of a coma.
To learn more about Waitiki’s, which is at 25 Wall Street Plaza, call 407-481-1199. It’s one of the reasons why downtown Orlando just keeps getting better.

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