History Behind Ulele
When restaurateur Richard Gonzmart sets out to open a new restaurant, he does it like no other. President of the Columbia Restaurant Group — his family opened the original Columbia in Ybor in 1905. Richard also brought back Tampa’s legendary Goody Goody among a host of other culinary achievements. What do all Richard’s restaurants have in common? Every single concept has a story, and that story is purposefully accounted for in each and every detail. One could argue that Richard might be one of Tampa’s greatest storytellers, but instead of opening a book to begin the first chapter, he opens the doors to his restaurants.
And Ulele certainly follows in that tradition, but it took the right vision to bring it to life. An old steam-powered pump house sitting on the banks of the Hillsborough River next to the Ulele Spring in Tampa Heights was as forgotten as the neighborhood itself, but Richard saw a chance to bring renewed pride to the area. After all, it was just four blocks away from where his grandparents, mother and brother lived and just 300 yards away from where he was born. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ulele’s VP of New Development Keith Sedita became part of the project early on as the project manager and operating partner, saying, “I remember Richard driving me over to the building. It was so ambitious, but Richard had this great vision for the property and I was really excited to join him to help make that vision a reality.”
Two years later, Ulele opened with much anticipation. This gem celebrates the vibrant fusion of ingredients from Florida waters and land once home to many Native Americans, including Princess Ulele, the young daughter of local Tocobaga chief Hirrihigua. In 1528, Princess Ulele pleaded for mercy and threw herself over 17-year-old Juan Ortiz. He was about to be roasted alive in revenge for the tribe’s previous hostile encounters with European explorers. Ortiz, a member of the Spanish Narvaez expedition, was spared, and now this rich part of Tampa’s history is being told once more through the restaurant.
Ulele Featured Art
“I can tell you everything outside and inside the restaurant is intentional,” Keith explains. “Richard understands the link between art, the dining experience and the history, and the art is part of the fabric of Ulele.”
From the moment you step onto the property, the restaurant’s ambiance is there to greet you. Sitting between the restaurant and the Ulele Spring, the nearly seven-foot tall, 500-pound bronze by Cave Creek, AZ artist Vala Ola celebrates the independent spirit of Ulele. The statue is surrounded by water, which represents life, with a “ring of fire” to represent her spirit.
Tampa Height’s Dominique Martinez of Rustic Steel Creations designed several pieces, including the iconic gear front doors, giving a nod to the industrial past of the building. Inside, you’ll see his touches in the restaurant table bases, the cradles for the bottles in the wine room and the hood for the barbacoa grill.
One of the most talked about pieces is “The Laughing Horse” by Victor Delfin in Peru. Born in 1927, Victor Delfin is one of the leading sculptors and painters in Peru. Richard and his wife Melanie visited his home and ultimately bought the 1962 “Laughing Horse” sculpture at an online auction.
Andrew Watson of Built Furniture and Fixtures, located in Tampa Heights when Ulele first opened now in West Tampa, handcrafted all the table tops except for two tables made from a 100-year-old barn in North Florida, ensuring the restaurant’s construction positively reflected the surrounding neighborhood as well. Keith explains, “We wanted to impact Tampa Heights immediately. We wanted to keep money in the neighborhood every way that we could.”
Featured Ulele Menu Items
“We say the menu is Native-inspired, which means native to the land,” Keith says. “The story of Ulele helped us understand where we wanted to go with our ingredients. Celebrating Tampa’s history through the restaurant is really important to us, and we are telling that through our food, our beer and our cocktails as well.”
Oysters have been a local staple since the Tocobaga harvested them from the local waters, and the menu includes both raw and charbroiled. The charbroiled version includes garlic butter, grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses, a unique item that Ulele is very proud of.
Fortune Taylor’s Guava Pie, featuring a shortbread cookie crust, whipped cream and a guava reduction, is named after an African America slave. When she was freed, she amassed more than 30 acres near downtown Tampa after the Civil War, and ran a successful business selling baked goods.
The Magbee’s Manhattan is named after Magbee Spring, which is named after James Magbee, one of the first attorneys in Tampa with some colorful stories. Magbee’s great great grandsons come in from time to time to enjoy the Manhattan and the Magbee’s Honey Lager, also made on the property.
Other Ulele Fun Facts
The 2,100-square-foot Ulele Spring Brewery in front of the outdoor beer garden creates fresh-brewed lagers and ales using only the finest malted grains, hops, yeast, fresh fruit and locally sourced honey. Ulele also built an outdoor bar less than a year ago for those cool Florida nights. Brewery tours are available on request. With indoor seating for 240 inside and space outside to accommodate 600 guests, Ulele has private and semi-private event space available.
Don’t want to drive to the restaurant? No problem. You can utilize the boat slips, a water taxi or walk via Riverwalk to the restaurant
Ulele: 1810 North Highland Avenue, Tampa | 813-999-4952 | ulele.com