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How a Montreal Designer Brought Grandeur to the Tampa Restaurant Scene


Boulon is a French brasserie designed by a Montreal’s that has helped to transform Tampa’s dining scene. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Every great city needs a French bistro. Tampa, Jeff Gigante knew, needed a French bistro. A restaurateur in the city for more than three decades, Gigante had control of the store front on the most coveted corner of the new Water Street District, located at Channelside Drive and diagonally across from Amalie Arena. Five-star hotels were slated to come into town, and with them would arrive fine-dining choices and artisan coffee shops. Sports bars could be counted on to serve the pre- and post-game hockey crowds and casual spots would offer quality pizzas, burgers, and ice cream for families. But, in 2020, there were no plans yet for a French bistro — a classic white-linen charmer where you can lounge at lunch with your rosé or enjoy the bustle of dinner with a serving of steak tartare, escargots, duck confit, or French onion soup. Or caviar service, too, if you liked.

Tampa needed one of those places. Because Tampa was about to be great.


The success of the Tampa Bay Lightning was a catalyst for the city’s Water Street District, which is filled with acclaimed restaurants and luxury hotels. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The Water Street District, funded by Bill Gates and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, was going up fast and the implications were clear: Florida’s under-recognized metropolis on the state’s Gulf Coast was about to have its moment. Gigante wanted to be ready for the international attention that the business community and tourism industry would bring.

The problem was he and his team at Next Level Brands had to transform the 7,090-square-foot space into a restaurant that resembled something that wouldn’t look out of place in La Défense. And the work had to be done during the pandemic.

Without experience locally to deliver a restaurant design of the magnitude he envisioned, Gigante looked beyond Tampa — and the United States. He found photographs online of the namesake restaurant of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson at Montreal’s Four Seasons Hotel. Gigante tracked down the designer of Marcus, who happened to be both an interior designer and restaurateur, and inquired if he would work on multiple Next Level projects.

Zébulon Perron has designed some of Montreal’s leading restaurants — including the acclaimed Vin Mon Lapin — and says he immediately connected with Gigante and his vision for the Tampa project.


Boulon features elegant yet inviting design and decor, accentuated by mirrors and floor-to-ceiling windows that effectively distribute natural and artificial light. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“Indeed, this was in the middle of the pandemic. We did all our first meetings virtually. We negotiated contracts that way and signed them, and started on the work. All virtually. It was several months before we ever met in person,” Perron said during a phone interview from his studio near the University of Montreal. “We hit it off naturally even under those circumstances.”

The interior designer from Quebec and the Florida entrepreneur became such instant friends that Gigante even mused about naming the restaurant after Perron. That’s when he did an Internet search for potential French names and learned that “boulon” means “bolt”. With the Lightning, nicknamed “The Bolts,” playing their home games at Amalie Arena — and Next Level having investment partners that included former team captain Vincent Lecavalier and current head coach Jon Cooper — the name was perfection.

MORE TAMPA: A Food Scene Grows

Boulon was born and has been a star in a city with growing acclaim for its restaurants.

“Something like Boulon you walk in and you feel recognizable,” Perron said. “You don’t feel like you’re in Tampa. It feels like you’re in New York or Paris. This is what excellent designs do, when you go through the threshold you are transported. And I think that’s part of the reason why it’s successful.”

In a highly active space with 336 seats, including an attractive patio on Water Street, Gigante knew that functionality had to be as much of a core to Boulon as it was to Marcus.

“Purpose and function met design. That’s what I liked about that space when I saw the photos. I said, ‘That’s exactly what I want here.’ Every area of that restaurant had a reason, a purpose,” Gigante said of Perron’s creation in Montreal. “Nothing was left unused. He even believes in proper ceiling use for abatement in sound.”


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Boulon is classic and contemporary. The space is long and, with tall columns, resembles restaurants you might find in iconic railway stations like Manhattan’s Grand Central, but it is lavished in sunlight thanks to long banks of windows facing onto the street and smartly positioned mirrors that distribute the natural and artificial light.

“I think Tampa, with everything that’s going on there and the incredible dynamism that’s happening in the city, is ready for more cosmopolitan dining. We felt we were privileged to come in on the scene with a big project like that at this moment,” Perron said. “A real city needs a real brasserie and you do feel like this is a game-changer.”

Where Else to Dine in Tampa


Best tacos north of Mexico? These options from Streetlight Taco certainly are a contender. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Tampa feels like Toronto did about 14 years ago when the Black Hoof and Bar Isabel were buzzy or Chicago just before Alinea opened. An explosion in culinary tourism is already happening and these are among the restaurants you should try when you visit:

Streetlight Taco: Chef and co-owner Michael Brannock has deservedly put a casual taco restaurant on the Michelin list. Launched in February, Streetlight Taco earned a Bib Gourmand honour in the 2024 Michelin Tampa guide. At Streetlight Taco, Brannock fuses his passion for Mexican cuisine with his ambition to source the best ingredients, importing corn from Oaxaca and elsewhere. The result is remarkable.


Michael Brannock has turned his affection for Mexican cuisine into Streetlight Taco, a dynamic new addition to Tampa’s dining scene. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Easily the best Mexican street food I’ve had north of Baja — and I’d bet you’ll be equally impressed. Tacos to try: Beet and goat cheese; sweet potato; and beef brisket.

Rocca: Italian cuisine done to perfection by chef Bryce Bonsack at this Michelin-starred gem. Every dish I tried evoked the classic flavours of authentic old-world kitchens, whether it was the burrata prepared tableside by a mozzarella cart or the sublime olive cake. A restaurant deserving of all of its accolades.

The Pearl: A neighbour of Boulon’s on Water Street, The Pearl is beloved for its oysters and southern dishes like Jalapeño Corn Spoon Bread, fried chicken, and old-fashioned devilled eggs, served on an antique scale. It’s another great place for before or after a game or show.

Noble Rice: What were you doing at 22 years old? Chances are you weren’t heading the kitchen at a Michelin-recommended restaurant, like Jada Vidal. She’s the chef at sushi-focused Noble Rice, which regularly flies in bluefin tuna and other delicacies from Japan. Vidal is one of many exceptional and young culinary talents driving Tampa’s food scene.


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Flor Fina: Located at Hotel Haya in up-and-coming Ybor City, Flor Fina brings a contemporary touch to Cuban and Spanish dishes. The restaurant is noted for its fit-for-two paella and plantain-crusted red snapper. The cocktail list is also exceptional.

Élevage Soho Kitchen: The flagship restaurant of the outstanding Epicurean Hotel, a Marriott Autograph Collection property, Élevage features a menu of American favourites, such as steak, grilled salmon, and smoked short ribs. Élevage is in Hyde Park Village, the upscale neighbourhood known for its luxury shopping and sophisticated tastes.

Ulele: Inspired by the Indigenous history of the area, Ulele is named after a 16th-century princess from the Tocobaga nation.


A statue of Ulele, an Indigenous princess, is outside of the restaurant named in her honour. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The menu has few Indigenous items (there’s a Three Sisters Salad and a chili with game meat) and thus relies more heavily on familiar plates (a variety of steaks and local fish dishes).

Supernatural Food and Wine: One of the most surprising Michelin-recommended places in Tampa is a literal hole-in-the-wall eatery run by Wesley Roderick, who has a fine-dining pedigree. The restaurant is known for its donuts and superb egg sandwiches.

Where to Stay in Tampa


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Epicurean Hotel: Foodies will love this hotel that has a kitchen for cooking classes and a wine shop on the lobby level. You receive a complimentary glass of wine upon check-in. Room Rates: Nightly weekend stays in July start at $249 USD (approximately $345 CAD) per night. Check the hotel’s website to plan your travels.

Hotel Haya: A beautiful hotel with the cool vibes of Ybor City, Hotel Haya is both fresh and historic (it’s located in a former cigar factory). Room Rates: Nightly weekend stays in July start at a remarkably affordable $149 USD (approximately $205 CAD) per night. Check the hotel’s website to plan your travels.

More Coverage: Read more about Ybor City and Hotel Haya here.

Vacay.ca occasionally publishes content from destinations outside of Canada that our editors believe will interest our audience.

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016.