Monday, December 20, 2010

Hard Rock Cafe 2.0: The new Hard Rock Cafe Tampa boasts interactive diversions, live music and classic American fare

Posted By on Mon, Dec 20, 2010 at 12:30 PM

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This Tuesday, December 21, the long-awaited Hard Rock Cafe at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino will be open to the public. I have to admit that I was expecting the usual layout and design that I've experienced in the others I've visited in numerous cities — hard woods from floor to ceiling, and TVs everywhere (well, that last part hasn't changed). But this 17,500-sq. ft., 371-seat addition to the worldwide chain of rock n' roll-themed cafes is not only about the food and music memorabilia, it also integrates technology, gaming and live performances, serving as a prototype for future cafe designs.

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The sleek, stand-alone Band Shell Bar and lounge booths sit underneath a neon canopy. What's different about this cafe's bar? The 20 tabletop video slot machines built into the bar (it's in a casino — did you expect any less?). Around the bar is seating against the walls and either side has a large touchscreen table resembling a large iPad (don't tell Microsoft I said that, though, because it's their technology) where guests can play games and videos, as well as peruse the Hard Rock memorabilia archive.

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Glass cases display rock icon relics from days gone by. Each one represents a different decade: the '50s case houses Buddy Holly's suit from his tour in 1957, the '60s has a Beatles set list, the '70s encases the "Freebird guitar" — the instrument on which Lynrd Skynyrd's famous song was recorded. The '80s case contains a canary yellow suit worn by Rod Stewart; the highlight of the ’90s case is the iconic black fedora used by Michael Jackson in his ’97 world tour and signed on the underside of the brim; from the ’90s is an outfit from Justin Timberlake's N*SYNC days, and in the "Current" display case is a belly-baring outfit that belonged to Gwen Stefani, along with other present-day rock star souvenirs. I was fortunate enough to get thisclose to Elvis' pink jumpsuit and one of Madonna's lacy corsets before they were locked away in display cases (yes, I get excited about that sort of thing).

Head around the right side of the canopied bar and experience the Hard Rock Interactive Wall — two-82-inch flat screens and two 30-inch screens that tower about 12 feet high and allow guests to browse through the 2,000 rock memorabilia items archived thus far of the 73,000+ items in Hard Rock's possession in their 166 venues worldwide. Users can search for items by artist, music genre and by cafe location, using their fingertips to scroll around and magnify items to see every minute detail. My favorite feature of these touch screens is that guests can vote on the music videos played on the large, flat panel TVs around the restaurant.

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The booths in the cafe also boast this touchscreen technology, with flat panels built into the booth walls. While waiting for their food, guests can play with the same technology featured on the Rock Wall. Want to listen to Bowie while chowing on your burger? Vote for it (just make sure to wipe your greasy fingers before smearing them all over the screen). The restaurant is also testing wireless, battery-operated touch screens at some of the other tables to test wear and tear.

The first of its kind, this Hard Rock Cafe will include a blackjack pit. Located to the right of the bar, the Hard Rock Girl gaming room will be decked wall to wall with memorabilia of legendary ladies of music: costumes and jewelry once belonging to Cher, Barbra Streisand, Madonna and Shakira will be on display. And, to lend even more estrogen to this area, go-go dancers will provide live entertainment.

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As for the food, the menu contains many of Hard Rock's signature American fare items, like the Twisted Mac & Cheese, hickory smoked pulled pork sandwich, the SOB Burger (that's "South of the Border"), as well as an array of salads, entrees and desserts. Putting our regional stamp on the menu, the executive chef has added the 1880 Ybor City Burger, inspired by the typical lunch eaten by the Cuban immigrants who toiled away in the cigar factories of Ybor City. Though it's more of a take on the Cuban sandwich than a burger, it is made up of roasted mojo pork, sliced ham and melted Swiss cheese, topped with pickles and mustard on a buttered and toasted bun. They'll also be offering items found on the menu at Martorano's restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale and at the Hollywood (FL) Hard Rock Casino.

A highlight of this Hard Rock Cafe's kitchen is its temperature-controlled "burger bar" where guests can watch the cooks grind all of the beef used in the burgers. Getting the chance to see the quality meat used and knowing that your burger was freshly ground less than an hour before hitting the grill make it worth the price tag.

Last but not least, the music. Cafe by day, live performance venue by night, the stage at the back of the restaurant is probably the best feature of this place. It's reminiscent of a VH1 Unplugged concert stage, where the performers will be just feet from the audience. For larger shows, the tables on the floor can be moved to make way for 700 standing guests, or for more intimate shows, it can seat 200-plus spectators.

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Hard Rock Tampa will host local and regional bands every Thursday through Saturday night, with shows from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., and live DJ Chris Craze will perform afterward until 4 a.m. Thus far, the lineup through January includes Roberto DeBourg & The Flats, Sweet Spot, Jeremy Thomas Band, Kings County and Pocket Change.

Well-known musical acts will also be performing here, such as Sister Hazel on New Year's Eve and Jim Belushi & The Sacred Hearts on Friday, January 28th. Okay, sure, those aren't huge names in music, but I was also told that the Foo Fighters will be one of the acts in the not-too-distant future (the cafe is still in the process of booking performers). And the lineup won't be limited to musical acts. Stand-up comedians will also be doing gigs here, beginning with Ralph Harris on Friday, January 17th.

If you collect t-shirts and souvenirs from every Hard Rock Cafe you visit, or just want to peruse their wares while you wait for your table, the Rock Shop is where it's at. My personal favorites are the Signature Series shirts designed by artists like Bon Jovi, Shakira and Ozzy Osbourne (the latter two are ones I'll admit to owning); part of the proceeds from the shirts is donated to various charitable organizations.

All in all, I have to say that I was quite impressed with this new archetype of the Hard Rock Cafe chain. Its glossy multimedia makeover sets it apart from the rest, but it still retains the classic fare, eclectic-looking staff and rocking music.

Will it just be a destination for tourists? With the exclusive concerts and weekly events, I don't think so. It may not be a spot residents will visit on a regular basis (unless you live near), but for most it would make a great night out once every few months for dinner and a show.

Purchase event tickets through Ticketmaster. 5224 Orient Road, Tampa; 866-502-7529, seminolehardrock.com.

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