On Z Grille’s closing

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Zach Gross, the mercurial, blisteringly talented chef of the now defunct Z Grille, and I were not close, but we had a connection and, at least from my point of view, actually had a lot in common.

First and foremost, we both out-kicked our coverage when it came to the women we were fortunate enough to marry. We’re also both fathers of daughters, who are both only children.

We’re both both blunt. We’re both loud.

And, yeah, our peers in our respective industries regard us as sons of bitches.

What I am to local politics and media, Gross was to the local food and wine scene. There is no denying the talent. But, Jesus man, do you have to be such as*holes about it?

As Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times reports, Z Grille closed its doors on Sunday. Zach, Jen and their daughter are looking for greener pastures in California.

Why? Because Z Grille ain’t making the money it should and Gross is burned out.

As the son of a chef, I could see the burn out etched into Zach’s face as he chatted us up at his bar.

At the end of the day, Gross is a small business owner, which can be the most stressful job in the world if you let it get to you. And when the money is going out faster than its coming in – no matter how hard you work – it will get to you.

The demise of Z Grille is an important moment in Tampa Bay’s burgeoning food scene. When one of the few chefs to be nominated for a James Beard award pulls up his stakes, that should be a moment of pause.

Gross is absolutely right when he says, “There’s a ton of mediocre things going in and a tremendous amount of money had by people with no real skills.”

Look no further than what’s happening at Jannus Live to see that. What once was an inviting mix of jazz bars, adult lounges, and intriguing restaurants is now an amusement park of college bars for those who never went to college.

Gross is also on to something when he says the downtown St. Pete market could be oversaturated. And that’s before Rick Kriseman and Co. drop a 450-seat bowling ball of a restaurant into the bathtub at the new St. Pete Pier.

But make no mistake, the closing of Z Grille is, in the end, Gross’ responsibility. Great chefs can make bad locations work (Chris Ponte has been doing it for years in the no-mans-land of the Icot Center.)

The food at Z Grille was outstanding, especially for this market.

The front of the house and the service was another matter.

It’s very difficult to find and keep quality staff, but Z Grille seemed to have even less of it than other restaurants.

The bar was uninspiring, except for its view of some very talented cooks executing their craft. The space felt hard and sounded loud. It was all post-modern without the attendant sense of irony. Well, except for the lucha libre art which once adorned the restaurant’s walls.

As much as we loved Z Grille’s food, I don’t remember it having an especially strong wine program, which is how a restaurant really makes its money. You can sell all the Dr. Pepper ribs you wants, but the profit on them is nothing compared to a well-marked-up bottle of Pinot Noir.

And, remember, all of this is said by someone whose first recommendation to visitors looking to nosh is that they dine at Z Grille.

Get the deviled eggs, I’d tell them. Devour the foie gras burger with a side of truffle fries. The salads were not to be missed.

Order anything on the menu and you won’t be disappointed, I would tell people.

Z Grille was one of the few restaurants in Tampa Bay which never left a bad taste in your mouth.

As for the last thing Zach Gross said to you — much like when I write — is another story.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.