Lisa Morreale has a vision that would transform Tequila Cantina. Her plan would change the restaurant’s décor, cuisine, clientele and even its name. Before she can make those changes, however, she has to overcome an unexpected obstacle: residents who dislike the restaurant in its current form.
Residents in downtown Sarasota have registered complaints about the noise coming from nearby establishments, with Tequila Cantina cited as one of the most frequent offenders. The restaurant stays open until 2 a.m. daily, offering live music and attracting much of its business at the bar.
Morreale, a member of an ownership group that purchased the restaurant March 6, wants to change that.
She’s hired a new chef, Ted Hastings, to offer fresh European food. She’s hired Del Vescovo Design Group, who contributed to projects such as Citrus Square, to reimagine the interior of the building for a more upscale look.
She wants to change the music, offering lower-key jazz performances. She wants to change the name to Z’s on Main, though that’s subject to change. She wants to attract a more affluent clientele, and she wants to be known as a restaurant, not a bar.
“It is definitely going to be a fine-dining restaurant,” Morreale said.
If any of that is going to happen, Morreale has to install a walk-in cooler to store food. To install the cooler, the restaurant would lose 14 seats, making it too small to use its SRX liquor license. Morreale plans to apply for a Major Conditional Use that would allow the restaurant to use a 4COP, or nightclub, liquor license.
The first step of the approval process was a community workshop, held May 21. Residents expressed hesitation to allow the use of the new liquor license without concessions from the new ownership.
Residents in the area have heard pitches that sounded nice only to play out differently. In 2008, the City Commission and Sarasota Planning Board considered a 4COP license conditional use for Five Points Lounge, a proposed cocktail bar for high-end clientele. The lounge would not be a nightclub, owners stressed, and would offer live soft blues and jazz music.
The conditional use was granted, with the establishment allowed to have amplified live music only inside the building and the hours of operation set at 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Five Points Lounge eventually became a nightclub under the name Ivory Lounge. Despite sticking to the conditions outlined, Ivory Lounge has been another frequent target of scorn from residents. The precedent set in that case has people fearful of another unintended nightclub.
“Even though someone may have a vision or a plan, unless there are constraints built in, things can evolve,” said Dennis Adams, a resident of the condominiums at 100 Central Ave.
Resident Pat O’Brien, who also lives at 100 Central Ave., said there’s an innate lack of trust in the new ownership among downtown residents — not just because of the history of Tequila Cantina, but because of the history of downtown bars in general.
To win over downtown residents, O’Brien said, the group would have to make a good-faith display. That would include cutting down the noise in the short term, and possibly proffering conditions on operations to use the 4COP liquor license.
“I think that there’s no doubt that downtown is a neighborhood,” O’Brien said. “When you’re granted this license, it should be with the idea that when there’s competing interests between neighbors and bar owners, neighbors should win.”
At Thursday’s meeting, architect Tim Del Vescovo said the restaurant would be installing sound-muffling features — including a new storefront — and removing the interior stage.
Not all attendees of the meeting were in opposition to the changes. Ernie Ritz, a downtown resident and chairman of the Downtown Improvement District, said the changes would be a welcome change, and he argued that residents should be more open.
Once Morreale files a formal application for the conditional use, she will appear before the Development Review Committee, the planning board and the City Commission to gain approval. As the process continues, Morreale is adamant that her intentions are noble.
“I want to assure everybody: It’s not going to be a nightclub,” Morreale said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected]