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100 to love: The Tampa Bay area's best restaurants

March marks my second anniversary at the St. Petersburg Times, but the start of a new year prompts a look backward, in essence a review of my reviews. Dining out for nearly 200 meals this past year, I feel better able to piece together a "best of" list and to think about the year of eating behind us. • Last year brought Tampa Bay some of the food trends that have been swirling around the rest of the country. It was the year most of us stopped ordering bottled water, the year we began to taste bacon and salty things in desserts, the year shops opened devoted entirely to cupcakes, and to tangy, Pinkberry-style yogurt. Small plates, tapas, meze — call them what you will, it was also the year of little foods at little prices. • It was the year celebrity chef Robert Irvine was going to turn St. Petersburg into the next Monaco. And then it so, so wasn't. • We didn't get his much-anticipated Ooze and Schmooze, but despite a worsening economy, it was a year of exciting restaurant openings. Council Oak, Bamboozle and Smoke added some tasty drama in Tampa, and Z Grille, MFA Cafe and MJ's Jazz & Tapas Lounge did the same in St. Petersburg. • It was also a year of many closures, from chains (Bennigan's and Steak & Ale) to local big shots (Lobster Pot, Lincoln Heights Bistro) and relative newcomers (Elements Global Cuisine, Tedesco's Grillside, the Kitchen, De Santo Latin American Bistro, Hammerheads and Novo). • Looking ahead to 2009, there's lots to anticipate. Some longtime local restaurateurs are expanding their empires (Steve Westphal and Tyson Grant of Parkshore Grille plan to open 400 Beach Coastal Cuisine, among others), and some new high-end chain concepts (Ocean Prime, for one) will open shop. • Best of times or worst of times — Charles Dickens can say whatever. Oliver Twist and I just say, "Please sir, can I have some more?"

best barbecue

Last year was a mixed one for Tampa Bay barbecue. A promising newcomer, Brisket Basket in St. Petersburg, closed in February after owner Linda Bernard passed away. But in May the telltale waft of good 'cue began to emanate from Platt Street in Tampa. Smoke got in our eyes, and our hearts, especially for its anything-but-perfunctory sides (braised red cabbage, crispy lemon kugel) and smoked Texas brisket. In a totally different 'cue camp, the Butlers Barbecue is still roasting pork over an open grill, chopping it and settling it into a tangy bath of vinegar and red pepper sauce, just as they advocate in eastern North Carolina. And Eli Crawford brings us Georgia-style pork ribs and spicy pork sausage at Eli's Bar-B-Que, served out of a repurposed ice cream shack near the Pinellas Trail in Dunedin.

. Smoke Barbeque and Grill, 901 W Platt St., Tampa; (813) 254-7070;

. The Butlers Barbecue, 1100 94th Ave. N, St Petersburg; (727) 577-3294.

. Eli's Bar-B-Que, 360 Skinner Blvd., Dunedin; (727) 738-4856.

best bar food

The Venue may have been one of the biggest financial gambles of 2008: a 27,000-square-foot adult playground with multiple bars, VIP rooms, dance floors and two discrete restaurant concepts. The suave Viaggio tapas bar and the Tokyo subway-inspired Takara sushi lounge both seem to be going strong and are way more gastronomically ambitious than most bars I can think of. Taps Wine & Beer Merchants doesn't set the bar quite as high, but this newcomer in downtown Tampa serves a number of salads and nibbles (tops: hot buttered pretzels) that pair seamlessly with the long list of fancy beers and cool, debit-card Enomatic self-serve wine. I'm looking forward to owner James DeVito's new restaurant projects in the same building in 2009. In St. Petersburg, Beak's Old Florida, its kitschy flotsam-and-jetsam decor ever more crowded, serves a mean crab corn dog and smashed tamale souffle alongside its good times and grog (sorry kids, grown-ups only).

. The Venue, 2675 Ulmerton Road, St. Petersburg; (727) 571-2222;

. Taps Wine & Beer Merchants, 777 N Ashley Drive, Tampa; (813) 463-1968;

. Beak's Old Florida, 2451 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 321-9100;

best breakfast

or brunch

Breakfast and brunch serve different purposes. The former is coffee, eggs, no big to-do, please; the latter is leisurely, sometimes expensive, often booze-addled. In the latter category, Oystercatchers at the Grand Hyatt reinvented itself a year ago with a $4-million renovation, the results an even more sumptuous, pull-out-all-the-stops weekend multistation buffet. On the other hand, T.C. Choy's is still one of the few joints in the area that whisks around the dim sum carts loaded up with 30 to 40 different dumplings for a frenzy of carbo-loading. In the category of "eggs over easy, bacon extra crispy, and keep the coffee coming," the new iteration of Hungry Bear Cafe has a legion of fans, some smitten by the range of Benedicts, some by the modest prices. If you like your breakfast with an accent (Philadelphia scrapple or eggy Jewish matzoh brei), the 50-year-old Lenny's remains a Clearwater institution.

. Oystercatchers, Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, 2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa; (813) 207-6815;

. T.C. Choy's Asian Bistro, 301 S Howard, Tampa; (813) 251-1191;

. Hungry Bear Cafe, 229 62nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 329-6124;

. Lenny's, 21220 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater; (727) 799-0402.

best Cajun, creole

or Southern

Craig Chapman nearly single-handedly brought the Big Easy back to St. Petersburg in 2008 with the opening of Grillside Central and Chappy's Louisiana Kitchen. The third of his trifecta, a soul food emporium slated for 400 Beach Drive NE, looks like a no-go, but downtown St. Petersburg seems to be swimming in shrimp and grits, collards and fried chicken, especially if you count Savannah's farther west on Central Avenue. Savannah's offers upscale spins on classic Southern dishes (fried chicken comes with a swirl of cracked pepper gravy, fried green tomatoes arrive atop a red pepper coulis, and there's a drop-dead Georgia peach julep). Grillside Central is comfort food, pure and simple, with reasonable prices, rib-sticking breakfast offerings and meatloaf that's hard to beat. Chappy's zeroes in on the more nuanced French side of New Orleans cuisine, from a delicate pecan trout to sophisticated Creole sauces — more of a white-tablecloth, date-night destination.

. Grillside Central, 437 Central Ave.,

St. Petersburg; (727) 820-9200.

. Chappy's Louisiana Kitchen, 247 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 896-5118.

. Savannah's Cafe, 1113 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 388-4371;

best old-timey

cheap eats

St. Petersburg Times staffers have their cult favorites, lunch places they speak of in hushed tones. When I first started, my predecessor, Chris Sherman, took me out to lunch at the Chatterbox Grill, where we sat on diner stools, swung our legs and waited for vast open-faced hot turkey sandwiches with all the fixings ($6.45). Add in a chocolate milk shake and you'll feel like the snake that's eaten the ostrich egg. In a similar vein, Real Florida writer Jeff Klinkenberg and book editor Colette Bancroft let me tag along to Munch's for the ritual Tuesday fried chicken feast ($6.25; three pieces, mashed potatoes, gravy and a quick draw on the sweet tea refills). But for resolute price capping, head to Mid Peninsula Seafood on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays for a $1.99 fish sandwich. For about 20 years in their Central Avenue location it was a 99-cent sandwich, but for the past 10 the lightly battered sea bass gets piled on a hamburger bun with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and cheese for a buck more.

. Chatterbox Grill, 56 Dr. Martin Luther King St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-0605.

. Munch's Sundries & Restaurant, 3920 Sixth St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-5972.

. Mid Peninsula Seafood Market & Restaurant, 400 49th St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 327-8309.

best Chinese

Hillsborough continues to stomp Pinellas in this category. China Yuan used to be for the hard-core foodie, the eater who knows to ask for the special all-Chinese menu and who doesn't mind a little discomfort. At the end of 2007, the restaurant underwent a lovely remodel so it now competes ably with the other juggernaut, nearby Yummy House. China Yuan may get the nod for Peking duck and subtle dishes like sesame jellyfish, but Yummy is unrivaled for its soups and salt and pepper dishes (tofu, squid). Rookie Chopstix isn't quite ready to play with the big boys, but it's doing lots right, from well-made dim sum dumplings to its excellent veggies like snow pea tips or spicy Szechuan eggplant.

. China Yuan Seafood Restaurant, 8502 N Armenia Ave., No. 1A, Tampa; (813) 936-7388;

. Yummy House, 2202 W Waters Ave.,

Suite 1, Tampa; (813) 915-2828.

. Chopstix, 1441 E Fletcher Ave., Tampa; (813) 632-3293.

best coffeehouse

It's got to brew a good cup, sure, but a great coffeehouse has something that feels like love. Maybe it's just the nurturing or warmth, but whatever it is makes you want to loiter, measuring out life the J. Alfred Prufrock way. The Globe continues to be that kind of place, partly for its vegan noodle bowl and English muffin pizzas and partly because of owner JoEllen Schilke's personal magnetism. Just listen to her WMNF show, Art in Your Ear, or sign up for her e-newsletter and you'll be hooked. New in 2008, Banyan Coffee and Tea is similarly convivial. Erica Allums sends out rich cups of Kahwa coffee along with cheery Fiestaware plates of pork loin panini and bowls of hearty soup. College kids have a special call for coffeehouses (cosseting + caffeine = good grades), and Sacred Grounds has always served USF students well, with late hours, open-mike nights and a new organic food co-op.

. The Globe Coffee Lounge, 532 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 898-5282;

. Banyan Coffee and Tea, 689 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg; (727)


. Sacred Grounds, 4819 E Busch Blvd., Tampa; (813) 983-0837;

best comfort food

The most comforting foods are those served in deep bowls, wafting steam. It was a rough year, we needed a little comfort, and two new restaurants were emphatically up to the task. Michael Cecere's new Bowled Restaurant adopts a pan-global approach to one-dish meals, served, yes, in bowls. From a spicy red curry to a suave bouillabaisse, it's affordable, consoling and still stylish. (A new weekend brunch adds Benedict bowls to the mix.) Nicolas Paloma, at his unassuming Lakeview Grill, concentrates instead on soups, turning out a rotating array of hearty, stew-like Mexican concoctions, from a tomatoey lentil to a chicken tortilla.

. Bowled Restaurant, 3451 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 895-2695;

. Lakeview Grill, 1510 Lakeview Road, Clearwater; (727) 443-3738.

best Cuban sandwich

I tasted my first one of his last week, and I'm so impressed with his resolve that I'm going to go ahead and call it for Richard Gonzmart of the Columbia restaurants. He's a man on a mission: to re-create the great Cuban sandwich his great-grandfather and grandfather produced back in the heyday of Ybor City. He imports salami from Italy. He bought an outlandishly expensive steam convection oven to roast pork without a loss of moisture. He's worried about not tasting enough caramelization on the glazed ham. The fruits of his labor have just gone on the menu and, as he says, "Heads will roll if I cannot produce the best Cuban in the world!" Those in the know have also directed my attentions to Brocato's Sandwich Shop. Crowded at lunch, it indeed offers an excellent Cuban, generous on the meats, pressed aggressively. But my attentions also wandered to this Tampa landmark's very good deviled crab and the eats-like-a-meal stuffed potato.

. Columbia Restaurant, 2117 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City, other locations also; (813)


. Brocato's Sandwich Shop, 5021 E Columbus Drive, Tampa; (813) 248-9977.

best desserts

Many of the country's big cities are dotted with dessert-only restaurants. We don't have that yet, but none of them have the Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern's Steak House, either. Last year's dessert-menu overhaul rendered it more contemporary, and it still reigns supreme as the romantic date-night's ace in the hole.

For when you need to serve a whole dessert (whether you pawn it off as your own is for you and your conscience), Wright's Gourmet House has a red velvet cake and a pecan pie to bring a tear to the eye.

For my money, Bryce Whittlesey's classical French desserts at Davis Islands' Chez Bryce are worth at least a couple gallons of gas, extra for the chocolate espresso pot de creme and the lemon curd tart.

. Harry Waugh Dessert Room, Bern's Steak House, 1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-2421;

. Wright's Gourmet House, 1200 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 253-3838;

. Chez Bryce, 238 E Davis Blvd., Tampa; (813) 258-8100;

best Ethiopian

Last year I wouldn't have been able to round up any Ethiopian. This year it's a bounty, with Queen of Sheba and Abol Bunna, not far from each other in Tampa. Both offer the traditional, communal-style array of fairly mild meat and legume stews scooped atop elastic injera bread. Queen of Sheba has the edge for warm and effusive servers willing to guide the newbie; Abol Bunna is more able to satisfy a range of tastes (it offers a small number of Italian dishes, too) and oversees a lovely

traditional coffee ceremony.

. Queen of Sheba, 3636 Henderson Blvd., Tampa; (813) 872-6000;

. Abol Bunna, 3644 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 964-6889.

best fine dining

Early last year I tried out the recently launched three-course tasting menu at Savant Fine Dining, a bargain at $46. Chef/owner David Miller's enthusiasm for food and flavors is infectious. Then near the end of the year I enjoyed the luxurious Floribbean palette of chef Eric Neri at Maritana Grille. A pretty penny, but the appointments and details still shine. Chris Ponte is still turning out top-notch fare at Cafe Ponte, a kind of suave Cal-Med melange made more exciting now that the kitchen works with nearby Gateway Organic Farm to push local produce into the limelight. SideBern's had a year of change, with new executive chef Chad Johnson turning away from former chef Jeannie Pierola's Asian touches — no more dim sum — and toward a more Mediterranean palate, with a new, affordable lounge menu in the bar.

. Savant Fine Dining, 2551 Drew St., Clearwater; (727) 421-9975;

. The Maritana Grille, Don CeSar, 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-1882;

. Cafe Ponte, 13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 538-5768;

. SideBern's, 2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-2233;

best Greek

Say the words and eyes drift north to Tarpon Springs. They come and go here, but Hellas Restaurant remains stalwart in its commitment to flaming cheese and lamb shanks with spaghetti since 1970. In 2008, the Karamountzos family brought the real deal a little farther south to an enormous space in Clearwater: Greektown Grille has been an instant hit with live Greek music, chargrilled octopus, moussaka wedges the size of cinder blocks and lots of "opa" cheer. Athenian Garden moved to new digs in downtown St. Petersburg, but the number of eat-in tables is a little slim, so think more grab-a-Greek-salad (heavy on the hidden potato salad).

. Hellas Restaurant, 785 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; (727) 943-2400;

. Greektown Grille, 1230 Cleveland St., Clearwater; (727) 447-7800.

. Athenian Garden, 21 Third St. N, St. Petersburg, plus other locations; (727)


best grouper sandwich

Two years after the St. Petersburg Times exposed fake grouper in Tampa Bay restaurants, many establishments have decided to punt. Fine, they say, we'll serve a more circumspect "fish sandwich" instead. Dockside Dave's Grill is still doing it right. Snowy white locally caught grouper — battered and fried and served with drippy red tomato, crisp lettuce, a few rounds of white onion and a fairly soft roll — is worth sticking to your guns about. Add in a sassy order of onion rings. Walt'z Fish Shak

has a similar commitment to the real deal. Scamp, black grouper, grouper cakes and a lunchtime grouper sandwich — it's all explicated on a blackboard in the tiny, casual restaurant.

. Dockside Dave's, 14701 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach; (727) 392-9399;

. Walt'z Fish Shak, 224 Boardwalk Place E, Madeira Beach; (727) 395-0732.

best hamburger

A hotly contested category, no doubt, but I'm throwing down. In order of excellence, it's Square One and Tampa Bay Brewing, both in Tampa, with El Cap in St. Petersburg a distant third, but it makes it out of deference to longtime owner Steve Bonfili, who died last May at age 91. The El Cap burger is fairly small, with a nondescript bun, but it acquires its je ne sais quoi from the restaurant's well-worn baseball memorabilia. Bill Shumate and Joanie Corneil's Square One offers nine basic burger types (including Meyer Angus beef, Kobe, sashimi tuna, portobello) with a whole passel of toppers (teriyaki ginger sauce, roasted black bean and corn salsa) and three types of buns. Since moving to its new Centro Ybor crib, Tampa Bay Brewing has a lot to distract one from the suds: Kobe sliders, a froufrou burger topped with baked goat cheese and roasted red pepper, and the brewer's choice with melted blue cheese and crispy fried onion strings.

. Square One Burgers, 3701 N Henderson Blvd., Tampa; (813) 414-0101;

. Tampa Bay Brewing Company, 1600 E Eighth Ave., Tampa; (813) 247-1422;

. El Cap, 3500 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 521-1314.

best Indian

My favorite of the moment is Cilantro, a lovely, sprawling eatery opened in October 2007 (its sister restaurant is in Jacksonville). The food has punch and heat, with especially good vegetable dishes and breads. But Medhu and Naresh Sharma's Raga Asian Indian Restaurant offers a Northern Indian buffet during the week, a Sunday grand buffet showcasing the lesser-known vegetarian delights from Southern India, and Saturday morning cooking classes (the same folks are opening Green Chili Indian Bistro this week on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg). In the category of Indian food you'd find in England, I have two favorites: The long-standing Moon Under Water in St. Petersburg is a reliable purveyor of chicken tikka masala (I was also a fan of its short-lived take-away sibling Tanglin's, just closed), and in Tampa Mad Dogs and Englishmen serves nice masala cod and chicken curry, with several other slow-burn dishes.

. Cilantro Indian Cuisine, 11009 N 56th St., Tampa; (813) 983-8220;

. Raga Asian Indian Restaurant, 16080 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater; (727) 531-6400;

. Moon Under Water, 332 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-6160; or

. Mad Dogs and Englishmen, 4115 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 832-3037,

best Italian

It's a big category, with massive regional difference, price difference, fanciness difference and so forth complicating matters. For a dress-up splurge, Pelagia at the Renaissance Tampa Hotel International Plaza is at the summit, executive chef Fabrizio Schenardi having been named the hotel chain's top chef last year (unsurprising once you've tasted his pomegranate-marinated duck breast with white polenta and grappa-red wine sauce). But when you're looking for an al dente heap of bow-ties ladled with a smoky/spicy arrabiata sauce, eaten while wearing flip-flops in a funky garden, head to Pia's Trattoria in Gulfport. Pane Rustica's dinner menu continues to be swoon-worthy, from gnocchi with tenderloin, mushrooms and fava beans to lobster ravioli with lump crab, neither of which will break the bank. And for all the Italian staples — good olive oil or paper-thin slices of prosciutto, not to mention the country's largest aged provolone — Mazzaro Italian Market prevails.

. Pelagia Trattoria, 4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa; (813) 313-3235;

. Pia's Trattoria, 3054 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 327-2190.

. Pane Rustica, 3225 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 902-8828;

. Mazzaro Italian Market, 2909 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 321-2400;

best Japanese

The country's most expensive meal is Japanese, the $600 30-course Omakase menu at Masa in New York. In Clearwater Beach at Kiku Japanese Fine Dining you can put yourself in the hands of chef Daniel Chong for a fraction of that ($50 to $100), with wagu tartare, ahi carpaccio and delicate swaths of striped marlin, abalone and giant clam rolled, draped and wasabi-ed to perfection. On the other hand, an evening spent chasing a Signature Place roll or a Central Avenue roll around with a pair of chopsticks is a good one, making Pacific Wave still one of the smartest calls in downtown St. Petersburg. New chef Javier De Jesus has broadened the menu somewhat, adding Latin and Caribbean flavors to the Pacific Rim lineup.

. Kiku Japanese Fine Dining, 483 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach; (727)


. Pacific Wave, 211 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-5235;

best juice bar

I don't mean smoothies or sherbety concoctions. I mean carrots put through the wringer with the noise of a wood chipper, orange halves mangled into giving it up. A shot of wheat grass on the side. Together, deliciousness and an overwhelming feeling of well-being. The publicly traded Jamba Juice didn't do too well in 2008, but it still makes a mighty fine product. And new inside the Fit2Run store at International Plaza, Juice Kaboose also knows how to squeeze it right.

. Jamba Juice, 5004 E Fowler Ave., Tampa (with other locations); (813) 980-6446;

. Juice Kaboose, International Plaza, 2223 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-2786;

best late-night

This is not a 3 a.m.-grub kind of metro area, let's face it. Still, sometimes you find yourself peckish as the clock strikes midnight or beyond. In Ybor City this yen can be assuaged with one of the $3 fish tacos at Mema's Alaskan Tacos all the way until 3 a.m. on the weekends, or with a spontaneous combustion roll at nearby Samurai Blue until 1 a.m. (Westchase location is open only until 11 p.m. weekends.)

Downtown Tampa has a new late-nighter, serving food until 2 or 3 a.m. nightly. And what food it is. Paninoteca opened last year for lunch, serving punchy, flavorful Mediterranean mezze, salads and warm panini, just recently expanding to dinner. Owner Mary Coseski and staff make their own Italian bread and rosemary and onion focaccia, delicious ballast after a long night.

In St. Petersburg, the new Burrito Boarder, opened last September, has got you covered — all the way to 2:30 a.m. on weekends, with a pickup window in front of which you can watch revelers unwrapping their carne asada burrito bombs like it's Christmas morning.

The full 24 hours is a rare breed around here, with Three Coins, under new ownership since the end of 2007, providing one of the few classic wee-hours diner experiences (and they take credit cards now).

. Mema's Alaskan Tacos, 1724 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City; (813) 242-8226.

. Samurai Blue, 1600 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City; (813) 242-6688;

. Paninoteca Mediterranean Cafe, 519 N Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 341-2525.

. Burrito Boarder, 17 Third St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 209-0202;

. Three Coins, 7410 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 239-1256;

best lunch

BellaBrava launched a new lunch menu recently, nothing over $10, with panini, piadina (a pressed flatbread sandwich) and flatbread pizzas that make the noonday meal something of a party. And in Tampa the West Shore district has a compelling reason to sneak away from the office: Roy's has begun offering lunch for the first time, from the $22 prix-fixe "power lunch" splurge (short ribs, blackened ahi or grilled salmon with a salad, rice and other fixings) to a more economical "canoe for two" sampler ($18, with pot stickers, beef and gorgonzola sui mai, shrimp cocktail and Szechuan ribs).

. BellaBrava, 515 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 895-5515;

. Roy's Restaurant, 4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697; .

best Mediterranean/Middle Eastern

Temple Terrace has a number of laudable Lebanese restaurants. For sheer falafel splendor, visit Petra, which also houses a friendly Middle Eastern grocery (good pickles and hummus). The sandwich is a fair-priced $3.49, three crunchy spheres drizzled with tahini and tucked into pita. Based on initial visits, the just-opened Zekos Mediterranean Grill in St. Petersburg is also a winner. Housed in a tidy new building, Khaled El Jamal's order-at-the-counter quick-serve specializes in gyros, shawarma and addictive deep-fried veggies and plank-style fries. My affection for Byblos has waned in recent visits, which is why finding SoHo Oasis Cafe has been a boon: a phalanx of hookahs at the ready, delicious vegetarian mezze with lick-the-plate-clean versions of labneh and baba ghanoush, and lots of fun people watching.

. Petra Restaurant, 4812 E Busch Blvd., Tampa; (813) 984-9800.

. Zekos Mediterranean Grill, 4880 54th Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 525-9356.

. SoHo Oasis Cafe, 410 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 849-7482;

best Mexican

Despite a little bobble on the name last year (Mariposa Mexican Grille became Mekenita Mexican Grille after a restaurant of the same name in Colorado started grousing), Rand Packer's cozy regional Mexican hot spot is going strong, with a second location slated to open in Trinity in 2009. The former Roy's chef devotes his time now to family-friendly tacos, sopes and agua frescas. Chef Chris Fernandez continues to bring the area nuanced Oaxacan cuisine at the long-standing Red Mesa, as co-owner Peter Veytia gets his next venture up and running at Red Mesa Cantina. The new locale features affordably priced tacos and ceviches, while the flagship has loftier culinary aims, pairing shrimp and sea scallops with spicy chorizo and poblanos, or grilling skirt steak rubbed rosy with chimayo chile. Casa Tina moved into a bigger, more luxurious space early last year and continues to especially delight the vegetarian community with its veggie and even vegan spins on casual, affordable, fun Mex.

. Mekenita Mexican Grille, 17623 N Dale Mabry Highway, Lutz; (813) 264-1212;

. Red Mesa, 4912 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 527-8728;

. Casa Tina, 365 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 734-9226;

best new restaurant

This would have been a more crowded field had James Canter and Domenica Macchia stayed behind the stoves at MFA Cafe and MJ's Jazz & Tapas Lounge, respectively. Zach and Jennifer Gross, owners of the new Z Grille in Signature Place, have only each other to toast. Z Grille offers downtown St. Petersburg style and a bit of sass along with a hip menu and glamorous interior. Let's hope this chef-driven venture prompts a raft of others with such singular panache to pop up around Tampa Bay. Also, that fancy deviled eggs become a trend.

. Z Grille, 104 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-9600;

best pizza

In September, longtime Tampa pizza maestro Cesare Bastone tossed his last pies, dying of a heart attack only a couple weeks after the Times included Cesare's of New York Pizza in a roundup of best pizzas. He may be gone, but there are still some terrestrial heavy hitters in the area. Not known for its pizza, certainly, but Mise en Place does a rock shrimp, poblanos and chorizo pizza that is hard to beat. Matthew McClellan, owner of Tour de Pizza, wins the prize for thinking big. Thin-crust pizzas, lots of cheese, not too much sauce — but his dream is to install a bicycle in the restaurant that, when pedaled, powers the pizza oven. The coal oven at Cristino's can cook a pizza in five minutes, rendering it crisp but chewy, with those black bubbles and perfectly gooey cheese. Order a pie without too much stuff on it, and save room for gelato.

. Mise en Place, 442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 254-5373; .

. Tour de Pizza, 212 37th Ave. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 898-5555;

. Cristino's Coal Oven Pizza, 1101 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater; (727) 443-4900;

best romantic

When I think romance, I think gorgeous views, fancy French words heavy on the circumflex, waiters in tuxedoes and multiple courses (for foodies, that's foreplay). Oh, and chocolate, lots of chocolate. Armani's atop the Hyatt has the views and the tuxedoes in reckless abundance, still serving antipasti and posh Northern Italian. New creperie L'Olivier and Carrollwood independent Toasted Pheasant Bistro are rich with all those French food words. Tampa's Six Tables, owned by the lovely couple Amy and Richard Bottini, sends out six courses to diners, amorous or otherwise. All four offer chocolate in plenty of guises — L'Olivier's candlelit patio is where to go when the weather is lovely, Six Tables for when it's got to be special (the evening's menu is $90, the table is yours for the night), Toasted Pheasant for fanning the flames without burning too much cash, and Armani's for when you and your sweetie need to feel on top of the world.

. Armani's, 2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa; (813) 207-6800;

. L'Olivier, 111 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 821-3846;

. Toasted Pheasant Bistro, 14445 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 265-6700;

. Six Tables, 4267 Henderson Blvd., Tampa; (813) 207-0527;

best seafood

I like Walt Wickman's approach. See what's fresh, get some, figure out what to do with it tonight. Get up tomorrow, repeat. He grew up in Dunedin, so his Walt's Seasonal Cuisine seems to have a special affinity for gulf goods — jumbo stone crabs, grilled hogfish with key lime vinaigrette, he knows what he's doing. One of my favorite finds of the year was Wild Shrimp Company, a little fish shack adjacent to Haslam's bookstore that specializes in sweet wild gulf shrimp, sometimes deep-fried, sometimes studding a gumbo or jambalaya. Tom Pritchard and his partner Frank Chivas never seem far from these best-of lists, their Salt Rock Grill and Marlin Darlin spoken of reverently by seafood fans, the former also prized for its front deck and its aged steaks, the latter for its Key West good-times cheer.

The Sandpearl's Caretta on the Gulf has a raw bar and seafood-savvy menu that almost makes one forget the gorgeous beach views and swanky decor. The kitchen globe-trots through Szechuan prawn to crisp-skinned snapper and a delicate brown-butter sauteed skate, never missing a step.

. Walt's Seasonal Cuisine, 1140 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 733-1909;

. Wild Shrimp Company, 2005 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 209-0813.

. Salt Rock Grill, 19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores; (727) 593-7625;

. Marlin Darlin, 2819 W Bay Drive, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 584-1700;

. Caretta on the Gulf, Sandpearl Resort, 500 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach; (727) 441-2425;

best small plates

Small plate concepts got huge in 2008, and downtown Tampa restaurants sprouted like mad. Still, Fly Bar hovered over most, Leslie Shirah's industrial-chic vibe, rooftop deck and San Francisco-style nibbles keeping the place packed. The growing Ceviche empire decamped in Tampa to better digs (the site of the former St. Bart's), a good move because, though the menu remains largely unchanged, everything seems to taste a bit better on the moody nighttime patio and in the warren of intimate rooms. St. Petersburg Ceviche's new cousin, Pincho y Pincho next door, serves many of the same small plates, but the oh-so-Barcelona atmosphere and sidewalk tables make the veal and chorizo meatballs and braised lamb ribs with white beans taste even better. Pincho is also a glorious breakfast hangout. And speaking of Ceviche, Marchand's Bar & Grill at St. Petersburg's Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club has just launched an affordable ceviche bar and small plate menu, served from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday — mofongo made with plaintains and braised pork or smoked white fish with tomato and fennel-herb crostini for around $6. (And on the weekends Marchand's has instituted a new late-night chocolate buffet.)

. Fly Bar and Restaurant, 1202 Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 275-5000;

. Ceviche, 1502 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 250-0203;

. Pincho y Pincho and Ceviche, 10 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 209-2302.

. Marchand's, 501 Fifth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 894-1000;

best steakhouse

Colleague Jay Cridlin just wrote a manly-man's guide to the Tampa Bay area's best steaks. In powwowing with him, it became apparent just how subjective this topic is. For instance, I like them prime and dry-aged and I'd opt for flavor over texture (in a blind tasting I preferred grass-fed beef). Still, it's also about ambience, care with sauces and side dishes and what else is on the plate. If it's only blood splatters and a sprig of parsley, that's points off in my book. In 2008, my most memorable steaks included a bone-in filet at the glamorous Council Oak at the Seminole Hard Rock, a Pittsburgh-rare bone-in rib eye at Malio's Prime (noise problems seem to have been worked out there) and another rib eye, this one topped with a riot of juicy sauteed sweet onions and roma tomato wedges at Bob Spoto's new Grill 131.

. Council Oak Steaks & Seafood, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Tampa, 5223 N Orient Road, Tampa; (813) 627-7628;

. Malio's Prime, 400 N Ashley Drive, Tampa; (813) 223-7746;

. Grill 131, 13079 Park Blvd., Seminole; (727) 393-1703;

best Thai

Readers gave me several of my best finds of the year, among them Supattra Head's lovely Thai Spice in Clearwater: pretty dining room, excellent service and the deep, nuanced kind of spiciness that builds slowly and is mellowed by herbs and peanuts and tiny salted shrimp. Not too far away, Ban Thai benefits from gentle service, pretty flowers and a nice balance of salty-tangy-sweet-hot in curries. Thai Ruby in Tampa is a reliable we-have-no-food-in-the-house impromptu dinner: a green chicken curry heady with basil, chicken sate that arrives with its own special grill and a comforting two-friends panang.

. Thai Spice, 2475 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater; (727) 791-7050;

. Ban Thai, 2519 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater; (727) 724-2992.

. Thai Ruby, 15319 Amberly Drive, Tampa; (813) 558-0570.

best vegetarian

It was a banner year for vegetarians in the bay area. A number of raw, vegan and vegetarian restaurants sprang up, and more restaurants realized the importance of including menu items for those who choose to be meat-free. Grass Root, a labor of love presided over by Jenyce Silverstein and Spencer and Sabrina Sterling, is 100 percent vegan and nearly that percentage delicious. Air-dried caramelized onion bread provides the basis for a stunning raw "hummus" sandwich with avocado, sprouts and raw cashew "cheese." Things can take a little while to come out of the kitchen, so sip one of Spencer's amazing juices (spicy carrot, apple and ginger) while you wait. Leafy Greens opened in North Redington Beach, only to have lease problems and move to downtown St. Petersburg (more lease problems loom, but fingers are crossed). Raw food here is accessible and sophisticated, and owner Denise Becknell is a vocal proponent of the health benefits of a raw diet. Even the skeptic will enjoy the spiraled zucchini "noodles" topped with a raw tomato sauce and sun-dried tomatoes. Veteran Indian restaurant Udipi Cafe serves the vegetarian community with huge Southern Indian dosa pancakes and veggie-studded uthappam (something between a pizza and an omelet), all proof positive that meatless can get spicy.

. Grass Root, 2702 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 221-7668;

. Leafy Greens, 409 Central Ave, St. Petersburg; (727) 289-7087;

. Udipi Cafe, 14422 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, (813) 962-7300;

best Vietnamese

They couldn't be further apart in style, but my top three favorites are Restaurant BT and newcomers Ben Thanh and Bamboozle, all owned by women. BT has been an anchor in Old Hyde Park Village for several years, B.T. Nguyen's signature French-Vietnamese cuisine elegant and modish. My enthusiasm was renewed when she launched an affordable bar menu mid year, perfect for an evening of chatting, cocktails and dueling sets of chopsticks hovering over a plate of five-spice pork skewers or gingery duck dumplings. Susan Nguyen reopened her beloved Ben Thanh in a new location at the beginning of 2008; not fancy, but fans followed for her pho and egg noodle soups, vermicelli bowls, soothing porridges, stir-fries and self-roll entrees. Xuan "Sing" Hurt and Lynn Pham launched Bamboozle in downtown Tampa — it's the kind of savvy restaurant that could spawn a chain. Bright, clean, lively, it's like a fresh-roll cafeteria: Step in line and order from the board, watch the women behind the counter corral your fillings in a rice paper roll, hop to the sauce bar for fish sauce-spiked nuoc mam or Sriracha. Vermicelli bowls and a tasty banh mi barbecued pork sandwich round it out.

. Restaurant BT, 1633 W Snow Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-1916;

. Ben Thanh, 4200 62nd Ave. N, Pinellas Park; (727) 526-3051.

. Bamboozle Cafe, 516 N Tampa St., Tampa; (813) 223-7320;

best wine or beer list

Bern's is the 800-pound gorilla, right? Take the tour and marvel at all those open bottles on the wall and all those cases stacked at the ready, knowing full well that, like your average iceberg, there's so much more you're just not seeing. Size and breadth continually garner superlatives from all corners, but it all comes down to finding something that suits your mood, suits your food and is ready to drink. Bern's delivers. Another old-timer (all the way back to 1948), Bob Heilman's Beachcomber's has a list that isn't nearly as exhaustive, but Burgundy and California pinot noir fans may still experience a little lightheadedness or racing pulse. Peg's Cantina in Gulfport serves nice Mexican, with pizza on the weekend, and has a lovely patio. But what you need to know: There also is a gorgeous array of Belgian ales and lambics and all the best microbrews from big names like Rogue, Bison and Boulder, with a special affection for unfiltered wheats.

. Bern's Steak House, 1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-2421;

. Bob Heilman's Beachcomber, 447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater; (727) 442-4144;

. Peg's Cantina, 3038 Beach Blvd., Gulfport; (727) 328-2720;

100 to love: The Tampa Bay area's best restaurants 01/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 10:39am]
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