If you are what you eat, Tampa bay diners are made of this stuff. Today we turn the spotlight on the area's iconic restaurants, those that have defined us as much as they've fed us. They may not be the "best," they may not always be the oldest, but these legendary spots have hosted us during triumphant milestones and nurtured us through life's inevitable setbacks.
We have no doubt that there will be little consensus about the top 25 (and we welcome reader feedback at blogs.tampabay.com/dining), but perhaps this list will prompt you to go back out and revisit an old friend.
The granddaddy of them all, Columbia Restaurant bears the distinction of being the oldest restaurant in Florida as well as the nation's largest Spanish-Cuban restaurant, with 13 rooms extending one full city block. Some of these waiters have been here a lifetime, there are stirring flamenco shows most nights, and owner Richard Gonzmart has an evangelical zeal when it comes to authentic Cuban sandwiches and the tossed-tableside 1905 Salad.
2117 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 248-4961
That's a long time to be the alpha dog, but Coney Island's Michigan-style chili dog is the coin of the realm, especially when eaten atop a brown vinyl stool at the counter with an impossibly thick chocolate shake at your elbow. The franks cost more than the nickel that owner Pete Barlas charged back in the day (he did add a 5-cent extra charge for anyone who ordered — sacrilege — ketchup on their chili dog), but son Hank and grandson Pete Barlas II haven't let prices get out of hand.
250 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-4493
There, on Bayshore Boulevard with the ahh-some views of Hillsborough Bay, they've been serving seafood to Tampa's well-off for as long as most people can remember. The Colonnade Restaurant property has been in the Whiteside family for more than 100 years, through five generations, each one adding to the long menu. Some dishes are homey (cornflake-coated grouper), others just odd (Cokes served with an olive), but everyone agrees that the window seats are prime downtown real estate.
3401 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 839-7558
Woody's Waterfront started as a tiny bait house for anglers doing their thing along Blind Pass, a rocky little inlet carved out by a ferocious hurricane in 1928. Back then it was burgers and such. It's still burgers and such, only now they are accompanied by margaritas and live music six nights a week. Servers hustle through the patio, tight-set with high-gloss picnic tables and turquoise sun umbrellas, hefting paper-lined baskets of fried shrimp and the ultimate Woody burger (mushrooms, fried onions, bacon, cheese). But be forewarned: Their tagline is "We're so close to the water, your burger will get wet."
7308 Sunset Way, St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-9165
Robert Edson Heilman may have passed away in 2007, but his legacy, Bob Heilman's Beachcomber, witness to countless birthdays and anniversaries, lives on. Pinot noir fanatics love it for their own reasons (Burgundy, Oregon, even his own FoxyRock — don't get them started), fried chicken fans for another. It's a Florida Trend hall of famer, but what people hold dear are the thick steaks, the soft piano music and the clubby conviviality.
447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach; (727) 442-4144
It's been featured on the Food Network, but that hasn't made Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish uppity. Prized for its laid-back style and inviting picnic tables, the big-time draw is, of course, the smoked fish: Smoked fish spread with saltines is fabled, the salmon is excellent, the mullet is an intensely fishy acquired taste. But Ted Peters also produces beloved cheeseburgers and German potato salad that is balanced precariously between the zing of vinegar and the smoke of bacon. This is a beer-drinking establishment, it closes early and for a price they will smoke your catch for you (they can even make kingfish taste good, and that's saying something).
1350 Pasadena Ave., South Pasadena; (727) 381-7931
Big bathtub planters outside, froufrou English collectibles inside, and it's dog friendly: The Chattaway in the Old Southeast neighborhood is a quirky bird with legion followers who have the bumper stickers to prove it. The central draw is the burger, a big dry cleaner's nightmare, but Chattaway is also cherished for its historic, ramshackle glory (it started as a general store with a gas pump back in the early 1920s). What you need to know: cash only and there's a special every day: Monday Cubans, Tuesday catfish, Wednesday Sloppy Joe's, Thursday spaghetti and meat sauce and Friday Juanita's Choice (which, mysteriously, seems to be stuck on shrimp salad or tuna salad).
358 22nd Ave. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-1594
It's time travel, pure and simple. Munch's Sundries & Restaurant's booths are lined with Lakewood Elementary class pictures from the 1960s (a lot of unfortunate haircuts); on the walls are tacked-up, and down-home, morsels of wisdom; and on Tuesdays every table is topped with the fried chicken feast—two pieces, mashed potatoes and gravy, $6.25. Some people swear by the fried green tomatoes and open-faced roast beef sandwich, others applaud the crazy-cheap breakfast offerings, but all hail the house milk shakes.
3920 Sixth St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-5972
Our only restaurant known round the world, Bern's Steak House is more than a landmark, it's fighting words and grounds for long-standing grudge matches. You're with it or you're against it, but either way you've got to admit waiters go through a grueling years-long apprenticeship, resulting in a staff that quotes verbatim from the vast menu. It's prime beef, aged and nurtured in Bern's own meat lockers, and you, the customer, dictate the size, cut, cooking temperature and way too many other details. Then upstairs there's the rococo excess of the Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern's Steak House, the date night's ace in the hole.
1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-2421
Back when shakes cost 15 cents, Biff-Burgers dotted the Southeast. It stood for Best in Fast Food. They had drive-in service and walk-up windows, they had "roto-broiled" burgers topped with a closely guarded secret-sauce concoction. Now, it appears, there's only one Best left. Burger King may be responsible for the near-extinction of Biff-Burger, but St. Petersburg's George Musser stayed strong. His location still has the original Biff-Burger neon sign; the menu runs to barbecue sandwiches, burger baskets and soft serve; and on Friday nights the parking lot fills with hot rods and their devotees.
3939 49th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 527-5297
Marjorie Wright is long gone, as is her vision of Wright's Gourmet House as the local go-to for caviar, truffles and other persnickety stuff. Instead, stalwarts stand in line for red velvet cakes, pecan pies and monster sandwiches (best: the turkey pecan salad or the "beef martini" with its rare roast beef, wine-marinated mushrooms and crisp bacon slices). During the holiday season, Wright's is bedlam, its refrigerators stacked deep with pies and cakes.
1200 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 253-3838
La Tropicana Cafe won't win any beauty pageants, it doesn't take credit and it's only open until 3 p.m. Still, just as the old guys finish sipping their cafe con leches and dunking a little Cuban toast, it fills again with businesspeople, tourists and locals intent on acquiring the Coco Special (that's a small Cuban sandwich and black beans and rice) or an order of ostrich egg-sized deviled crab. A coffee shop that pulses with Ybor's original spirit, it also has a drive-through window for when you need your con leche para llevar.
1822 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 247-4040
Is it the best hamburger around? Eh. But El Cap is the same as it's always been, beef ground on the premises and Rays posters and baseball memorabilia lining the walls. In recent years, wings and Philly cheesesteaks have been added to the short lineup of old-timey sammies (liverwurst, anyone?). Veteran Cappers insist the burger size has dwindled somewhat (thus, the double is de rigueur), but it's still adored as the place to watch the game.
3500 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 521-1314
The late Elzo Atwater Sr. and his wife, Mattie, bought the old Harlem Restaurant on 22nd Street S and made it their own. In 1977 they moved to the current location of Atwater's, and while it has been gussied at various points, and they no longer describe the fare as "soul food," it maintains its status as Midtown's landmark home-cooking cafeteria. Time brings good and bad — Eric Atwater successfully marketed Obama Crunch Cookies in the run-up to the last election; Atwater's American Sunday Plate concession has closed at Tropicana Field — but some things don't change. That means collard greens, fried chicken and peach cobbler overseen by Elzo Sr. and Mattie's seven children.
895 22nd Ave. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-7018
A relief of the Acropolis on the back wall, statues of Zeus and Athena, a full bar and a wonderful bakery attached to it — all signs point to Hellas being the most beloved Greek restaurant in Tarpon Springs. There's no consensus, mind you, but the slowly braised tomatoey lamb shanks, served mysteriously atop spaghetti, are fairly persuasive. Family-owned and within sight of the sponge docks, Hellas has been serving up Greek salads (a scoop of potato salad lurking in their midst) and fat wedges of pastitsio through a couple of generations of Tarpon's hearty Epiphany divers.
785 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; (727) 943-2400
The red wienermobile outside beckons; inside Mel's Hot Dogs, it's order at the counter. It's a fine dog, the house special packed with sauerkraut, onion, mustard, relish and pickle. Still, the Polish sausage is a fat, juicy choice, accessorized with brown mustard and grilled onions. At this worn red-and-white storefront, the clientele is all flip-flops, sunburns and wet bathing suits, many fresh from the nearby chills and thrills of Busch Gardens.
4136 E Busch Blvd., Tampa; (813) 985-8000
Editor's note: Sadly, this next restaurant has closed. In its place is a new Hooter's franchise.
There's a little Salvador Dali, a soupcon of Pablo Picasso and a whole lot of bolero on the piano. Pepin's Restaurant is a grande dame of Spanish food in Pinellas County, with the letter "p" getting special attention: paella, pompano en papillote and porterhouse pork chops. Founded by Jose and Delia Cortes, the torch was passed along the way to daughter and son-in-law Monique and Jim Massaro. An institution, sure, but one with new tricks up its sleeve: Pepin's added a vivacious new tapas menu not long ago.
4125 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 821-3773
It started as a teeny spot in Gulfport. Success brought change, and the Wine Cellar moved to bigger digs in North Redington Beach. Despite the grander 200-seat location, Karl Klumpp, Ted Sonnenshein and Peter Shuckert set about creating the same warmth and intimacy in this moodily lit setting. The culinary landscape is an oft-trammeled continental path, but with forks that lead one off toward Germany with sauerbraten, schnitzel and braised red cabbage. Large banquet rooms have made it a favorite for catering and fancy to-dos, and a Monday night buffet is beloved by those of sizeable appetites.
17307 Gulf Blvd., North Redington Beach;
When locals talk about the Hurricane, they almost always get a little grouchy and/or wistful about how it used to be, back when it was small and uncomplicated. After a massive renovation in 1991, it's neither now. There's the outside deck on the ground floor with its picnic tables, crisscrossed fishing line overhead to thwart opportunistic gulls, the gulf across the street. Stormy's, a more upscale dining room, is upstairs. There's a third-floor rooftop club, and the bustling indoor dining room downstairs is done up in a shambling Florida Keys style. But that doesn't mean the culinary focus has shifted much. Still a solid grouper sandwich, fried, grilled, broiled, blackened or jerked.
807 Gulf Way, St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-9558
The third generation of the Forney family now oversees the proceedings at Kojak's House of Ribs, a white house with the barbecue sauce-colored trim, its wide front porch and knotty pine-paneled dining room as comfy as a '70s rec room. It has built its reputation on all-natural Oklahoma-style pork spareribs, dry rubbed overnight, smoked for 2 to 3 hours then served in the buff. They don't strictly need any embellishment, but there's a hot 'cue sauce (red bottle) and a mild sauce (clear bottle) on the table. Pace yourself, because the house chocolate cake brings a square of sweet nostalgia struggling under the weight of molten fudge.
2808 Gandy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 837-3774
Skipper's Smokehouse has the ambience of a place 10 times its age. It's Tampa's most atmospheric live music venue (blues, alt rock, Tuvan throat singers, the gamut), with concerts held outdoors under the canopy of a huge, moss-festooned live oak. It has a lively 30s-and-up bar scene and a ramshackle restaurant serving wonderful grouper Reuben sandwiches, gator nuggets and black beans.
910 Skipper Road, Tampa; (813) 977-6474
There are four — count 'em, four — casual Frenchy's locations crowding the Clearwater Beach landscape, each a little different but all fueled by their own fleet of commercial fishing boats. Frenchy's Original Cafe is the smallest and maybe the quietest. Beyond the annual stone crab madness that occurs each October, Frenchy's supporters come back for the thick seafood gumbo, fish spread, grouper sandwiches and take-no-prisoners desserts (fried Oreos, peanut butter pie).
41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach; (727) 446-3607
Williams Lunch on Limoges started a full 73 years after the Williams family opened their little dry goods store in Dade City. The dry goods gave way to giftware, stationery and notions, and it is smack-dab in the middle of all this that the local ladies who lunch get down to business. And, yes, the chicken salad croissants and bacon quiches are served on Limoges china. Everyone swears by the fruit muffins (Chef Skip Mize, left, is mum about the recipe) and the sweet old waitresses in their sensible shoes peddle huge wedges of chocolate cake to the day-trippers and tour groups that show up with regularity for a little antiques-addled adventure in east Pasco.
14139 Seventh St., Dade City; (352) 567-5685
Owl fans everywhere know of Clearwater's crowning achievement. Hooters has spawned a worldwide empire, incubated and nurtured by a whole bunch of hard-working women in suntan panty hose and orange short-shorts. Built on the site of a former Dumpster washing facility, the original location is going strong, continuing its pledge to be "delightfully tacky yet unrefined." Once the ogling is over, there's the food: Wings are the thing, best not battered, and the spicy Buffalo chicken sandwich (which we believe is affectionately ordered as a "hot buff chick").
2800 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 797-4008
It's an appropriate name. Sukhothai means "Dawn of Happiness" and was the first independent Thai kingdom, founded in the 13th century. Sukhothai Restaurant in Tampa didn't open until a little later, but it still represented the first giddily exotic Asian food for a lot of us. Sure, we'd had chow mein and egg rolls, but aromatic curries, tom ka gai lush with coconut milk and pad Thai with its rice noodles and crushed peanuts seemed all new. The restaurant's location was no accident — world travelers from nearby MacDill Air Force Base represented the first stalwart customers.
8201 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 933-7990
Readers have spoken. And the words they uttered, 3,673 times, were: Crabby Bill's. The Loder family started Captain Bill's back in 1975, then sold it and moved on to the unnamed next project. As Matt Loder remembers it, one of his sisters said, "We love eating crabs, we love selling crabs and Dad is pretty crabby." Not sure how patriarch Bill Loder felt about that assessment, but the original Crabby Bill's in Indian Rocks Beach was launched in 1983. The business has grown, with franchises and offshoots (a Tarpon Springs location opened at the beginning of June), but the comfy flagship store is going strong, staffed, as Matt Loder says, by "cousins, in-laws and outlaws," with a menu that lavishes attention on shrimp, crabs and local grouper.
401 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 595-4825
• • •
These missed the cut, but still have fans. Not all are over 25, but many are close.
Arigato's, Clearwater; Babalu, St. Petersburg; Big Tim's Bar-B-Q, St. Petersburg; Billy's Stone Crab, Tierra Verde; Cafe Vienna, St. Pete; Capogna's Dugout, Clearwater; Carmine's, Ybor City; Charlie & Millie's, Seminole; China City, St. Petersburg; Coney Island Drive Inn, Brooksville; Cooters, Clearwater Beach; Cody's, Tarpon Springs; Copper Kitchen, St. Petersburg; Crab Shack, St. Petersburg; Crab Trap, Palmetto; Dairy Inn, St. Petersburg; Donatello, Tampa; Fourth Street Shrimp Store, St. Petersburg; Frog Pond, North Redington Beach; GiGi's, Pasadena; Harvey's Fourth Street Grill, St. Petersburg; JD's, Indian Rocks Beach; Kahunas, St. Petersburg; Kelly's, Dunedin; Kissin' Cousins, St. Petersburg; La Teresita, Tampa; Lenny's, Clearwater; Los Mariachi's, Largo; Malio's, Tampa; Mid Peninsula Seafood Market & Restaurant, St. Petersburg; Mise en Place, Tampa; Molly Goodhead's, Ozona; Mykanos, Tarpon Springs; Nicko's, Tampa; Platka's, Tarpon Springs; Red Mesa, St. Petersburg; Ringside Cafe, St. Petersburg; Sculley's, Madeira Beach; Sea Horse, Pass-a-Grille; Sea Sea Riders, Dunedin; Skyway Jack's, St. Petersburg; the Cove, Inverness; the Garden, St. Petersburg; the Hut, Madeira Beach; the Tarpon Turtle, Tarpon Springs; Tio Pepe's, Clearwater; VIP Lounge, Treasure Island; Walt's Fish Market, Sarasota.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.