Top 50 restaurants of Tampa Bay 2016 edition
It was the year foods arrived in cute mason jars. It was the year Tampa Bay diners became comfortable uttering the word “charcuterie.” And it was the year that St. Petersburg started kicking Tampa’s rear with innovative new concepts and sheer volume of eager customers.
In a very strong year for Tampa Bay restaurants, we witnessed a raft of appealing new chain concepts land (Besito, Doc B’s, Tom+Chee, etc.); we saw celebrity chefs begin to stake out territory (Marc Murphy, the guys at Locale); we got our first legit ramen house. The downsides? Prices went up (a $14 glass of wine no longer spooks the horses), parking got scarcer and the elevated level of play required more hustle for restaurants to distinguish themselves.
Fifty restaurants (well, 52) sounds like a lot until you start making your list. Worthy hotel restaurants like Maritana Grille and Armani’s needed to be shelved to make room for innovative independents. Categories like vegetarian and Indian were jettisoned in favor of those with more dynamism. It certainly is a testament to the rapid progress that has been made in our restaurant scene. Here are Times food critic Laura Reiley’s best, ranked within their category, with the top 10 overall indicated below.
Did we miss your favorite restaurant? Leave us a comment at the bottom of the page. And share pictures from your favorite places to dine in the Tampa Bay area with the tag #top50tampabayeats.
The top 10:
Skip to:American casual | American upscale | American regional | Asian fusion | Barbecue | Brunch | Cheese and charcuterie | Chinese | Farm to table | French | Hamburgers/hot dogs | Italian | Japanese | Mexican | Pizza | Seafood | Steak | Thai and Vietnamese
American casualBack to top
1. Z Grille
104 Second St. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Zack and Jennifer Gross opened in late 2008, when most of St. Petersburg was wobbly mom-and-pops or antiseptic chain concepts. Since then, downtown has been cemented as fertile ground for ambitious independent restaurants. So what’s it like being the elder statesman with longtime loyal customers relying on your signature dishes? Zack, never one to mince words, let fly with some unprintables, but also this: “People have a hard time understanding it’s like wearing the same outfit or playing the same song over and over again.” Maybe it’s because his body is running out of room for new tattoos — he has a couple of fresh ones in homage to the late chef Tom Pritchard, plus daughter, Zen, age 8, has taken to designing new ones — that Zack sought real change in 2015. He lost more than 40 pounds and made some sweeping amendments to the Z Grille menu. He and head line cook John Sybert are still sending out deviled eggs and a ridiculous but delicious more-is-more house-ground foie gras steak burger, but there’s a lightness and brightness to dishes.
Must eat: Gross, a James Beard semifinalist in 2009, built his reputation on an over-the-top “now put an egg on it” mentality, but there’s a fresh restraint with spicy shrimp wraps, duck confit pot stickers and tikka masala sea scallops with a foil of curried cauliflower puree and chile-tinged cucumber salad.
2. Brick and Mortar
539 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, FL 33701
If I thought people’s math skills were sorely lacking I’d be tempted to sneak this in as the secret 11th on the Top 10. It was my favorite opening of the year (technically FarmTable Kitchen opened in 2014). Hope Montgomery and Jason Ruhe’s quirky personal vision yielded the kind of intimate independent restaurant for which St. Petersburg is becoming known. Less than 50 seats inside, including 10 at the bar, with another 17 outside, it’s all reclaimed wood and Pinterest-style tableaux of packing pallets and flower pots. My initial quibble was with the noise level, which has been remedied somewhat, although the lovely couple have endeared themselves to downtown and even to fellow restaurateurs such that it seems frequently to be clown-car packed. It’s hard to characterize the food for these caterers-turned-restaurateurs: Ruhe riffs with Spanish ingredients and Italian fundamentals with the occasional Indonesian fillip (his paternal grandmother is Indonesian), all of it with a focus on local sources whenever possible. By popular request, they open for Tuesday night dinner in the next couple weeks and have Saturday brunch on the horizon.
Must eat: My beloved dish, and evidently everyone else’s, is the house beef carpaccio carrying a housemade ravioli on its back that, once punctured, seeps out leek and goat cheese mousse and velvety egg yolk, a bad idea in a backpack but serendipitous for paper-thin raw beef. They have solid offerings for charcuterie boards (see? They’re everywhere), the best of which is fuchsia-colored beet-cured salmon with assertive notes of juniper and dill. And desserts are among the most cerebral in town, often seesawing between sweet and savory: lavender panna cotta with glistening Marcona almonds, tangy Point Reyes blue cheese and a bit of thin-sliced Iberico ham.
3. Stillwaters Tavern
224 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Six months in, this 2B Hospitality project (Robert Sanderson, Dyce Craig, Thomas Sanborn and Top Chef contestant Jeffrey Jew) feels like an anchor on Beach Drive. In a primo spot just across from the Museum of Fine Arts, the handsome 260-seat indoor/outdoor restaurant is a tourist and snowbird magnet. That, according to Jew, is a mixed blessing. A plan for a communal Beach Drive valet stand shelved, at least for now, parking woes may be scaring off some locals (Stillwaters and BellaBrava co-valet). And so, as with all new restaurants, the formula has been tweaked a bit to accommodate the customer base: portion sizes have gone up (one thing I praised about it early on was good use of white space on plates, but then I generally think portion sizes around here are goofy-big), there are more meat-centric dishes and the wine list has been simplified somewhat. Starting chef de cuisine Joshua Breen has departed and now Jew is more hands-on with the coastal New England-centered tavern menu.
Must eat: I’ve been outvoted. The biggest seller is the lager cheese fondue (but they changed the presentation so it’s easier to eat, thus my initial gripe is gone). The short rib burger with red-wine mustard is a keeper, as is the trout spread. And for happy hour, one of the best deals of the century is the housemade beer nuts for $1.99.
American upscaleBack to top
1. Edison: Food+Drink Lab
912 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL 33606
She started strong in August 2012 and has kept getting stronger. Jeannie Pierola has spent many years getting to this place — with her own early restaurants, hired as a big gun in other people’s kitchens, consulting internationally and then doing a series of guerilla popups so she could gauge in real time precisely where the zeitgeist edges toward pioneering. Earlier this year she took her show on the road to New York, one of only a handful of Tampa Bay chefs ever invited to do a solo dinner at the James Beard House, and by all accounts she did us proud. She is, as Tampa Bay Times photographer Eve Edelheit says, a master architect of the single bite. But even more than that, she seems adept at putting together a killer team. It changes — longtime pastry chef Erin Kelley recently departed, replaced by Victoria Lopez from fabled Norman Love Confections in Fort Myers; there’s a new hotshot bar manager, Phil Cacciatore — but with veteran chef Allison Beasman, Melissa Judge in operations and wine director Tyler Wesslund, Edison has big-city self-assurance while still being loud, fun and approachable. I popped in last month, Pierola wasn’t there and I still had one of my best meals of the year.
Must eat: They recently got their first Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and the cocktail program (a late addition) both engages with national trends and seems somehow rooted in place (the Guayabera, with Don Q rum, guava nectar, lime juice, orange bitters and bubbly, and the habanero old-fashioned with a smoked ice sphere felt like celebrations of Tampa). So you’re drinking here. I’ve loved her various bone marrow preparations, but right now it’s obsession-worthy, with cute quail eggs lining the plate, an onion marmalade and parsley shallot salad to counterpoint all the unctuousness and ciabatta toasts, crunchy and with just an edge of bitterness. There’s a burrata salad that beats all the other ones that have popped up in our parts lately, with crunchy versus velvety, spicy versus sweet, even hot versus cold (there’s a chipotle lime sorbet at the party). Tip: If you lean toward the small and sharing plates, you can order more things, but even a single dish is enough to get a sense for Edison’s layered, nuanced, playful mojo.
2. Mise en Place
442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL 33606
At the Association of Food Journalists conference here in September (where the Tampa Bay Times took home third in the nation for best food section), Mise en Place co-owner Maryann Ferenc was an ebullient booster for the local restaurant scene. She couldn’t help herself. She’s got the long view, having opened shop 30 years ago when woolly mammoths walked the lands and every table had a cracker basket. The restaurant she has overseen with partner and former spouse Marty Blitz launched the careers of dozens of chefs in our area, but it continues to innovate and stay competitive even among the impudent whippersnappers. They are busy people (lots of catering and philanthropic work, such as their 25th anniversary with Feeding Tampa Bay at Taste of the NFL; Sono Café at the Tampa Museum of Art; Flight Wine Bar at the airport and another one on the way), but the flagship always seems spiff (no way am I saying “on point,” or, worse yet, “on fleek”) and the food always pushing forward.
Must eat: Service is always assured and timing expert, something that especially comes in handy at lunchtime when speed is of the essence. That said, I prefer Mise in the evening when Blitz’s menu has more moxie. He will riff on a cuisine or a flavor palette for a while, and then the next year he’ll move on to something else, which keeps things fresh. The best deal is his “Get Blitzed” menu (not sure about that name, but it does come with 3-ounce pours for each course for $89.29; $54.29 without wine), which right now comes with a beef carpaccio paired with bone marrow and a sweet, crunchy cornmeal-crusted oyster, and then culminates in an elk rack chop with duck-fat roasted root veggies. Or, to celebrate 30 years of this icon, you could opt for one of the original dishes, chicken liver mousse with pears..
3. Cafe Ponte
13505 Icot Blvd. Suite 214, Clearwater, FL 33760
The office phone rings. “Where should I take my wife for our anniversary?” If I don’t know the caller, Cafe Ponte is my go-to because it dings every bell. Suave service; big-city glamorous setting; not too loud; new American menu that tiptoes from Mediterranean to Southeast Asia without freaking anyone out. Plus, if the lovebirds are a little cash-shy they can opt for the early four-course prix fixe ($36 for soup, salad, choice of entree and dessert, which recently has been a sassy burnt orange-cardamom crème brûlée). If they wish to express their affection in larger denominations, there’s the six-course seasonal tasting menu for $90 and an extra $35 for wine pairings. Steady and exacting, Ponte retains good people (host McKenzie, server Stephen and his right-hand man, chef Tony Bonanno), a skill that will be essential in March or April when his somewhat-delayed On Swann opens in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village. Chris Ponte says 2015 was another banner year sales-wise, and that catering has ballooned (if you Google the restaurant, the tagline is “Cafe Ponte: Wedding Caterer Tampa”), but what’s on the plate is never the work of someone flustered by success.
Must eat: The Taillevent-trained chef is surely sick of making wild mushroom bisque. Sadly, no one is tired of eating it (often as a complimentary “amuse”). Regulars swear by steaks, such as the espresso-rubbed rib eye at dinner or the shaved rib eye sandwich at lunch (do yourself a favor and make a rez; this place is swarmed with suits during the week), but I have a Pavlovian compulsion to get the Yukon Gold/bacon/truffle oil pizza, offered now only at lunch.
American regionalBack to top
1. Pearl in the Grove
31936 St. Joe Road, Dade City, FL 33525
You drive through eastern Pasco citrus groves. And drive some more. Then you make sure your GPS lady hasn’t lost her mind, and finally you see a bunch of cars pulled up in the gravel adjacent to a squatty Cracker house. Pearl is Curtis and Rebecca Beebe’s flagship and labor of love. He was in information technology for 30 years, and she has been a sixth-grade teacher for many years. Together these two avid travelers and eaters were looking for someplace local for a good meal. So they made one. And then another (Local Public House and Provisions in San Antonio in 2014; adding brunch soon) and another (the just-opened Rebecca’s at City Market in Dade City). New chef Eric McHugh, most recently at Tampa’s Fodder & Shine in Seminole Heights, continues to refine and expand a menu that is Southern, coastal and emphatically Floridian. There are local kumquats (Jan. 30 is the local Kumquat Festival, after all), Florida pork, Florida rabbit, Florida cheese, and I could keep going, served in a funky-charming home (concrete floors, concrete block walls, an electrical system that seems a little iffy) by a staff that feels like a family.
Must eat: Dishes are expensive enough to put this in splurge territory and, for most of us, it’s the epitome of a “destination restaurant,” but there’s a comfortable rusticity that makes it feel as if you are eating in someone’s home. Plate presentations have been taken up a notch (fried green tomato caprese with housemade moz now arrives regimented and architectural on a white rectangle), but a dish like bone-in Palmetto Creek pork chop paired with chunky vanilla kumquat marmalade, a scoop of creamy-centered cottage fries and a tangle of butter-glazed zucchini is a bit of sophisticated nostalgia.
4205 S MacDill Ave., Tampa, FL 33611
Since Roux debuted in 2014, a number of people have headlined in the kitchen. Some of this is by design — Suzanne and Roger Perry love bringing in guest chefs from Louisiana for the “unique flavors and stories each one brings to our kitchen” — but some is because they’ve been trying to find just the right fit for their upscale modern Cajun/Creole. In July, chef Bonnie Breaux moved from New Iberia, La., and set a steadier course. She says she has moved things in a more Cajun direction (think more dark roux), but the big hubbub these days is about the weekend brunch (Bananas Foster pancakes, BOGO mimosas and Bloodys). I think nighttime is when the restaurant really shows best, with its glammy Bourbon Street pressed-tin ceilings, gilded mirrors and lavish drapes (I hardly ever get to write the word drapes anymore).
Must eat: Oysters are the top-selling dish (prediction: You’ll dispatch six buttery-cheesy chargrilled babies and have that irrational “Should I order six more?” thought) and other seafood seems to be where Breaux and company hits high gear (shrimp and grits, seafood Wellington). Then the Olympic-level dismount: bread pudding with a Buffalo Trace bourbon butterscotch sauce. And the cocktail spectrum, from Pink Fairy to Sazerac, is made and presented with finesse.
1810 N Highland Ave., Tampa, FL 33603
Richard Gonzmart’s commitment to the Tampa Heights neighborhood seems to know no bounds. In December, he announced that he was buying an old furniture store on N Florida Avenue, into which he would pour $2 million to transform it into a culinary school for neighborhood high school students. This on the heels of the $6 million he plunked down to overhaul the 1906 Water Works Building that houses Ulele. With that one, though, it wasn’t just this historic but economically beleaguered neighborhood that benefitted — locals and tourists on both sides of the bay have flocked to enjoy “Native-inspired foods & spirits.” It’s a restaurant with so many notable bells and whistles, it’s tough to shoehorn them in here: Tim Shackton is the brewmaster for the award-winning onsite brewery (Rusty’s Red, Magbee’s Honey Lager); the amazing two-level space showcases the work of a number of local artisans (Gonzmart’s own arrowhead collection is embedded in the bar); partner Keith Sedita oversees a crackerjack front of the house team; and executive chef Eric Lackey interprets early Florida foods in a way that won’t discomfit anyone. In 2016, look for two new projects from Gonzmart: Goody Goody in Hyde Park Village and a Sicilian restaurant in Ybor City.
Must eat: The charbroiled oysters on the barbacoa continue to be my go-to, as does the Florida beef from Strickland Ranch (beef that gets fed the spent grain from the brewery in a circle-of-life dealio), especially when it is accompanied by a side of fried, but not breaded, okra with house ketchup.
Asian fusionBack to top
1. Anise Global Gastrobar
777 N Ashley Drive, Tampa, FL 33602
Coming up on its three-year anniversary, one of the prettiest restaurants in Tampa is poised for change. A private dining room, annexed from the defunct Five Guys next door, debuts with seating up to 25, and an expanded kitchen means a major menu overhaul will be unveiled in February. I hear people fidgeting — no, this will not mean the stinky buns or the truffled tater tots will be eighty-sixed. Partner Xuan “Sing” Hurt says they’ll keep the crowd favorites. Hurt and partners, husband Kevin, Rafael Millan, Ro Patel and Mai Tran, took a chance on downtown, which, with Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the Riverwalk and a dramatic influx of residents and businesses, has paid dividends. They’re in a great location, but it is the strength of the sprightly Korean-ish/southeast Asian range of flavors, combined with a raft of smart cocktails (kudos to bar manager Ryan Brown) and a live DJ in the late evenings, that has made Anise a happening spot at lunch and dinner.
Must eat: The Hurts ran the Stinky Bunz food truck from whence braised pork belly with kimchi buns and red curry crispy chicken buns came. More recently they’ve added a range of burgers, some Asian-accented cheese and charcuterie and a great gluten-free Korean japchae noodle dish to which you can add a protein of choice.
435 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Friends Mike Harting and Patrick Marston had a good idea: Debut a sophisticated Asian fusion restaurant pretty enough for date night and with prices that accommodate families, but containing one extra-rare ingredient — parking. They achieved this by building a bit away from the downtown fray on the ground floor of Marston’s new office building. The upshot: In 2016, the team will work to make it look more come-hither and restaurant-like, adding a Vitale Brothers mural in the next couple months (soon St. Pete will be one big Vitale canvas). With new managing partner Chris Watson taking over for Julie Parrish, Souzou has hit its stride, opening for lunch in November and with its first big menu change at the beginning of January. Heavy on the sushi and with noodles and hot dishes that amble between China, Japan and Thailand, the vision is moving slightly away from small plates and sharables and toward more substantial entrees (they’ve just added their first steak).
Must eat: Bouncy pork and beef meatballs called tsukune get a sweet hoisin glaze and a crunchy, contrasting Asian slaw for a great shared app, but at lunchtime the tempura-fried snapper tacos with cabbage and Sriracha aioli will bring a little drama to your work life. (Bargain hunters: These tacos and other nibbles are offered at a discount during the sunset menu, 5 to 7 p.m.) The sake list has gained steam, emerging as the one to beat in Tampa Bay, with more than a dozen in different styles by the bottle, and five by the glass or offered as sake flights.
3. Fusion Bowl
504 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL 33602
When Bamboozle Cafe opened downtown in 2008 you could hear a collective sigh, “Finally, a spunky Asian alternative to pizza and turkey clubs.” Since then, banh mi and pho have become staples for downtown workers, with Fusion Bowl the most charming addition of 2015. Owned by Michelle Vuu (Chinese) and Bao Lai (Vietnamese), it leans most heavily toward Vietnam, but with a smattering of dishes from Japan (udon bowls, teriyaki rice bowls, gyoza) and some classic American morning fare (waffles, toast with eggs and avocado). What lifts it into memorable territory is its wonderful array of muddled fruit teas and exotic hot teas (Kaleisia Tea Lounge near USF, I love yours too, but your food less so) and a more recently added vegetarian menu. Plus, it’s cute as a button, the perfect place to camp out with the newspaper or a magazine (beyond the free Wi-Fi, the bonus is that there’s a huge, fruit-infused self-serve water dispenser). This is breakfast and lunch only.
Must eat: It’s hard to make a vegetarian banh mi with real razzle-dazzle. They’ve managed. The pho rivals that at any of the area’s better Vietnamese spots. Finish lunch with a Viet-French drip coffee and a bowl of outstanding ginger ice cream studded with crystallized ginger. Take your time, your boss will understand.
BarbecueBack to top
1. Holy Hog
3501 N Armenia Ave., Tampa, FL 33607
Danny Hernandez had me at taxidermy, but the burnt ends (a.k.a. barbecue candy) really cemented the deal. He grew up in the restaurant business with his family’s Pipo’s, then masterminded his plot for world ’cue domination. First he swapped out the Armenia Pipo’s for his first Holy Hog (he says the taxidermy decor was mostly about getting it out of the house at his wife’s behest), then came the Henderson location, then downtown, Amalie Arena and Carrollwood. At any of the Hog Nation outposts, the menu is heavy on Texas-style brisket, a couple kinds of sausage (smoked summer and spicy beef), St. Louis ribs and a whole lot of alluring sides. I’ve had HH cater a couple parties, although party pics have required extensive Photoshop de-saucing. For dining in, the indoor-outdoor downtown location, with its powerful misting fans, is pleasant and has a good beer list, but I still prefer the relaxed atmosphere and broad picnic tables of the flagship.
Must eat: Steer toward the fattier point end of the brisket or the burnt ends, although it’s easy to be beguiled by the sides, housemade chips, corn fritters and jalapeno mac and cheese at the top of the heap.
2 First Choice
10113 Adamo Drive, Tampa, FL 33619
When I was young and naive, I thought there were four styles of barbecue: Texas-style was brisket and beef ribs shellacked with a sweet, sticky, tomatoey sauce; ’cue from the Carolinas meant pork smoked and then bathed in a more vinegary, sometimes mustardy sauce; Memphis was all about pork ribs, dry-rubbed and served “wet”; and then there was Kansas City, more of a melting pot, sauce sweet and thick, where they talked about barbecue in terms of snoots, brownies, short ends and long ends. Ah, how quaint I was. There is Florida barbecue and hybrid barbecue and all sorts of barbecue anomalies. The Brandon area tends to be impressive barbecue country (props to Down to the Bone), but First Choice is top dog. They’re not real specific about the provenance of the recipe. When pressed, Florida barbecue sums it up just fine: no dry rub, a lot of smoky flavor and a sauce that is ketchup-based with a kick of vinegar.
Must eat: Ribs are tender, deeply smoky and delicious eaten sauced (on the sweet side) or au naturel. Spicy macaroni salad has proponents, but the fries (crisp, skin on, fresh-cut) are hard to overlook and the beans are good if you like them sweet with a hint of nutmeg or cinnamon.
3. 4 Rivers Smokehouse
607 S MacDill Ave., Tampa, FL 33609
I got a little mopey when they knocked down the produce stand last year at the corner of MacDill and Swann. It wasn’t pretty, and sometime the veggies could be a little wan, but it felt like a link to the olden days. I’m over it now — 4 Rivers Smokehouse opened its second Tampa location there around Christmas and I’ve never seen it without a line snaking out the front door. After a couple of visits, I can say that it’s better than the location that opened at the end of 2014 in Carrollwood, and not quite as good as the flagship Winter Park location, opened in 2009. John Rivers, who spent the first 20 years of his career in health care, was bitten by the brisket bug and now has 11 barbecue locations with two more to come this year. They pretty much operate the same: Queue up at the door and an assembly line of affable young employees serve up Texas-style 18-hour smoked Angus brisket, burnt ends, Southern pulled pork and St. Louis-style ribs, with sides from fried okra to sweet-smoky baked beans and Texas corn bread.
Must eat: The desserts are going to distract you. Oversized layer cakes, extravagantly decorated cupcakes with lurid frosting, homey confections like coconut bombs and pecan bars. Eyes over here: I’ve had the brisket when it’s amazing and when it’s just pretty good. A consistent star is the smoked chicken salad sandwich, a weird thing to get at a ’cue joint, but there you go. Then tack on an order of smoked jalapenos. Good for what ails you.
BrunchBack to top
1. Noble Crust
8300 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33702
Weekends in St. Pete are starting to get frantic. Do I start with the Saturday Morning Market, or maybe a belay class at Vertical Ventures? Then there’s that new hobby, dunking a fat strip of ridiculously good bacon repeatedly into a Bloody Mary while playing Name That Tune (Shazam is cheating, obvz) at Noble Crust. The Italian-Southern fusion pizza-pasta-etc. hot spot debuted weekend brunch in 2015 and it feels just right. In virtually all weather the best seats are on the 800-square-foot patio with its retractable roof and remote-control windows, but the funky-industrial dining room is also sun-dappled and pleasant during the day. This does not get high marks simply because it has a parking lot, but that’s nice. It’s because the brunch menu is the right mix of sweet and savory, breakfast and lunch fare, at a good price point and supported by a friendly staff and good drinks (they offer a free mimosa, but you may have to prod your server to reveal this astonishing fact).
Must eat: How do you feel about naps? If it’s thumbs up, you’ll be wanting the lemon ricotta pancakes with fresh blueberries and lemon curd, the size of a standard ottoman, no syrup required. The fried chicken and waffles are up there with the area’s best (Ella’s; Datz, where it’s offered as a, get this, benedict), with a bewitching bourbon pecan butter and a little cup of watermelon salad. You can always eschew morning food with the Noble Pig pizza.
718 S Howard Ave., Tampa, FL 33606
I’m still gaga for Ava. But a year into its life, I’ve experienced enough inconsistency in food and service that I find myself overexplaining and making excuses to detractors. Michael Stewart is still a vigilant owner, Joe Maddon is frequently in residence in off-season, and Joshua Hernández and J. Ward still preside over the pizza oven and kitchen, respectively. The outdoor patio, with its heavy canvas-and-plastic siding, has the feel of being outside but the benefits of being indoors, and the airy dining room is still among the prettiest in Tampa Bay (the new Grey Salt at the Hard Rock has a similar vibe). I’ve zipped in recently and had a great Bestia pie and outlandishly good braised octopus with dilled fingerlings and pickled fennel, but I’m smitten with the just-instituted weekend brunch, which, at least thus far, has the added allure of no pesky lines, unlike Daily Eats across the way (seriously, kids, how long are you willing to wait for those breakfast nachos?).
Must eat: Maddon’s Mary has a kick like a mule (fine, eat the pepperoni stick, but if you nibble the hot pepper out of the olive there will be consequences), and the Eggs in Purgatory (some of Hernández’s gorgeous bread smothered in spicy San Marzano tomatoes and poached eggs) amplify the smolder. Benedicts come on flaky-sturdy biscuits, with a great Florentine version that beds down on a juicy portobello.
2616 S MacDill Ave., Tampa, FL 33629
Their hilarious marquee signs alone should scoot them onto “best of” lists (loved the ones about Adele and Star Wars). Roger and Suzanne Perry never stop innovating, changing things up, sussing out new foods and people to get excited about. They also may be personally responsible for the overexposure of bacon. The single problem at Datz, less so at their next-door Dough, has always been service: They do an absolutely obscene business at brunch, with servers sometimes lacking the hustle and/or disposition to keep up. Thus, practice your mindfulness and deep breathing and brunch will go swimmingly, especially if it’s on the patio on a nice Florida winter’s day.
Must eat: I would like to recommend the Spaaa Blahblahblah cocktail because it is only 150 calories and I like to imagine you ordering it, but the Bloody Mary with bacon (see?) or the frothy Bacon and Eggs cocktail (ahem?) are the way to start, with an order of monkey bread with bacon (seriously?) as finger food for the table to start. The Billy Benedict has the “bene”fit of being on a sturdy, cultish Wolferman’s English muffin from Kansas City, topped with ham, swiss, poached egg and hollandaise, which you can have accompanied by bacon-infused potatoes or a side order of . . . oh, nevermind.
Cheese and charcuterieBack to top
2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa, FL 33606
If you play your cards right, you can stand in the cave, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Whoa, that’s cheesetastic. Haven, the little sibling to Bern’s, which opened in the SideBern’s spot about a year ago, has the most ambitious cheese program perhaps in the state. Chef Chad Johnson said his initial order was 2,000 pounds of product and though he wouldn’t put a dollar figure on it, he said it was north of $20,000. Now add to that a charcuterie lineup that keeps expanding, some housemade, some sourced from the great cured meat producers of the world. Here’s the rub: Although it’s tempting to hunker down at Haven to eat only meats, cheeses and accoutrements, the rest of the menu is tremendous. Oh, then add in a remarkable list of more than 300 bourbons, ryes and other whiskeys, plus a great cocktail program and wine list, and the ordering process can be paralyzing. Luckily, Haven has the kind of suave staff that can deftly get you unstuck.
Must eat: By the time you try the 18th cheese, you might be in a flop-sweaty dairy fog, but it’s worth it. The cheesemonger plate ($47) is best undertaken with a couple buddies, the white ceramic tray with divots accompanied by a cheat sheet alongside crusty bread, cornichons, fruit compote and Marcona almonds. On the charcuterie side, a recent headcheese with bell pepper mostarda was wonderful, as was a sumptuous foie gras and duck rillettes paired with a sour apple jam (love how fattiness is juxtaposed with something sweet-tart). But you shouldn’t vacate the premises without investigating the whole roast cauliflower and the spicy mussels.
2. Annata Wine Bar
300 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Fact: Delice de Bourgogne is the happiest-making cheese there is. It’s got a bloomy rind that, when ripe, gives way to a melty edge and a silky, fudgy, nutty center that screams “triple cream!” It’s not as salty as lesser triple creams and has an edge of stink and acidity so it’s got enough attitude to stand up to crusty bread. The French cow’s milk cheese is on the current list at Annata, opened in 2014 by Mary and Kurt Cuccaro (Mazzaro’s). This glamorous Beach Drive anchor started strong and has kept building, with live music from 6 to 9 p.m. many nights, a range of happy hour specials from 4 to 6 p.m. and frequent wine flight offers of three short pours for $6. It’s one of the few places in the area where you can wear your little black dress and feel utterly comfortable eating your whole meal with your hands.
Must eat: I was bereft when the robiola “due latte” departed the menu (you can get it at Mazzaro’s), but then I got over it (thanks for helping me through, aged sheep’s milk Paski Sir from Croatia). Assuming you’re dining with a buddy, pick five ($18) means you can choose three cheeses and a couple meats (definitely the fennel salami from San Francisco), and then you can augment with small plates — the kitchen seems big on spaghetti squash right now, whether accompanying Moroccan lamb or seared tuna. Need more drama in your life? The smoke-infused beef tartare comes under a glass dome swirling like Dumbledore’s pensieve.
3. The Mill
200 Central Ave., No. 100, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
I was wowed by Ted Dorsey’s cooking when he was with the Boca/Copperfish/Ciro’s group of restaurants in Tampa, and then again last year when he headed up the kitchen at Castile at Hotel Zamora in St. Pete Beach. What would this hired gun do if he had his own place, his own vision, his own bills to pay? One of the more exciting openings of 2015, the Mill suggests that Dorsey, 34, and partner Jason Griffin might be Jules Verne fans. The place is steampunk-cool, festooned with gears and tooled leather and vintage waterwheels (big ups to designer Amanda McMahon), its menu concerning itself with gamier meats and humbler cuts (boar ribs, braised lamb belly, venison saddle). With the opening of the patio, the restaurant went from 150 to 200 seats, so waits aren’t as protracted. And here’s a tip: Complimentary valet on the back side of the building comes with a bonus gift of a little take-home package of biscotti or cookies. Looking forward? Dorsey is in negotiations with Gordon Davis to take over the Copperfish space, where he plans to debut Scratch Kitchen & Bar.
Must eat: The menu changed in a more autumnal direction around Thanksgiving — which left the legion watermelon bruschetta fans a little sniffly — but the housemade charcuterie board and accessories continue to stretch and expand like the universe itself. There are now octopus bacon and plush tongue rillettes to go along with the duck bacon and toro pastrami, surrounded by grainy mustards and baby pickled zucchini on a rustic board planed smooth.
ChineseBack to top
1. Yummy House China Bistro
2620 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, FL 33610
“I’d like a glass of chardonnay.” “You want the J. Lo?” (Restaurant critic assumes this is a Chinese pronunciation quirk with J. Lohr.) “That’s what I call it because I really like J. Lo.” Can’t argue with that one bit. The Yummy House staff, always in high gear, is full of sass and able at a glance to tell whether you’re a sweet-and-sour chicken person or a tripe with Chinese pickle diner. No judgment. Owner John Zhao, 36, has been in the restaurant biz since he was a kid, building up his Yummy group since 2008 with the original Waters Avenue location, then Hillsborough in 2011, a Sarasota outpost in 2012, Gainesville in 2013, Ocala in 2014 and Orlando last year. Next up for him is a pan-Asian Yummy Bowl and Asian Noodle Bar that will follow a Chipotle-like model: Pick your noodles (Korean, Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese), pick your ingredients (vegetables, chicken, beef or seafood) and then select your broth. I prefer the bistro to the original because the setting is more convivial and attractive (bargain hunters may prefer the other: It’s BYOB, so you can save money with no alcohol markup).
Must eat: Bare bones, no reservations, no booze, the first Yummy House was an instant hit because we’d been starved for authentic Hong Kong-style food. We still don’t have much of it. Bright sauteed greens, still-crisp veggies, burnished-skin ducks, cracked crabs redolent of ginger and scallion and whole steamed fish — even if kung pao is your jam, branch out. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, salt and pepper tofu, ong choy (a water spinach) with garlic if they’ve got it, and at lunch (when dim sum is offered), any of the rice porridges or the steamed rice rolls stuffed with beef or pork.
2. China Yuan
8502 N Armenia Ave., Tampa, FL 33604
It used to be tiny and a little crusty looking but underwent an expansion and gussying up some years back. There has been a slow accretion of crud since then (amateurish, unframed food pictures tacked to the wall surrounding one perplexing painting of megabuff horses wading in the surf), but it still attracts an in-the-know crowd, often big families spinning the lazy Susans in serious concentration.
Must eat: For this story, I went to Yummy and Yuan back to back. Both great, but I’m going to give China Yuan the nod on a couple things. First, the duck: Gleaming Bain De Soleil-tinted and hanging sadly by the neck, it is offered Cantonese-style, $19.99, for when you’re trying to be fiscally prudent. For $39.99 you can do the whole two-course Peking style, first the little pancakes or buns (they do both) with hoisin and scallion, crisp-skinned boned-out duck, then a second course of the bones in soup. Magic. And second, their dim sum is noteworthy. They don’t do cart service, the up-side being that dishes are made to order so things are really fresh and hot, some in round metal containers and some on white plates. Get the sweet sesame balls with red bean paste.
3. Zen Forrest
4148 Rowan Road, New Port Richey, FL 34653
So much of my job is leaping in the car when I get a lead, a little like Batman but with less latex and a lamer car. On those occasions when I race to New Port Richey, often a restaurant that locals enthuse about wouldn’t pass muster in South Tampa or downtown St. Pete. This is one that has methodically served the area with aplomb for 10 years, Victor Wang pushing the envelope with sophisticated Chinese-dominated fusion while being early to accommodate dietary restrictions and alternative eating lifestyles. Last night he partnered with Barley Mow Brewing Co. for a beer-pairing dinner — not exactly a common trope for a strip-mall suburban Chinese spot.
Must eat: It had been some time since I’d made the trip, but he’s still making his own kimchee (Korean spicy fermented cabbage), yet there are accessible family-friendly dishes like zhajiangmian, China’s version of spaghetti with meat sauce (thick wheat noodles topped with stir-fried pork lent zest with fermented soybean paste) or these deep-fried Cuban rolls that defy all logic but are still hard to not love.
Farm to tableBack to top
1. Rooster & the Till
6500 N Florida Ave., Tampa, FL 33604
I was trepidatious when Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez’s tiny Seminole Heights miracle doubled in size last summer. Would it be as special? Yep. The expansion has meant that it’s easier to get in and just as fun to sit ringside at the exhibition kitchen to watch newly promoted sous chef Ben Pomales and chef de cuisine Brian Lampe hunker over elaborate plates with surgical tweezers. The one-page menu doesn’t list farms of origin, and Rooster doesn’t crow about provenance, but this food is rigorously curated and as locally sourced as anyone is doing it. Sure, their paper towels and some of their oysters may get hauled in from afar, but you won’t see Cheney Brothers, Sysco or FreshPoint trucks out back. Thing is, this food is exciting and envelope-pushing even if you don’t give a fig about where food comes from, with a new “Tasting Tuesdays” three-course/four-plate prixe-fixe menu for $30 and a recently added happy hour menu with five items every night for $8 or less. Oh, and on Jan. 29 they have the honor of doing an Outstanding in the Field dinner at Beasley Farm in Brooksville (tickets $180).
Must eat: Plates come “small” and “slightly larger,” and this isn’t a case of underselling. The benefit of small portions is that, if you’re ambitious, you can taste most of the menu at a single go. I visited with Ileana Morales Valentine, who writes the In Our Kitchen column for the Taste section , neither of us linebackers, and we did a respectable job. There were sturdy and deeply savory potato and oxtail pierogi, a pork jowl with corn pudding topped with a crispy pig ear and the best dish, no longer on the menu, roasted broccoli bedazzled with nutty puffed farro, set on inky stripes of insanely delicious charred bread vinaigrette. Always get dessert.
2. The Refinery
5137 N Florida Ave., Tampa, FL 33603
Parents: Those late-night whispered conversations, aren’t they frequently about how much we should encourage our kids to take risks? We read Malcolm Gladwell, or Po Bronson’s Top Dog and we waffle about how much they should put themselves in harm’s way to follow their bliss. Greg Baker, our four-time James Beard semifinalist, and his wife/partner, Michelle, went all in last year with their second concept, Fodder & Shine, an early Florida Cracker fare re-creation that has since been retooled to serve more mainstream Southern in a casual Seminole Heights hangout. It had brief consequences for their flagship Refinery, but the upshot is that Greg is more hands-on in overseeing the kitchen in both places, with a menu at the Refinery that isn’t as committed to constant self-reinvention. This is because the supply arrangement with farmers is steadier, but also so the kitchen is more aimed at sticking with dishes until they are perfected. The Refinery space has been “refined” as well. Michelle, a woman of edgy style, says, “When the Refinery opened she was a punk rock girl in her 20s, and now she’s in her 30s and a little more sophisticated, more Anthropologie than Salvation Army.”
Must eat: “Locally sourced” is one of the most misused menu catch phrases, but it is stone-cold truth at the Refinery. If the bay area has a run on eggplant, you’re going to see it on the menu. If it’s the dog days of summer and Florida produce is peaked, the Refinery has to work double-time to make something tasty. Still, it’s power to the proletariat (Greg hates that great food is so often wasted on those who can afford it; most dishes at the Refinery slide in under $20). A couple weeks ago the mind-blow dish was roasted candy cane beets, three ways: the fuchsia globes in a ginger-cane syrup glaze, the plate dotted with hillocks of peppery beet greens and long crunchy, nutty straws that turned out to be beet stems fried and dusted with ancho powder. Too wack? Anyone would love the butternut squash gnudi with kale kimchee and a sprightly tart tomato broth.
FrenchBack to top
1. The Black Pearl
315 Main St., Dunedin, FL 34698
The single most ambitious meal I ate in 2015 was at the Black Pearl. It was chef Christopher Artrip’s autobiography in 14 courses, a communal table hushed as each tiny, intricate dish was brought out and explained: Playful allusions to childhood brought a molecular gastronomy approach to ants on a log and a spin on “green eggs and ham” (serrano paired with a sultry sous vide yolk, shaved Alba truffle and brown-butter croutons). The group was awed, amused, educated and fed brilliantly, the kind of meal for which people make pilgrimages. What since 1996 was Dunedin’s beloved “continental” datenighter under owners Tony and Kathy LaRoche was bought in 2014 by young Zach Feinstein (he went there on prom night), who seems to have signaled to longtime chef Artrip that now it’s time for the gloves to come off. It’s poised for a remodel, but the intimate room is lovely as is, with servers such as Ronald Maupin exhibiting deep wine knowledge and nearly anachronistic social graces. (Bonus: Noise levels are low enough for easy conversation.)
Must eat: Plates are composed without being fussy, each requiring a pause for visual appreciation — that goes for a cheese and charcuterie plate showcasing foie gras terrine and a wedge of Humboldt Fog, as well as the No. 1 seller, the white truffle lobster risotto, offered as an app or entree. Watch for wine dinners or Artrip’s next pull-out-all-the-stops evening.
2. Parts of Paris
146 Fourth Ave. N, Safety Harbor, FL 34695
Safety Harbor restaurants have an ace in the hole. Most of them are set in lovely, repurposed 1930s bungalows, many with come-hither front porches and tree-canopied front yards. Parts of Paris is the luckiest duck (and yes, they do serve said bird, as confit with braised fennel and a tarragon-cashew brown rice). Like nearby Green Springs Bistro and Southern Fresh, its setting is a central draw. Then add a lineup of classic French fare, from boeuf bourguignon to textbook beef tartare and this is one of Tampa Bay’s big-league date-night stalwarts. Owner Chris Orrung is Swedish (now there’s a cuisine we’ve gone without entirely), but has had a small handful of chefs in the kitchen willing to bring their focus to bear on careful execution of the dishes Julia Child introduced to so many of us. In 2016, look for a new cigar deck out back.
Must eat: On a pretty day, brunch cannot be beat (and the addition of a full bar has meant lovely cocktails such as a French 75 are pre-nap options), with dishes that go sweet (crêpe Suzette) or savory (moules-frites). Prices are fair-minded, but if you’re looking for a deal, appetizers are 50 percent off on Mondays.
3. Café Largo
12551 Indian Rocks Road, Largo, FL 33774
Dominique Christini has begun his 30th year in business, one of a small handful of restaurants to traffic in classical French cuisine. In 2015 he participated in a roundtable discussion at the University of South Florida about the influence of French cooking on American cuisine — as he says, “There are not many fine chefs, whether in India or China, who haven’t worked with French cuisine as a base.” His son Sebastien has moved on to start his own business, so Christini presides solo over his monthly Saturday morning cooking classes and a seasonally changing prix-fixe menu for $35, much of it now supported by regionally sourced rabbit, pork and game (things he says weren’t feasible just a few years ago because of a lack of vendors or customer enthusiasm). For the exotic stuff, he’s something of a psychologist: Put wild boar or venison chops on the printed menu, no takers. Make it a special, explicated tableside, and folks will bite. In 2015 he also debuted a private room that seats up to 25.
Must eat: The cold snap has been fortuitous. It means cassoulet (slow-cooked white beans, duck, sausage and other goodies) and warming braises like elk stew with cepes. To celebrate Epiphany, he makes king cakes two ways, the fruitcake style in the south of France (fava bean secreted inside to determine the “king,” no choking-hazard plastic baby) and the puff pastry galette with almond filling popular in the north. Still, I hew to tradition and order Grand Marnier soufflé, the only dessert that reliably gets a whole room to say “ooh.”
Hamburgers/hot dogsBack to top
1. Engine No. 9
56 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33705
There are two reasons a burger place becomes legendary. One, it’s the place with the super-premium meat, hand-chopped and lovingly formed before it is placed by gossamer-winged cherubs upon the fancy wood grill. Or, two, it’s the place that starts with solid patties and then gets completely bughouse with the toppings. Engine No. 9 is the latter. Burger snobs are going to hound me (“This might be a preformed patty!”), but let’s just look at the menu: the Chubby Duck, the Van Helsing, the Alice in Pain. Gargantuan burgers with foie gras, burgers with peanut butter, burgers that will make your nose run, and burgers that defy all logic (fried cheese curds with jalapeno bacon? and brisket?). Plus, I’ve never had a bad tater tot, the beer list is as epic as the burger lineup, and every table has its own TV. Owner Jason Esposito opened No. 9 in 2012, and in 2015 followed up with the also-burger-focused Engine Rose built around an Airstream on Central Avenue.
Must eat: In the way of cat people versus dog people, there are tater totters and sweet potato fryers. Can’t we all just get along? As per burgers, I may undermine my credibility further by saying I’m a devotee of the shrimp-patty burger topped with crispy slaw, a squirt of Sriracha and some Cajun-spiced remoulade.
2. Pane Rustica
3225 S MacDill Ave., Tampa, FL 33629
Flour, yeast, salt and water. So elemental. And yet. My hope is that 2016 will be the year we finally get a critical mass of exceptional bread bakeries in these parts. Kevin and Karyn Kruszewski have been hoeing that row solo (say that out loud) for years, supplying many of the top restaurants with crusty loaves each week. But that’s just one part of what this South Tampa institution accomplishes. During the day it’s a jammed order-at-the-counter lunch spot and bakery, folks grabbing giant triangles of fancy-topped thin-crust pizza or roasted acorn squash stuffed with chicken salad (fun fact: It is former Buc Ryan Nece’s fave). And then Wednesday to Saturday the lights dim, things slow down and it becomes a fancier Italian-accented table-service dinner house. Pane Rustica has changed locations, it has expanded, it has added a full bar. But one constant through it all is a crazy-good burger.
Must eat: The burger is on the specials menu at lunch and dinner, and it’s not cheap (usually $16 or $17), its accoutrements shifting. It starts with all-natural Niman Ranch beef in a fairly coarse grind, the hardwood grill imparting perceptible smokiness, on a bun that changes year by year but is often rustic with an open texture like a pugliese. You may find it topped with Stilton, arugula, sliced tomato and roasted garlic aioli, or maybe sauteed mushrooms, arugula, oozy taleggio and oven-dried tomato. Post-burger, it is essential you order the twin espresso cookie sundae.
3. Kings Street Food Counter
937 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, FL 33705
In all likelihood I was not in class the day we studied the mesophase state of matter, that state between a liquid and a solid. But I’m fairly sure that mesophase phenomena reach their effulgence in milk shakes such as those at the new Kings Street hipster-retro diner in the increasingly thronged EDGE District. Stephen Schrutt, who also owns the Avenue, debuted his indoor/outdoor be-muraled project in November with a targeted menu: thick shakes, local craft beers on tap, grilled cheeses, hot dogs, poutine, salads and, oh, cronuts (daredevil tomfoolery: cronut breakfast sandwich with scrambled egg, cheese and bacon). Do these things go together? Yes, they do. Other assets: plucky seafoam green color scheme, dog-friendly patio, open until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday, seasonal themed movie nights on the second Wednesday of the month, and, most important of all, the corn dog of my dreams.
Must eat: Said corn dog comes blistering hot and enrobed in a sweet, crunchy wafflish batter with a ramekin of zingy grain mustard, all tucked in a brown cardboard to-go container with plastic silverware and your choice of side (bacon blue cheese mac salad if no one around you is judgey; cuke and tomato salad if they are). Dogs are respectable all-beef Viennas; themed toppings are coherent. Grilled cheeses can be fancy (sharp cheddar, black pepper bacon and a schmear of blueberry jam) but not so overpacked as to create lap art.
ItalianBack to top
1. Il Ritorno
449 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, FL 33701
David Benstock just turned 30. His wife, Erica, is pregnant with their second son. He’s hiring a sous chef and finally bought a pasta extruder so he doesn’t have to hand-crank his old-fashioned one (which, when pressed, he’d hook up to a drill to go “high tech”). In short, he’s growing up. Yet every time I scoot in for dinner it feels like some of the most exciting and audacious food around. There’s a vivacious prettiness to his food that feels — he’s not going to like this — very feminine. Salads are always visually stunning: I had a fall salad, no longer on the menu, with frisée and apples and pears that, if you squinted, looked like Monet’s water lilies. It’s a small restaurant that already has a fairly regular following, dinner only, with sourcing that can range from West Coast mushrooms and caviar to right-in-our-back-yard greens and citrus.
Must eat: For locals who attended the St. Pete Wine & Food Festival last summer, the Il Ritorno gateway drug was 4,500 handmade mezzaluna stuffed with braised short rib he made and then napped with truffle fonduta and topped with shaved truffle flown in from Italy. At the restaurant, the big seller in recent months is a composed dish of swaths of American red snapper crudo accented by kumquat rounds, radish, sweet-hot calabrese chile jam and red-veined delicate leaves of lemony blood sorrel. For chilly weather, consider the little pasta hats stuffed with stinky/velvety taleggio and paired with black trumpet mushrooms and a frizzle of fried leeks.
1120 E Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL 33602
The Grand Central complex and the whole Channel District have grown up around suave Cena, a nearly three-year-old Italian anchor that is the personal and distinctive vision of talented chef Michael Buttacavoli (Council Oak, SideBern’s). He and his team (Kyle Martin as sous, Evan Schmidt on pastry, Jessica Wentworth the new general manager) have set a steady course as newcomers like the just-opened District Tavern, Fabrica Woodfired Pizza and Ginger Beard Coffee (which works out of Pour House in the morning when it is closed) have gotten things bustling, a Duckweed Urban Grocery on the horizon. Buttacavoli is working on some wine dinners and a new small-plates menu for the bar, but the bulk of his time is taken with refining his already elegant dinner menu: A handful of pastas, risotto and “secondi” are served in a serene dining room dominated by oversized photos of textural rock formations.
Must eat: Name another local restaurant with five risotto options. That should tell you something. With riffs from red wine gorgonzola with tender Kobe beef cheek to a wild mushroom version, this is a part of the menu to scrutinize. And Schmidt’s desserts tend to be architectural and multi-element, with keen juxtapositions of texture and mouthfeel. Plus, they sometimes look like spaceships with chocolate wings and propellers.
3. Osteria Natalina
3215 S MacDill Ave., Tampa, FL 33629
When Michael meets Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey at Louis’ Italian American Restaurant in The Godfather, I like to put Spartaco Giolito in the role of the proprietor (but I get him out of there when Michael starts shooting). He’s straight from central casting: Big and warm, he has a thick Italian accent and is prone to busting your chops while making you some nice veal scallopini dish he thinks you’ll like. It is the only restaurant I know of that still writes out bills longhand, with Giolito there at his little desk in front working the pencil, carry the 2, then totaling the bill in his slanty handwriting (how many of us now take the time to check the math?). He’s from the coastal town of Rimini, ergo seafood is front and center. Unless lasagna features prominently in your daydreams. Tip: No reservations and the juice glass is for wine (about three reds and three whites) and the wine-ish glass is for water.
Must eat: Your first time, get the strozzapreti alla “Bel Sit,” a twisty pasta that looks like a Cigar Rolling Camp, Day One, heaped with mixed seafood and either a white or red sauce (go red). Then, branch out. You can get half orders of pasta (menu doesn’t say that) and he’ll do pretty much whatever you want with chicken and veal. My order? Linguini with clams, white wine sauce but with chopped tomato, extra spicy.
JapaneseBack to top
1. Ichicoro Ramen
5229 N Florida Ave., Tampa, FL 33603
If I lived near Florida Avenue, I’d have a money-making scheme: Rent spots on the driveway every night ($20 seem mercenary?) to would-be Ichicoro diners. Or maybe I could hire some kids to flog cups of Top Ramen for those who can’t cope with the wait. I can say that in recent years there hasn’t been an opening as anticipated, especially one where the average dinner costs $12. Noel Cruz, Masa Takaru, Chakira Hiratsu and team tinkered with their ramen concept in New York before making a big splash in Seminole Heights in November. Brand Architecture in Orlando and Live/Work Studios in Seminole Heights did an amazing job with the hip but intimate design, and the open kitchen is supported by an urbane service staff (major girl-crush on head bartender Jessie Wohlers — hey, feel like coffee?). Newsy bit: Ichicoro just opened for lunch.
Must eat: You are going to cool your jets at the bar, at which point you will eat the steamed pork buns, the crushed cucumber tsukemono and the satsumaimo karaage (fried sweet potato) and hope you don’t fill up before the main event. And then you’re ready for “Tampa-style ramen.” For the full glory of what real ramen is, opt for the shoyu: smoky-fatty braised pork, soft-boiled egg, scallion, papery-crunchy nori and thin planks of fermented bamboo shoots in a rich, chicken-based broth over pale gold, springy, chewy noodles.
2. Osaka Sushi and Thai Restaurant
13800 Park Blvd. N, Seminole, FL 33776
Seminole Heights: Tattoos and high-concept beards. Seminole: A really cool Public Works Operations facility. That comparison aside, one of the boomingest restaurants to open in 2015 is this chic emporium of crowd-pleasing specialty rolls. Closing down last year in Madeira Beach, it required forbearance on the part of beachside raw fish fans as it relocated to a sprawling new location in Seminole, its dining room built around a three-sided exhibition sushi bar. The strength here is more-is-more combination rolls, many with suitably embarrassing names, plated attractively and marrying different fishes, garnishes and sauces. The freshness of the fish and quality of ingredients lifts it above our area’s other strong contenders (SoHo Sushi and Yoko’s in Tampa; Pisces and Kiku in Clearwater). And a familiar lineup of Thai curries and non-sushi Japanese staples such as teriyaki and tempura makes Osaka appealing even for the sushi-phobic.
Must eat: Time to get sexy. The word appears seven times on the menu. I’m not sure why avocado, tuna, tempura eel, scallion and pops of tobiko is the recipe for a Sexy Man, but toothsomeness is in the eye of the beholder (that, and the roll is topped with “sexy man sauce” — ew). I counted 72 specialty rolls, many with the kind of layering of flavors that in lesser hands might be muddy but here seems synergistic.
MexicanBack to top
1. Red Mesa
4912 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33703
It must be like a game of whack-a-mole, one where the prize is chips and salsa. Peter and Shawn Veytia, their son Pete and chef Chris Fernandez rotate from the flagship 20-year-old Red Mesa south to the sprawling, clubby Red Mesa Cantina, which opened in 2008, and then west to the quick-serve/market Red Mesa Mercado, opened at the end of 2014. Peter says there’s no new project on the horizon, but maintaining a small empire of Mexican restaurants, each with its own distinct character, must be challenging. Hailing from Oaxaca, Mexico, Fernandez’s most ambitious work can be seen at the flagship, where the cuisine is regional Mexican with an emphasis on sophisticated plate presentations at dinner and speedier, more streamlined offerings for businessfolk at lunchtime.
Must eat: While the Cantina boasts an encyclopedic tequila and mezcal list, the flagship offers just beer and wine. Luckily, the house sangria is some of the best in the area. Once fortified, opt for the guacamole sampler so you can chip-shovel the one studded with crabmeat, a corn and chorizo version, or the chipotle-inflected guac. There’s a braised duck with sour orange sauce I remember fondly, but it would be a shame to miss out on the range of enchiladas (if you get the trio, you’re looking at the duck, chicken and a crab/shrimp beauty with poblano cream).
2. Casa Tina
365 Main St., Dunedin, FL 34698
Next year Tina and Javier Avila will celebrate 25 years in Dunedin. Their flagship restaurant has moved and expanded and expanded again, the Avilas becoming part of the fabric of the charming downtown with celebrations like Mexican Independence Day, Cena de Nochebuena and Dia de Los Muertos (last year complete with fashion show and costume contest), plus 32 fundraisers in 2015 benefiting local organizations (Tina says, “We tithe with tacos.”). The Day of the Dead decor lasts all year, and the couple makes annual pilgrimages to Mexico for inspiration (look for an Xcaret Riviera Maya theme for this year’s Cinco de Mayo). If you seek super-cheap but transcendent taco stand fare, this is not your place (for that: Acapulco on MacDill Avenue in Tampa) — this is more upscale, with loads of vegetarian and vegan options and a reluctance to lean too heavily on the deep fryer. With aerialists performing some nights and a deep list of margaritas, Casa Tina is suitable for date night or a bit of carousing.
Must eat: First chips and salsa are free, then they charge. Plan accordingly. Fajitas, always accompanied by that head-turning sizzle in the dining room, get high marks, but I tend to head for the chile rellenos, the chiles en nogado (poblanos stuffed with meaty picadillo, ladled with a brandied walnut cream sauce and dotted with pomegranate seeds) or the sweet-smoldery mole poblano veggie enchiladas.
3. Bartaco Hyde Park Village
601 W Snow Ave., Tampa, FL 33606
In such a strong year for Tampa Bay restaurants, even very worthy chain concepts didn’t make the Top 50 cut. Debuting in the increasingly reinvigorated Hyde Park Village in July, this Connecticut-based chain is one of only a couple exceptions, on the strength of its novel approach, visual appeal and price point. Each table has a little ordering chit. You check off the tacos and “not tacos” that appeal, then pop the blue dragonfly card into the metal holder and a server swings by. Need a new drink? Dragonfly card. (Anisoptera fans, they also sometimes offer free temporary dragonfly tattoos.) Opt for shared platter samplers: Paper-lined aluminum trays, small ($26) or large ($38), make the whole experience collaborative and finger-foody, and then you can double up on the tacos you especially like.
Must eat: In all likelihood, you will be doubling up on the roasted cauliflower taco, topped with zingy romesco and toasted almonds, and the fried oyster taco. Which is fine, because all tacos are $2.50 or $3.50. Where things can get quickly out of hand is with the rum- and tequila-centric cocktails, bartenders ostentatiously squeezing citrus, muddling things and vigorously shaking shakers in the pretty dining room. Who can say no to all that earnest enterprise? Drinks change seasonally, so summer’s chorizo spice-infused margarita has given way to a winter caipirinha.
PizzaBack to top
1. Pizzeria Gregario
400 Second St. N, Safety Harbor, FL 34695
You order at the counter, they hand you a stuffed animal, then your order slip goes whizzing overhead across the room like a low-budget high-wire act into the hands of pizza radical Greg Seymour. In front of the chalkboard menu is a heavily crossed-out and smudgy board listing the farmers he works with, while music you haven’t heard in a while (Michelle Shocked’s When I Grow Up), the inky darkness and batik tapestries overhead take you back to your ill-spent youth. Seymour does things his own way. He uses Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, Central Milling flour, Spotted Trotter duck prosciutto and soppressata, and makes his own mozzarella, bresaola, guanciale and fennel sausage (these last from humanely raised pigs he buys whole). But there’s nothing rarefied or persnickety about what he and his small staff do. It’s just Safety Harbor’s neighborhood pizza joint, one table a 7-week-old baby out for some pre-food reconnaissance, another with young kids more focused on the stuffed animals than the ’za.
Must eat: The menu changes with the season. A recent special pizza was topped with cherry tomatoes, house moz, plush roasted eggplant, squiggles of basil and a garlic wallop (then get an order of “garlic schmoo” to waggle your blistery crust in). Salads are always vibrantly fresh and interesting (e.g., warm beets with pickled onion, shaved fennel and feta), and desserts are a must, especially if they feature fresh fruit or ice cream.
2. Bavaro’s Pizza Napoletana & Pastaria
514 N Franklin St., No. 101, Tampa, FL 33602
Dan Bavaro opened in downtown Tampa in 2009, back when the sidewalks rolled up at 6 p.m. He persevered and is now one of dozens of restaurants doing brisk dinner business. At the same time, he has built a bottled pasta and pizza sauce business with a gleaming 6,500-square-foot facility in Tampa, and he will open his second restaurant in April at 945 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg with the aim of having seven locations by the end of the year. At the core of his success is a lovely, mosaic-tiled, rounded, 900-degree brick pizza oven handmade outside Naples by Stefano Ferrara and family the same way for the past 100 years. But like a pedigreed racehorse, you need a jockey unafraid of the beast. Rene Franco has been that man for the past four years, with a brief break last year as the No. 2 pizza guy presiding over Ava’s Acunto oven.
Must eat: These are thin-crust Neapolitan-style pies about 12 inches, with a tender center and a blistery, puffed outer edge, best eaten with fork and knife. Sauce is a bright, chunky puree of hand-crushed and deseeded San Marzano tomatoes, but there are plenty of good white pies, such as a vegetariano I had recently with cow’s milk moz, shaved zucchini and yellow squash, mixed peppers and a swirl of fruity olive oil. The best route at Bavaro’s: share a salad, then a pasta (housemade tagliatelle with slightly spicy 50/50 sauce), then a pie.
3. Cristino’s Coal Oven Pizza
1101 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater, FL 33605
Take a seat. It’s time to learn a little something. Coal versus wood fire? Both good, different styles. A coal oven gets hotter, upward of 1,000 degrees, but because a coal oven doesn’t have high flames, pizzas cook longer (thus, you see more dry mozzarella and less fresh moz, which can’t handle high heat for long). Coal-oven pizzas tend to be big pies, wood-fired are smaller, more individual, with those leopard spots. Coal-oven pies can travel, wood-fired not so much (too delicate and soft at the center so they get sludgy swiftly). I think of coal oven as more New York style, although there are plenty of wood fires in NYC these days. With an Ybor City location and the original just south of downtown Clearwater, Cristino’s is the coal-oven champ, with a handful of basic styles: margherita, marinara, bianca, quattro formaggi, etc. With a great online ordering system, it’s easy to get clicking the little boxes (artichokes and capers and sausage . . .). Restrain yourself. Cristino’s pies are best with just a handful of toppings.
Must eat: Lenny, Marco and Joe Cristino make consistent, chewy/crunchy pies with a fat, nut-brown cornicione (the border), but I’m also a fan of their panzerotti, something between an empanada and a calzone. Either way, you have to leave room for gelato (best one: chocolate hazelnut bacio). But before I depart the weighty topic of pizza, by-the-slice honors go to Eddie & Sam’s, which delivers only in downtown Tampa and which imports New York water for its pies. Seriously.
SeafoodBack to top
1. Big Ray’s Fish Camp
6116 Interbay Blvd., Tampa, FL 33611
Move over Frenchy’s, there’s new grouper sandwich royalty. Nick Cruz opened this little charmer last summer in an unglamorous former seafood market in an unlikely Ballast Point spot. Immediately the pilgrimage was on for Floridians pining for old-timey fish shacks. The staff is preternaturally friendly, the tiny room kitted out with glass buoys and customer-supplied “big fish” photos, and all that emanates from the deep fryer are things of beauty. Big Ray’s is mostly lunch-only, with early dinner hours Friday and Saturday, and a limited number of tables means you might end up taking out (I defy you not to eradicate every onion ring while driving, extra points for standard transmission).
Must eat: Fried, blackened or grilled, you choose, the black grouper is fresh and meaty, piled onto a tender bun with a swath of fully ripe tomato, crisp romaine, thick-cut but not fiery onion, and then finished off with a little swipe of tangy homemade tartar. That said, the lobster corn dog is what my mind returns to (during staff meetings or meditative yoga, say). It’s a whole lobster tail wrangled onto a fat stick and enrobed in sweet, crunchy cornmeal crust. It was $21 when I ordered it, but I can’t remember an Andrew Jackson so enjoyably spent..
2. Sea Salt
Sundial, 183 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
And on the other end of the seafood spectrum, the end with extra zeros on the bill and a staggering glass-fronted wall of wine presided over by suave sommelier Justin Chamoun, there is Sea Salt, one of three fancy restaurants anchoring Sundial’s second floor. Fabrizio and Ingrid Aielli opened a restaurant of the same name in Naples in 2008, making Esquire’s best new restaurant list in 2009, then following up with the nearby Italian trattoria Barbatella in 2012. The main attraction here can’t be missed: At the entrance to the 12,000-square-foot, 300-seater, there’s an L-shaped display of whole fresh fish on ice, decorated attractively with seaweed and lemons like a confusing underwater tableau. There have been some hiccups in the kitchen since launch, but executive chef Kenny Tufo has hit his cruising altitude with just-slightly-Italian-inflected luxe seafood dishes.
Must eat: That said, some of the unfussed-with raw bar items are notable. There are between six and nine oyster types daily, ranging from British Columbia to Massachusetts and the good old Gulf, arrayed nicely with little paper identifying tags and taste descriptions ($36 is steep for a dozen, but from 4 to 6 p.m. in the bar you can snarf $1 Gulf oysters). Beyond the seafood, check out the three styles of sea salt that come with bread and butter (beware the stinky sulfur one unless you’re into such things) and desserts tend to be elaborately architectural and well conceived.
3. Snapper’s Sea Grill
5895 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, FL 33706
A seafood restaurant on the beach since 1997, right across from the Tradewinds? Gotta be a tourist trap, right? Not on Dan Casey’s watch. A “loco fisherman” who got his start selling dogs at Dan’s Beachside Grill, he has slowly grown a mini empire, with Snapper’s, nearby MadFish, set in a retro dining car, and a steakhouse, 1200 Chophouse, also close at hand (the guy’s got a decent commute). What sets Snapper’s apart from other local seafood spots is fresh-off-the-boat fish and a tremendous wine list served by a savvy staff that does it justice. It had a major face lift a few years back and will likely have an exterior gussying up in 2016, but the major focus these days is on the plate, with a commitment to sourcing proteins, land and sea, as locally as is possible. No reservations.
Must eat: Chef Chris Burghart has a slightly Floribbean palate, with fruity salsas and coconut and such, but the fundamentals are grouper and snapper (and tuna, because you have to have tuna evidently, theirs a very appealing rare, wasabi-edged endeavor with crazy fried noodle antennae). There’s red snapper in a red curry Thai broth on the horizon, but a recent grouper with a creamy crabmeat, scallop and shrimp stuffing and a jaunty cap of puff pastry made me appreciate my career choice.
SteakBack to top
1. FarmTable Kitchen
Locale Market, 179 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Locale Market was one of the most talked-about launches last year. Some swooned over the St. Petersburger and liquid nitrogen ice creams; others swooned when they saw the price tag for a bunch of organic asparagus ($10!). Some credited it with tipping St. Pete into “culinary destination” territory. And others insist the Michael Mina/Don Pintabona market-dining hall collaboration is still in jeopardy. Time will tell, but it’s clear that the reimagined Jeffrey Hileman-helmed FarmTable Kitchen was a savvy shift. With all the kitchen talent on property, diners wanted a full-service, sit-down, reservations-accepted place in which to enjoy it. The retail has been largely relocated downstairs to make way for a 145-seater upstairs. It draws from all over the store: Fresh juices and purees from the phalanx of juicers in the market; crusty rolls from the bakery; extruded and filled pastas from the Cadillac of pasta machines and — this is the biggie — wet- and dry-aged steaks from the beef case where they lounge, flanked by 196 Himalayan salt plates to absorb moisture.
Must eat: I’ve eyed the Flintstone-sized Niman Ranch 56-day dry-aged tomahawk rib eyes and then been proud of my abstemiousness when I’ve gone home with a lesser $35/pound steak in butcher paper. They are magical on the grill or pan-seared, but they are rainbow-unicorn magical when cooked by experts over the flywheel grills at FarmTable Kitchen. All that dry aging removes water and breaks down collagen, so whether it’s the bone-in filet or the Kansas City strip, you’re getting a tender but intensely rich piece of beef, easily shared (plus then you can share a mushroom and taleggio pizza or a local clam chowder.
2. Eddie V’s
4400 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa, FL 33607
I waffled. I like the lakeside patio setting and cocktail list at Ocean Prime. But it is the consistently exceptional service that puts Eddie V’s ahead by a nose. Clad in starched white jackets and jaunty bow ties, servers are polished, knowledgeable and suave, able to detect if you are a diner who prefers lots of hand-holding or sleight-of-hand invisibility. Orlando-based Darden (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Capital Grille, etc.) bought the chain in 2011 and this was the first one opened on their watch. The concept is now up to 13 locations, its strength an old-school steakhouse sensibility with glamorous dining rooms (moody lighting, snowy linens, dramatic glassed-in wine cellar and suave live jazz in the bar).
Must eat: Along the row of high-end chain concepts on Boy Scout Boulevard across from International Plaza, what distinguishes Eddie V’s is an equal adroitness with prime steaks and premium seafood. I’ve heard that it’s a myth that the bone itself adds depth of flavor to a bone-in steak, so maybe it’s a placebo effect: the 22-ounce bone-in prime rib eye comes lushly marbled with velvety fat, but with good chew and a deep, minerally flavor. Now pair that with pan-roasted wild mushrooms and broccolini with lemon and garlic and it feels luxuriously nostalgic, especially if preceded by shrimp cocktail or a jumbo lump crab cake and finally punctuated with a disc of hot bananas Foster butter cake.
3. Council Oak
Seminole Hard Rock Tampa, 5223 Orient Road, Tampa, FL 33610
Since the hotel debuted, this has been the ne plus ultra for high rollers or those who aspire, despite the fact that restaurateur and Chopped judge Marc Murphy debuted the lovely Mediterranean Grey Salt onsite in November. Council Oak is in a bit of flux right now with the recent departure of chef de cuisine Omar Torres, appointed in July. For now, top brass Bill Gideon and Michael Balles are overseeing the steakhouse until a replacement has been chosen. Based on a recent meal, this is not bad news for diners. To get you oriented, butchers cut USDA prime 21- to 28-day dry-aged steaks in a stainless steel and glass exhibition butchery near the entrance. Interestingly, the Seminole tribe now has its own Florida-raised beef line, but this isn’t on offer in the sleek, white-tablecloth dining room with just the faintest ding-ding-ding from the 5,000 slot machines nearby.
Must eat: In 2008, the Japanese Meat Grading Association changed its BMS (Beef Marble Score) so it starts at 3 and goes up to 12. You: “Um, what?” You need to know this because Council Oak serves Australian wagyu steaks graded at +9. Akin to when Tufnel’s Marshall amp went up to 11 in Spinal Tap, this means the 12-ounce rib eye ($125) is really, really good. And if you’ve proved to be an exceptional stud at Mississippi Stud, I also recommend the raw bar sampler (king crab, Maine lobster, shrimp cocktail, oysters from both coasts) to start.
Thai and VietnameseBack to top
1. Restaurant BT
2507 S MacDill Ave., Tampa, FL 33629
We have so few notable female chefs in the Tampa Bay area, and the few we do have are petite. No matter. In the case of BT Nguyen, she lives life large. When I want an unvarnished, from-the-hip (but articulate) chef’s opinion, this longtime Tampa restaurateur (seven restaurants and counting) provideth. This year she debuted BT to Go a few blocks from her flagship, the culmination of a lot of thought about how to feed people, especially families, quickly, healthfully and with Viet-French panache. It grew out of dinner guests at Restaurant BT jonesing for her lunch menu items (pho, bun bowls, banh mi), but Restaurant BT at night, with its fancy ghost chairs, chic wall of air plants and suave French-accented service, is about luxe. Lunch is more straightforward Vietnamese, whereas dinner features that strange colonial serendipity that happens when one cuisine bends toward another.
Must eat: Year by year you see more regional farms named and “organics” indicated on her menu, even while some dishes endure (the vegetarian galangal-amped chunky pumpkin soup, the filet tartare bo tai chanh, spicy with chiles and dotted with basil and peanut). In recent visits, the splurge items seem the way to go: shaken beef, bouillabaisse or a trio of crème brûlées with an equally sumptuous glass of Sauternes.
2. Saigon Deli
3962 W Waters Ave., Tampa, FL 33614
At the economical end of the Vietnamese spectrum, I debated between Thuy Café (and Thuy Le’s fancier downtown St. Pete location, La V; news: she has a third restaurant in the works for 2016) or the place where many of us first encountered the charisma of the banh mi. I opted for the latter. It has had an avid following among the banh mi cognoscenti since 2005. Lam Le offers four varieties, all for $3, in keeping with his prices for pho, bun and a whole lot of wrapped-in-plastic neon pink and green jellied grab-and-go items at the counter.
Must eat: The best sandwich is the combo. Order and they assemble pronto: Baguette, very crispy, slathered with pate (tastes chicken livery, but liver could have other provenance), headcheese and ham, piled up with crisp, sweet and just slightly spicy daikon and carrot matchsticks and soft pickley cucumbers, lots of cilantro (cilantro stems add seductiveness) and a tang of fish sauce and jalapeno. Warm. And wrapped in waxed paper. Follow it with a tiny tub of pudding that everyone else in line seems to be grabbing as an impulse buy. The pudding is called che bap and it has corn and tapioca and coconut milk and vanilla and strands of chewy seaweed and little reddish beans.
3. Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple
5306 Palm River Road, Tampa, FL 33619
I know it’s supremely weasely to lump Thai restaurants in with Vietnamese in a category. Truth is, in a very strong year, I had to figure out a way to keep categories and total numbers down, such that whole swaths of Asia (and the entire continent of Africa!) got short shrift. In my defense, there are very few Thai restaurants in our area that really distinguish themselves. A sameness to many suggests there are a lot of tubs of Mae Ploy curry paste out there. By a mile, the most engaging and satisfying Thai dining in our area is outdoors from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays in back of the Thai temple. It’s a weekly fundraiser put together by parishioners and community members, with long, snaking lines, one for fresh and fried rolls, another for noodle soups. etc. What you do is this: Bring a posse, arrive early, give everyone $10 cash, whiz off in all directions and meet at a picnic table 15 minutes later and unveil your bounty while sitting under moss-draped trees on the bank of the Palm River. Afterward, slip your shoes off and enter the ornate gilded temple to witness services, 1 to 2:30 p.m.
Must eat: Crowds are getting bigger all the time. But can you blame them? There are some perfect foods here, i.e. sticky rice with mango, a tart-creamy-coconut milky-salty party. Generous noodle soup bowls are more of a hold-your-own dish, offered with a beef or pork base with thin, medium or wide noodles. The pumpkin curry with chicken might have been my favorite dish on an early January visit, and fried bananas and sweet potatoes have a consistently exuberant following, but less so than the always-thronged line for small coconut custards. I’ve never had the stamina. So there’s a resolution for 2016.