Reviews by Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Photography from Times files
Developed by Alexis N. Sanchez
Here are Times food critic Laura Reiley’s top 50 restaurants of Tampa Bay, based on what she ate and saw in 2014. It was a year of explosive growth for Florida’s small farmers and artisanal foods, and the best Tampa Bay restaurants engaged with national trends without wallowing in trendiness. Plus, Florida's gulf coast caught the attention of several of America's most well-known chefs as potentially rich new territory for their culinary ambitions.
Across price point, cuisine and geography, explore the Tampa Bay area’s best places to eat in 2015, starting with the Top 10 ranked by number and the rest alphabetically.
Did we miss your favorite restaurant? Leave us a comment at the bottom of the page. Share pictures from your favorite places to dine in the Tampa Bay area with the tag #tampabayeats. Need help deciding where to start on the list? Take our Tampa Bay Top 50 Restaurants Quiz to see where you should dine.
718 South Howard Avenue, Tampa, FL 33606 Get directions
It is not the fanciest restaurant, nor the most ambitiously cutting-edge. But it's the whole package: It's got brains and beauty, with a flirty, fun-loving spirit and a whole lot of warmth. The Michael Stewart/Joe Maddon collaboration has been the talk of the town since its November opening (some of that talk being "waa, I can't get a rez"). The design is casual but knockout (seriously, look at the sink in the ladies room or the pendants made from aircraft carrier spotlights: gorgeous); chef Joshua Hernández is killing it on the Neapolitan-style pies in the focal-point Acunto oven (these are fork-and-knife pizzas); chef J. Ward is doing equally remarkable work with pastas, house-cured meats and grilled proteins; and the bar program has savvy cocktails, a smart lineup of craft beers and an all-Italian by-the-glass wine list that is gently taking people out of their comfort zone. In short, it's a lively, affordable, hip, big-city restaurant that we're lucky to have and that, given its success already, will doubtless bring more projects of this nature to Tampa.
6500 North Florida Avenue, Tampa, FL 33604 Get directions
What Ferrell Alvarez and crew have managed to do with three induction burners in a closet-sized kitchen is a kind of clown-car magic. Which is why I’m a little queasy about the fact that Rooster will double in size this summer with a completely new French suite-style kitchen with full gas, an expanded kitchen bar and a total of 66 indoor seats and 12 more outside. It’s different if 30 clowns come out of a stretch limo, right? Nonetheless, Rooster remains one of the most ambitious restaurants in the area, with a commitment to sourcing locally (Urban Oasis, Pasture Prime, etc.) and a penchant for delicate jewel-like presentations with beads of shimmering sauce and doodads that require surgical tweezers to place just so. Alvarez and partner Ty Rodriguez have retained a tremendous team, from chef Brian Lampe to manager Myles Gallagher, and nearly every server exhibits encyclopedic menu knowledge.
912 West Kennedy Boulevard, Tampa, FL 33606 Get directions
Settling into its third year, Jeannie Pierola’s Edison has found such a nice groove. The kitchen is dense with talent, from Allie Beasman who has been promoted to chef de cuisine, to pastry chef Erin Kelly (watch out for her new riff on milk and cookies using the anti-griddle). On the beverage side there’s bar manager Ryan Pinés who took the full bar (a late addition) from zero to 60 swiftly (and added house-bottled and barrel-aged cocktails) and new wine director Tyler Westlund, who has introduced wines on tap and will launch a fresh wine dinner series in Feb. Tampa-native Pierola is self-taught, with passion and curiosity that continually allows her to create mash-ups and juxtapositions that have to the power to shock as much as charm.
5137 North Florida Avenue, Tampa, FL 33603 Get directions
It’s too early to say whether Greg and Michelle Baker’s new Fodder & Shine will rise to the heights of their flagship Refinery, but it deserves kudos for sheer chutzpah in trying to recreate early Florida Cracker fare. Perhaps because some staff is temporarily focused on Fodder, my last Refinery visit wasn’t as transformative as earlier ones, but its core tenet is no less laudable. As Greg says, it’s about “how chefs and farmers are mutually dependent for their success.” Having strategically positioned himself in a national culinary conversation, the four-time Beard semifinalist, 47, has the power to influence what the rest of the country thinks of Florida food.
449 Central Avenue #101, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 Get directions
This lovely newcomer is where I like to eat when I’m not working, partly because of the intimate and attractive dining room (with its modest noise levels and flickering candles) and partly due to the warmth of owners David and Erica Benstock. But the bigger reason is that you see the person behind the food in every dish, each plate a reflection of the aesthetic and diligent efforts of an individual. David makes his own ’nduja sausage and cured meats, he makes his own pastas, he pickles ramps and preserves tangerines, bakes his own focaccia and little salt-flecked ciabatta rolls and sophisticated cakes. It’s very contemporary Italian, with sensible portions and precise presentations. This year will see some changes, from expanded outdoor seating to new kitchen toys like a sous vide Searzall (David Chang’s Kickstarter project) and a heavy-duty gelato machine.
3701 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete Beach, FL 33706 Get directions
What chef Ted Dorsey is doing at this newcomer is fresh, exciting and downright trendy, although I’m a bit spooked about putting it on my Top 10 list. The 50-room boutique Hotel Zamora has a new management company, which has meant some staffing changes, but I’m sticking to my guns and saying that as long as Dorsey is there, it’s aces. The starting chef at Boca in Tampa, he began his career working at Mise en Place and the now-defunct Chez Bryce, both in Tampa, developing a globe-trotting palate that swings gracefully from South America to the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia. Not beachside, the hotel makes best use of its canal-side setting, with a knockout pool and patio visible from the elegant dining room. In shades of persimmon and turquoise, the room hints at equatorial spots like Brazil (echoed by a cocktail list crowded with caipirinhas and drinks called things like “the Brazilian”), but the menu pays equal homage to Spain.
1810 North Highland Avenue, Tampa, FL 33602 Get directions
In order to tell Ulele’s rich story, I used as many contractions and pithy verbs as I could in my review back in Sept. There was a lot to say. Richard Gonzmart (whose wife must be hurrumphing this gonna-retire-soon guy with every next project — Goody Goody soon, but then some Spanish thing) is a Tampa-booster extraordinaire, partnering with Keith Sedita on what clearly is the best visitor destination we’ve gotten in this new century (alright, Gonzmart has the other one with his Ybor Columbia). In a handsome new vision for the 1906 Water Works Building, employing dozens of local artisans, it’s an homage to early Florida settlers and the area’s native Americans. The whole thing cost Gonzmart in the ballpark of $6 million, but its spring-side setting, which will eventually be the terminus of Tampa’s Riverwalk, may pay dividends.
31936 Saint Joe Road, Dade City, FL 33525 Get directions
Curtis and Rebecca Beebe launched Local Public House and Provisions in San Antonio during the summer, a casual beer-and-burger gathering spot in a century-old former general store. Since then they’ve shuttled back and forth between the new baby and their flagship Pearl, building a following at both. Pearl’s chef de cuisine Patrice Murphy (impressive dreads; formerly at the Refinery and Edison) keeps the wheels on the bus, serving sophisticated fried chicken and catfish meunière, while Hunter Dempsey takes the lead on house charcuterie (bacon, bresaola, tasso) and new pastry chef Austin Whitty works her magic with ice cream (goat cheese; brown sugar) and cornbread brown butter cake.
13505 Icot Boulevard #214, Clearwater, FL 33760 Get directions
It’s finally happening. Chris Ponte has been looking around for restaurant No. 2 for a while, and with partners John and Trudy Cooper will open On Swann in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village in 2015. With a community bar and open kitchen, the 4,000-square-foot space will be no-tablecloths casual with a Josper Spanish oven turning out tapas. At his award-winning fine-dining flagship, 2014 was the busiest and most lucrative year yet, with catering ratcheting up substantially. New general manager Andrew Bayus has further fine-tuned service, bathrooms have been remodeled and a new brass die press pasta maker has glamorized the pasta options. Still, Cafe Ponte continues to be about consistency and exacting plate presentations of New American dishes with classical French underpinnings (Ponte trained at Taillevent).
442 West Kennedy Boulevard #110, Tampa, FL 33606 Get directions
Marty Blitz and Maryann Ferenc were at the party before anyone else, all dressed up (well, maybe not Marty) and waiting for the Tampa food scene to ignite. Their 29-year-old flagship restaurant is the elder statesman on the increasingly rich Kennedy corridor, but there’s never anything stodgy about it and Blitz doesn’t miss a beat, embracing trends and new technology in real time. It’s still glamorous, still a proper place for an important business meeting or special night out. Blitz’s food has garnered plaudits from USA Today and dozens of national publications, and partner Ferenc is an indefatigable Tampa booster. Other projects include Sono Café (which just launched a grilled cheese menu) at the Tampa Museum of Art and Flight Wine Bar at Tampa International Airport.