This week Florida Trend's annual Golden Spoon awards were announced, honoring Florida's best restaurants. Although Florida Trend (its parent company also owns the Tampa Bay Times) serves the state's business community, the Golden Spoons are a valuable consumer tool. Because Florida restaurants seldom feature heavily in national evaluations such as Zagat, the James Beard Awards and the Michelin Guide (almost all of the Michelin-rated restaurants in the United States are in New York), the Golden Spoon, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, provides a unique opportunity to assess Florida's dining scene as a whole and to compare one region with another.
So, how'd the Tampa Bay area do?
Hillsborough trounced Pinellas County for best new restaurants. Tampa boasted newcomers Anise Global Gastrobar, Cena and Cigar City Brewpub, with St. Petersburg notching only one, Meze 119, a small vegetarian restaurant downtown (and nothing in Clearwater or other Pinellas communities).
There was something our area's new Spoons had in common, though.
According to Chris Sherman, Florida Trend's restaurant editor and former food critic at the Tampa Bay Times, "This year the big energy is at much lower prices. Part of that is because customers aren't as capable of paying for $38 entrees. But also for the chefs, we're in a great time of entrepreneurship, with a lot of people starting new ventures. They can't do it with extremely pricey ingredients."
Sherman says the biggest excitement and change in our area involves craft brewing and, by association, the kind of gutsy and more moderately priced fare that marries well with it. Still, a look at this year's list of new restaurants, regular Golden Spoon awards and Hall of Famers, reveals that there seem to be peculiar omissions: no Refinery, no Edison, no Z Grille. All three have gotten quite a bit of critical acclaim and are popular with diners.
Sherman says this is a function of the awards criteria: Those restaurants are into their "toddlerhood," he says, too old to be deemed new restaurants but without the longer track records necessary to be awarded a regular Golden Spoon. Still, Sherman says, the awards are shifting somewhat.
"In the past, Golden Spoons were mostly beloved institutions. That's no longer the pace at which we live. Restaurants don't stay the same for as long. They will reinvent themselves or they may go out of business. Things are changing so fast, it's very exciting that we continue to see new ethnic flavors and new formats."
When asked which of the Tampa Bay area newcomers Sherman is most excited about, he said, "Anise. Maybe it's because I'm always a sucker for anything that comes from the Vietnamese end of the Asian spectrum, and also because of its knockout decor. Anise exemplifies smart, exciting, different and perfectly affordable."
Still, he says, Miami's food scene is worth a road trip.
"If you're going to take a long weekend, Miami is the place to go. It's just exploding," he notes, adding that Jacksonville is a great food city that is often overlooked.
"It's Florida's version of Brooklyn."
In discussing trends and ingredients that have driven Florida chefs to excel this year, Sherman said, "Pork is the answer."
But what, precisely, was the question?
"There needs to be no question."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.