By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Across the country, restaurant patronage lags in the summer months. Here in the Tampa Bay area, August and September can be the roughest, requiring the most fortitude and ingenious marketing on the part of restaurateurs. And thus the restaurant week was born.
The phenomenon has been going strong for years in some of the country's biggest cities, and 2013 marks the fourth year for Dine Tampa Bay. What started in 2010 with 58 restaurants has blossomed to 97 participating restaurants this year for a "week" that runs from Friday to Aug. 30.
And what's not to like? Restaurants share marketing dollars to advertise prix-fixe three-course special menus to a broad audience and customers take advantage of affordable deals to try out new places. It's dinner only, with casual and special-occasion restaurants spread across Hillsborough and Pinellas counties offering short lists of appetizers, entrees and dessert for $25, $35 or $45.
Last year's Dine Tampa Bay featured more than 130 restaurants. Although smaller this year, it doesn't showcase nearly as many chain restaurants (all right, there are familiar names like the Melting Pot and GrillSmith), with the lion's share of restaurants representing the area's top independent spots and notable fine-dining establishments.
It goes like this: Visit DineTampaBay.com to peruse the restaurants and their menus, then make a reservation via OpenTable.com or over the phone, indicating that you're coming for the special dinner. Easy enough, but how to choose from this list of nearly 100 restaurants?
I've got you covered. Here's what you need to know:
For pork belly fans
If you want to sample the IT ingredient, the menu at SideBern's, above, (sideberns.com) features it lacquered with mushroom soy, Jerusalem artichoke and mustard seeds, Anise Global Gastrobar (aniseglobalgastrobar.com) showcases it with kimchi and coconut rice, and I'd lay a wager that at the Refinery (thetamparefinery.com) you'll find some as well, but its menu isn't posted yet because it will change for each of the two weeks.
The best deal
The Capital Grille (thecapitalgrille.com) has mad reservations every year because it offers a $35 menu that includes things like bone-in, dry-aged 14-ounce sirloin and their flourless chocolate espresso cake, plus they're combining this with their summer "Generous Pour" deal — in short, it's ordinarily very hard to get out of CG for $35 and this is a humdinger bargain. The same can be said of the Donatello, above, (donatellorestaurant.com; the last time I reviewed it I was queasy about turning in those receipts to accounting), which is offering a $45 menu that includes dishes like their tableside Caesar and vitello dolce vita, veal scaloppini with ham, mushrooms and truffle in a light white wine sauce.
For the high-tech set
All three locations of the Carmel Café ,above, (carmelcafe.com) are offering $25 menus with a real breadth of entree choices, but what makes Carmel the place for the plugged in is the tablet ordering. The same goes for Sushi Wave (sushiwavefl.com), a new sushi bar that opened in March in Pinellas Park with tablet sushi ordering (beats that stubby yellow pencil). For Dine Tampa Bay they are offering a $35 menu that includes a range of specialty rolls.
The toughest reservations
Frenzy always surrounds the new, and since Birch & Vine (thebirchwood.com) is still the hottest thing in downtown St. Petersburg, chances are these spots will be tough to nab. Diners can enjoy Peruvian ceviche lettuce cups and duck leg confit before adjourning to the rooftop patio to drink in the best view downtown. On the Tampa side, Cooper's Hawk (coopershawkwinery.com) is still new enough to create some buzz, especially with its $25 menu that includes gnocchi carbonara and soy-ginger salmon.
End the summer with one last trip, at least metaphorically, with a visit to watch the planes at Albert Whitted Airport when dining at the Hangar, above, (thehangarstpete.com) with its $35 menu of rib-stickers like bacon-wrapped meatloaf. The new airplane-themed Flight Restaurant and Lounge (flightrestaurantandlounge.com) in Tampa will also take you elsewhere with a $25 menu of low country shrimp and grits, and Maryland-style crab cakes. On the other hand, what better way to celebrate Maine lobster month than a butter-dunked Maine beauty at the Lobster Pot (lobsterpotrestaurant.com), an offering on their $35 Dine Tampa Bay special menu.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.