FISH FOOD: Sea Grapes Wine and Food Festival
One of the Florida Aquarium's biggest fundraisers, the Sea Grapes Wine and Food Festival supports the aquarium's youth education and conservation programs with more than 120 types of wine available to sample and food from 20 local restaurants including Armani's, Brio and Roy's. Try not to look the fish in the eye as you nibble your way through the aquarium galleries. Entertainment that changes throughout the galleries includes fingerstyle guitar wizard Shaun Hopper in the Coral Reef and swing jazz from the Gloria West Trio on the main stage. The party is 7-11 p.m. Saturday, at the Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa. Tickets are $85–$105 at flaquarium.org. (813) 273-4000.
On our list
Most entrees less than $10
Cuisine: Vegetarian, Vietnamese.
It's Vietnamese quick-service downtown in all its vibrant, punchy glory, but served up in a way that's accessible and not intimidating. Step in line and order from the board. Fresh rolls are customized to suit, a water-moistened rice paper round cradling vermicelli, green leaf lettuce, chives and mint, and then whatever you point to. The "sauce bar" offers up dunkables like spicy Sriracha, sweet/salty nuoc mam, or a sophisticated ponzu dipping sauce. Also vermicelli bowls and pho. 516 N Tampa St., Tampa. (813) 223-7320. bamboozlecafe.com
Dockside Dave's Grill
Cuisine: Seafood casual, Southern.
Dave's legendary dive fell to development, but even in this spot, the fish sandwiches are still king of the beach. Best with tomatoes and onion rings. Or try the Dockside Dave's Dip. The menu also has whole belly clams, spicy shrimp and fish tacos. 14701 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach. (727) 392-9399. docksidedavesgrill.com.
Most entrees $10 to $20
Cuisine: American casual, Breakfast or brunch, Sandwiches.
The space is straight-up gorgeous, with a kind of retro-chic that is nearly impossible to calculate just right. The building contains a tiny bookstore, a gift- and housewares store, a Buddy Brew coffee stand and a TeBella bar in addition to the restaurant. Breakfast and lunch menus are suitably chic without breaking the bank (sandwiches, salads, pastries, high tea). 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. (813) 253-0222. oxfordexchange.com.
Pane Rustica Bakery & Cafe
Cuisine: Deli, Fine dining.
A big, wood-fired oven cranks out a wild assortment of crisp pizzas and roast chickens, monster pork chops and robust pastas. Plus there are brilliant salads, irresistible pastries and just about Tampa Bay's best burger, made by hand and with no fear of flavor. 3225 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. (813) 902-8828. panerusticabakery.com.
Seabreeze Island Grill & Raw Bar
Cuisine: American casual, Seafood casual.
With roughly 200 seats and live music most nights, it's a rum runner kind of place. There's nothing cerebral about rum, blackberry brandy, banana liqueur, pineapple, orange and grenadine in a mason jar over lots of ice, but that's just fine. Despite a clear focus on value, the kitchen aims to take full advantage of the area's dayboat catch. Hogfish is a regular menu item, the sweet, moist fish getting a panko coating and a quick pan-frying, offered with a choice of two sides (the most interesting of which are cinnamony mashed sweet potatoes with golden raisins or a creamy-tangy tropical slaw). And if fish (grouper, salmon, grilled Bairdi snow crab) isn't floating your boat, the house guava barbecue sauced baby-back ribs are meltingly tender and zesty. With its indoor/outdoor space, Buffett-inspired musical selections and brightly colored rooms, it's got the easy, breezy feel of a beachside classic, even with no sand between your toes. 17855 Gulf Blvd., Redington Shores. (727) 498-8688. seabreezeislandgrill.com.
Cuisine: American casual, Southern.
At Southern Fresh, a tiny, pleasantly spare one-room space with patio seating, the menu totals about 10 items with a couple of daily specials. Two dishes stand out, big time. A BLT soup brings a vegetable broth cradling soft hunks of simmered plum tomato, with garlic, shallot and bacon making their presence known. A little flurry of cilantro and chopped romaine gets added at the last second to the smoky, piping-hot broth. The just-wilted greens lend the soup enough crunch that it gets at just what makes a bacon-lettuce-tomato combo so satisfying. Home run No. 2 is fried chicken. At lunch it takes enough extra time that you need to be fairly committed. But it's excellent fried chicken — a drum and a thigh, moist and hot, with a crunchy flour coating, neither too thick nor too thin, seasoned expertly. 122 Third Ave. N, Safety Harbor. (727) 216-6341.
Urban Brew and BBQ
Cuisine: American casual, Barbecue.
Andy Salyards is doing a handful of things in the smoker — brisket, baby-back ribs, pulled pork, chicken — offering them as full plates, with a side and a roll, or as excellent and well-priced sliders. It's easy to be smitten by a moist, flavorful pile of brisket sliced onto a little roll, offered with a choice of sauces from really sweet to really hot to vinegar-tangy. The meat has that delicate pink discoloration of meat just under the surface crust (in the biz this is the "bark") that signals skilled smoking, with a savory, rich flavor to the plush beef. Then pair this with a scoop of crunchy, fresh-tasting coleslaw or a cup of smoky-sweet baked beans studded with big hunks of smoked pork. Really, all the sides at Urban Brew are keepers, the top offering the skillet mac and cheese with wisps of prosciutto. 1939 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 822-8919.
This Asian fusion eatery does a good job with the Chinese basics (pot stickers, General Tso's Chicken, Crab Rangoon), but it also pays homage to Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam. The Taiwanese mussels and Korean bul go gi (sliced sirloin) are popular. 4148 Rowan Road, New Port Richey. (727) 372-9545. zenforrest.com.
Most entrees $20 or more
Birch & Vine at the Birchwood
Cuisine: American upscale, New American.
Wander from the white-curtained cabanas to the edge of the rooftop with its sweeping views of Tampa Bay and Straub Park. Still, the main attraction is the ground-floor 225-seat fine-dining Birch & Vine, open for lunch and dinner. The menu is ambitious, with lots of culinary buzzwords: There's compressed watermelon, there's sous vide, there's pork belly. It's suave, and the setting parries step for step. Caveat: Prepare for a wait to get up to the thronged rooftop deck. 340 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-1080. thebirchwood.com.
Cuisine: New American, Wine bar.
Set in the old SideBern's location, this Bern's sibling is less old-school fancy than Bern's and less expensive than SideBern's, but no less ambitious than either. It has without a doubt the area's most encyclopedic and ambitious cheese program. Now add to that a list of more than 300 whisk(e)ys and an outrageous wine list and it's a high-profile new playground for Tampa Bay foodies. Charcuterie features a number of lovely terrines, sausages, torchons and pates. And cheeses crop up all over the menu, from a trio of stunning savory housemade macarons to a changing mac and cheese offering. But there are also stunning vegetable preparations: Something described simply as sweet corn marries corn in every guise from ears of caramelized baby corn to corn sprouts, roasted corn niblets, and popcorn brought together with Zamorano cheese and a hint of chile heat. 2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa. (813) 258-2233. haventampa.com.