Last 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, for consumers, the Golden Spoons are a valuable barometer of just how our restaurants stack up against those in other regions around the state. And how did we do? It's complicated.
In its 42nd year, the Golden Spoons are decided by Chris Sherman, Florida Trend's restaurant editor and former food critic at the Times. Sherman singled out a number of our newcomers for awards this year: Dulcet in New Port Richey (a city that gets precious few props for its dining scene); Bern's new sibling Haven in Tampa; and Noble Crust and the Mill in St. Petersburg, the latter awarded the Robert W. Tolf Award for Best New Restaurant, named for the former Florida Trend restaurant editor. The brainchild of chef Ted Dorsey, the Mill was singled out for its "cider mussels, Southern-fried frog legs, wild game, foie gras and sweetbreads, rustic tarts and Taleggio-feta grilled cheese."
Avid diners will be confused, however, that hot restaurants such as Rooster and the Till, Roux and Ulele in Tampa, Castile in St. Pete Beach and Annata in St. Petersburg, which all received awards for New Restaurants last year, didn't make this year's list.
Sherman explained: "Basically, the new restaurants — places in business no more than two years — are the ones with the most exciting ideas going on. But they have to survive and be consistent, so after about three years is when they are eligible" for a regular Golden Spoon award.
That said, another popular restaurant seems notably missing: Greg and Michelle Baker's the Refinery in Seminole Heights.
"I think there is great stuff in Seminole Heights, and Greg has been a leader in that group," he said. "But I have not been as excited as other people about the Refinery."
When asked about current Florida restaurant trends, Sherman noted that "the trends are the same as last year, only a lot more of them: more gastropubs, barbecue, bakeries and burgers, regional Italian, small plates, 'street food,' craft beer, craft cocktails. Food trucks are settling down in fixed locations, and some of their ethnic specialties are now fair game on other menus like sticky buns, Korean barbecue, shawarma and falafel."
He was quick to point out other things that seemed red hot in 2015.
• The many new craft distilleries in Florida.
• Bacon a dozen ways, from octopus to duck and lamb, with house-cured, dried and smoked meat and fish for charcuterie. See: the Mill, Haven and Rooster and the Till.
• More pickles (hooray!).
• Steak and meat-centric menus are back, not that they ever went away. It's one place where high prices are an attraction. And butchers are getting their due. See: Jimmy P's in Naples.
• Cider and mead are on the rise.
• There's much more outdoor dining. "St. Petersburg's Beach Drive and Central Avenue have as many outdoor tables as Ocean Drive in Miami."
And according to him, among the most exciting developments are the odd fusions coming from ethnic chefs, "especially Asian and Latin like Finka Table and Tap in Miami (Cuban and Korean) or Noble Crust's crazy combination of Italian and Southern comforts."
So, what would he like to see less of on Florida tables? Fewer $14 cocktails, fewer salmon and tilapia dishes as the daily catch, and — here's a biggie — enough with the kale.
"I'm tired of kale salad and suspect everyone else is."
Even after a little grousing, the Florida Trend restaurant editor is bullish about the future.
"The whole industry is exploding. We're stunned by what's going on in St. Pete and Tampa. But that's true all over the state. And most of what is happening is in places that seat less than 100 people and with entrée prices under $20. It's a boom time."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.