The Tampa Bay food scene heated up in 2012, with lots of national trends finding purchase locally. But get this: None of it was fine dining. Newcomers showed innovation and dynamism, but the lion's share were wallet-friendly, everyday kinds of places. Here are our favorite 2012 debuts.
Bamboozle Tea Lounge
The condos in the Channel District filled up enough in 2012 to merit some infrastructure. It was the year cafes, restaurants and boutiques sprouted up outside the still-beleaguered Channelside Bay Plaza. Buoyed by the success of their downtown Bamboozle, Lynn Pham and partners branched out, bringing their Vietnamese quick-serve to the neighborhood in October. They just got a beer and wine license and Pham is still tinkering with a menu of Asian fusion juices, but the nuts and bolts are in place. Pho is the way to go at this breezy charmer, the cheap one-dish meal crowded with a tangle of soft, pale rice noodles immersed in a rich beef broth made from simmered shinbones. The most basic pho comes with eye-of-round steak, sliced super thin so it cooks in the broth, which you doctor with a plate of crunchy bean sprouts, wedges of lime and rounds of jalapeno along with a swirl of the ubiquitous Sriracha chili sauce or sweet hoisin. 109 N 12th St., Suite 1101, Tampa; (813) 228-7500.
Edison: Food + Drink Lab | $6–$16
Edison embodies what was most exciting and new in 2012. I've heard restaurant industry folks grousing: How does Jeannie Pierola keep the prices so reasonable at her inventive Kennedy Corridor newcomer, opened in August (foie gras dishes for $16?!)? To them she might quote Thomas A. Edison himself: "The value of an idea lies in the using of it." What has kept this place lively since the start is exacting execution of exciting ideas. That might be a recent bone marrow and grilled bread appetizer with wild mushroom marmalade and fines herbes salad, or liquid nitrogen milkshakes, or glazed baby root vegetables in cardamom "soil" (in hip New York restaurants, "soils" are the new "foams"). In December, they opened their private dining room, LAB916, with floor-to-ceiling chalkboards on two walls, which seems fitting. Pierola and her team seem to be perennially brainstorming, tinkering with faddish techniques and trendy ingredients in an ever-changing menu. But it's never precious: It's a rollicking, comfortable place at jeans-and-T-shirts prices. 912 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 254-7111.
First Flight | $7–$14
A national dining trend in 2012 played out in the country's airports. The idea: Start a visitor's experience right as they step off the plane by assembling shops and restaurants steeped in local flavor. Galvanized by the success of airports like San Francisco International (where 85 percent of the food-service offerings are local), Tampa International took the plunge, with 40 percent of the airport's concessions changing up this past year and more on the horizon. Mise en Place's First Flight has taken the marquee spot at the center of the before-security main terminal. A huge and glamorous bar provides a perfect perch for people-watching, with a list of more than 35 wines from the major wine-growing regions of the world and a nibbly menu of cheeses and charcuterie that is at once sophisticated and comforting. 4100 George J. Bean Parkway, Tampa; airport main number (813) 870-8700.
Grimaldi's Pizzeria | $9–$18
The name has always been associated with blood feuds and long-standing estrangements. Some New Yorkers insisted the best pie was from Lombardi's on Spring Street while others knew in their hearts it was Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge. Grimaldi's has branched out in recent years, with 27 locations around the country now, two opened in the Tampa Bay area in 2012. The Citrus Park location is lovely, with a gorgeous 4,000-square-foot dining room, familiar Frank Sinatra on the sound system and a big-league wine list. But the stars of the show are the pies, thin crust and pocked with dark bubbles from the 1,200-degree coal oven that whips through 100 pounds of coal a day. Pick your size, then white, pesto or a San Marzano tomato sauce, and then your toppings (oven-roasted sweet peppers, ricotta, all the traditional accoutrements) — a seriously good pizza pie. 7990 Citrus Park Town Center, Tampa; (813) 920-5858. (Also in Clearwater.)
Inside the Box Cafe
Just celebrating its first anniversary, this little spot with a big conscience has had a good run. The brainchild of Cliff Barsi, the concept is simple: Go to the attractive downtown cafe and order a box lunch, maybe a half sandwich or a salad with a couple of extras ($6.90). Half of that money goes to feed someone in need at Metropolitan Ministries. To date, the operation has funded 75,000 meals for hungry people in the Tampa area. That's some serious do-gooding. But there's more. Barsi's team recently received a grant from JP Morgan Chase to fund its culinary arts program. Culinary students are selected from Metropolitan Ministries' residential program, put through a rigorous cooking crash course (part of which is preparing food for the cafe) and then assisted in getting jobs in the industry. The kicker is that the cafe's food is excellent, with weekly specials (think tomato marmalade grilled cheese or grilled Brie and pear) and new additions like housemade chips in different flavors and recently rebranded fruit-flavored ices now called Hope's Frozen Treats. 505 N Tampa St., Tampa; (813) 227-9248.
It was a monster year for new Greek restaurants around Tampa Bay, but nearby Turkey got short shrift except for Istanblu. Opening late in the year in the space vacated by Sunday's Fine Dining, this attractive newcomer is owned by Levent Cilek, who also owns Shrimp & Co. down the block. Lamb takes center stage, offered in the doner kebab or ground-meat Adana kebab (served traditionally with rice and grilled tomatoes), best preceded by baba ghanoush or a clearly homemade hummus, and then followed by inky Turkish coffee and a gorgeous baklava. Still in its infancy, the restaurant hopes to add live music and belly dancers soon. 1919 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City; (813) 304-2348.
Le Mouton Noir
With its namesake black sheep sculpture standing sentinel in the sleek interior, this new Channel District artisanal bakery is a knockout. It's not an exhaustive array of pastries, but what they do, they do well. I defy you to find a better croissant in Tampa, and I double-dog dare you to locate a better alfajor. Alfa-wha? It's a soft, delicate sugar cookie from South America made with cornstarch (for tenderness), two of which are stacked with dulce de leche in the middle then dusted with powdered sugar. Who knows what Proust would have done with a cookie memory like that. Anyway, Francisco Arias' new bakery serves Buddy Brew coffee along with a short menu at breakfast and lunch (try the jambon beurre — baguette, butter, ham — three ingredients that need no embellishment). There's a communal table, Wi-Fi and a distinctly big-city feel to the place. 1112 Channelside Drive, Tampa; (813) 226-8833.
If there's one neighborhood in the Tampa Bay area that struck it rich last year, it's Seminole Heights. On the heels of cult faves like Ella's and the Refinery, Domani Bistro Lounge opened, the Capdevilla family (La Teresita) launched Sabroso and Mermaid Tavern became a go-to neighborhood watering hole. As with the Independent before it, the fly in the ointment was lack of grub. Yeah, there's a great outdoor patio, '60s and '70s films projected on a screen in the back, "bring your own vinyl" night and a world-class beer list, but a girl gets hon-gry. A few months ago they added food (just like the Independent before it), and it's a wonderful short list of sharable noshes, from hummus with warm pita triangles to truffle fries and a Middle Eastern kefta burger. 6719 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 238-5618.
Noodle Bar at Jubao Palace
Midyear I visited the restaurants at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, flitting between Council Oak steak house and Rock 'N Raw sushi bar, noting along the way the number of Asian patrons. The casino has gone one better since then, announcing it would actively court Asian-Americans and Asian visitors in a number of ways. The casino added the Noodle Bar at Jubao Palace toward the end of the year. It's a lively 15-seat, quick-service noodle bar with a short menu that is ethnically indistinct, in a good way. A bowl of pho, some beef chow fun or roast duck, it's somewhere between Vietnamese and Chinese, all at prices most can swing even if they've taken a major dive at the Pai Gow poker table. 5223 N Orient Road, Tampa; (813) 621-1302.
The biggest game-changer of the year, Oxford Exchange had a nearly hourlong wait virtually from Day 1 at the end of September. Visually stunning, it was about all anyone could talk about for a while: the urbane bookstore with its trenchant reads, the chic housewares and gift shop, the soaring ceilings and broad black and white marble checkerboard floors and, frankly, the fact that Tampa had a place with an hourlong wait at lunchtime. That says big leagues, right? Owner Blake Casper, who owns 52 area McDonald's, and his sister, Allison Adams, have put together something delectably hip, and chef Erin Guggino has built breakfast and lunch menus (no dinner) that are New American and complementary without breaking the bank (most dishes under $13 at lunch). Buddy Brew provides a tremendous coffee program while TeBella oversees the teas, each with its own beverage bar within the 24,000-square-foot space, like a shop within a shop. 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 253-0222.
Saté Southeast Asian Grill
It was a year when customization really took root. With concepts like Chipotle leading the way, newcomer Little Greek swiftly opened 11 locations around Tampa Bay and recent additions like Your Pie settled in with a simple vision: Pick your protein, pick your starch, pick your toppings and sauces. Mexican and Mediterranean cuisines seem to lend themselves to this follow-your-bliss bespoke cooking, but it wasn't until Saté Southeast Asian Grill opened mid December that anyone thought to take it in an Asian direction. Appealing to USF students and the nearby Army recruiting center, it's order-at-the-counter Vietnamese-Thai fusion. You point to a base (salad, vermicelli, jasmine rice, sandwich), then a meat or tofu, then accents like Vietnamese pickles or Thai cuke salad and finally a sauce (the curry is good, as is the peanut sauce). Total price tag is in the neighborhood of $6.15. 2716 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; (813) 977-8880.
Taco Bus | $2.99–$8.49
It's unclear whether Rene Valenzuela is a marketing genius or the ultimate surfer of the zeitgeist. His restaurants have been featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on Food Network and Adam Richman's Man v. Food on the Travel Channel. He has his original location in Seminole Heights as well as others in St. Petersburg, North Tampa, downtown Tampa, which opened in 2012, and, later in 2013, Brandon. It's gutsy, healthy, order-at-the-counter Mexican food with plenty for carnivores (lengua, barbacoa) and vegetarians (butternut squash taco) alike, with weekend late-night hours that have cemented it as the post-party place for affordable sustenance. Beyond this, what Valenzuela may be responsible for is jump-starting the food-truck trend in the Tampa Bay area — 2012 was the year of the area's first rallies, the year Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's own Food Truck Fiesta got swinging, and food truck guru Todd Sturtz even started offering classes in how to start your own food-truck business. Taking his mobile cafe to major events like the Tennessee music festival Bonnaroo, Valenzuela's efforts are an extension of his street-corner taco stand as a kid in Mexico. But it has certainly caught on, with dozens of food trucks logging miles in our area. 505 N Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 397-2800 (with other locations).
Opened at the beginning of 2012, Wimauma Restaurant hit another national trend square on the noggin: haute Southern. Around the country chefs have turned their attention to fried chicken, black-eyed peas and all things okra, taking down-home upscale. Chef Gary Moran and his wife, Amy, opened this little charmer after being part of the team at the super-short-lived Knife & Co., building a substantial fan base with social media savvy and Gary's gutsy, seasonally changing menu. It's not all strictly Southern. A case in point is salt and pepper fried okra, a recent brunch dish that is a hat-tip to Yummy House (another of my favorite and affordable Tampa spots). Chinese with a deep Southern drawl — an interesting accent indeed. 4205 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 498-0494.
Banyan Cafe & Catering | $6–$8.95
If you look at the acknowledgments of local author and writing coach Roy Peter Clark's latest book, there's a shout-out to Banyan. In fact, lots of local writers might credit Erica Allums' little coffee shop as muse. It opened in 2008, but closed after three years so Allums could spend more time with her daughters. She was shuttered 11 months before reopening in July. It's a cozy room, designed for outrageous lingering, with cheery Fiestaware crockery, great coffee, hearty daily soups and a short menu of homemade-tasting sandwiches (house-roasted pork loin tucked with white cheddar and caramelized onions into Cuban bread). At breakfast, scones battle with an egg sandwich on pressed Cuban bread for pre-eminence. In what once housed St. Pete's Finest, the charming Banyan may have nabbed just that title in town. 689 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-6100.
Beak's Old Florida | $5.95–$14.95
It's a rebirth that makes sense in a way. Jamie Farquharson was ready to be out from under his plastic pirates, birdcages imprisoning fake birds and mountains of kitschy Florida memorabilia. He was ready to sell Beak's, one of the stalwart Grand Central District good-time bar/restaurants that opened in 2007. And who bought it? Dan Soronen (Old Northeast Tavern, Shackleton's Folly, Brewburgers, all good-time bar/restaurants in St. Petersburg). And who did he hire in the kitchen? Domenica Macchia (a legendary itinerant chef who did stints at Redwoods, MJ's, Diner 437, Shackleton's Folly and, most recently, Three Birds). Two big personalities in a big-personality kind of place. Except at Shackleton's Macchia and Soronen's partnership erupted in the kind of ice storm Shackleton himself might have seen on an Antarctic adventure. Since reuniting, Macchia has slowly revamped the menu, adding fried artichokes and other fried nibbles along with booze-inspired cuisine (drunken shrimp, mojito hanger steak, lemon drop salmon). It's still a work in progress, but I have high hopes. 2451 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 321-9100.
Café at Art Pool Gallery
Central Avenue west of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street had a big year, welcoming a generous handful of independent restaurants. One of the most charming opened near the end of 2012 as an annex to the Art Pool Gallery, housing spillover merchandise, a collection of vinyl records and the small cafe presided over by C.F. Hawkins. In what was once an automotive repair shop, wide roll-up doors and a jungle of flowering Florida plants lend quirky charm, the best seats, as we move into spring's sweet spot, on the broad patio. The menu is supremely affordable retro-styled sandwiches and vegan-friendly salads that feel more cutting-edge. The best offering, though, may be a cup of rich, espresso-bumped chocolate pudding with a rosette of whipped cream (beat that for $2). 2030 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 324-3878.
Casper's Express BBQ
Dan Cantara has been doing barbecue at a tiny counter attached to Graham's Market for the past three years. Barbecue itself was a huge trend in 2012 (in May I did a story about four barbecue places in just a 3-mile stretch of Fourth Street N), the economy having driven lots of people to Plan B. And a barbecue shack is a seriously affordable Plan B. What Cantara added last year, though, was beef jerky. Ridiculously good beef jerky that he slices, marinates and slow-cures h imself in the smoker that perfumes the air outside Graham's. Teriyaki, Thai chile — he offers a variety of flavors in no-fuss plastic bags for $7 for a quarter pound. 5701 54th Ave. N, Kenneth City; (727) 776-5596.
Engine No. 9 | $6.95–$14.95
In August, St. Petersburg's Grand Central District held a burger competition, which served to underscore just how many hamburgers are on offer in town. One of the best became available just after that heated battle. Tucked into the old Chatterbox space, Engine No. 9 opened in September, a long, narrow room done up in deep red with a black ceiling, a phalanx of big flat-screens above the bar (one day tuned to Gordon Ramsay's Ultimate Cookery Course, one of his British shows where he's not required to be a jerk). About 20 burgers and dogs dominate the menu, with sophisticated combinations like the Demi-God: Swiss, cheddar, sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions and a swipe of horseradish mayo on a very tasty medium-rare patty, with a nice bun and a cup of crisp, greaseless skinny fries ($10.95). They also have a ghost chile burger (for which you have to sign a waiver — clearly another trend that took root in 2012). 56 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg, (727) 623-0938.
Simply Delicious | $6.99–$11.99
It's a straight-up paean to New York City. The exterior is painted to look like a subway stop; inside it's all caricatures of NYC familiars, skyline photos and Big Apple-obilia. Opened in the spring, the place already has a devoted lunch following, folks who camp out in the red leatherette booths and listen to live pianist Gregory Allen in the corner while tucking into latkes, knishes, cabbage rolls and sturdy bowls of matzo ball soup crammed with shredded chicken. The classic New York deli fare is generously portioned (okay, huge), and a come-hither dessert case at the front is packed with New York cheesecakes and mile-high layer cakes. 4601 66th St. N, Kenneth City; toll-free 1-888-590-3656.
La V | $4.40–$9.40
With a nod to Sesame Street, 2012 was brought to you by the letter V. On Ulmerton Road, the Venue nightclub became the V (before going dark again), and on Central Avenue, the lovely Thuy Le opened La V in August. In this case, V is for Vietnamese, the stylish cafe proffering an expanded menu of the noodles, soups and banh mi sandwiches that made her 34th Street N spot a foodie destination. Le herself is a smiling presence in the dining room, where high ceilings and high spirits can make things noisy. With 60 varieties of smoothies and boba teas (those teas with the fat straws and balls of tapioca bobbing at the bottom) and fairly portable, herb-bright vermicelli bowls topped with lemongrass chicken, La V has had victory as a top takeout lunch spot for downtown workers. 441 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 820-3500.
Rollbotto Sushi | $6.50–$9.95
It was the year of the robot. Robot Restaurant opened in Shinjuku, Tokyo, with a robot cabaret of four giant fembots manned by scantily clad women staging mock battles, and this on the heels of Japanese ramen noodle houses staffed by robotic chefs and Chinese restaurants with robot servers. St. Petersburg didn't get giant fembots, but it did get the AUTEC Maki Master. Max Silavutiset, Hoa Ly and Crystal Nguyen started a little order-at-the-counter sushi bar aided and abetted by an automated sushi roller. With bins of sliced fish, smelt roe, texture bits like sesame seeds and tempura chips, and sauces, you conjure up your dream roll, the counter worker assembles it and the robot rolls and slices. Rollbotto has a casual industrial chic that makes it a gathering spot for young folks, with a price point that keeps even the more ambitious rolls, all generously portioned, easy on the wallet. 221 First St. NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 487-2681.
Tasty Thai Café | $5.99–$17.95
Opened midyear in an unfussy Publix shopping center, the tidy, narrow space features wood floors, clean booths, an open kitchen shielded somewhat by a bamboo half wall and a mechanical bird at the counter that tweets and sings charmingly (a little nearsighted, I was sure it was real). There are even tabletop fedora-wearing frogs that hold the salt and pepper. But all that is secondary because Tasty Thai is true to its name. In the $10 range, green, yellow, red massaman and panang curries can be concocted with your protein of choice at and your specified heat level, although the house basil crispy duck, which comes on a sizzling platter, is worth the splurge at $17.95. I'm also a big fan of the cold salads kicked up with lime and fish sauce, like the nam sod of ground pork with peanuts and ginger on a bed of crunchy cabbage, peppers and onions. It's what Thai embodies: light, vivacious and dynamic with different textures and colors. 1530 N McMullen-Booth Road, Suite D4, Clearwater; (727) 600-8037.
Parts of Paris Brunch $11–$12
Scandinavian cuisines were super trendy in 2012 (in S. Pellegrino's annual World's Top 50 Restaurants awards last year, 10 percent of them were Scandinavian, with Denmark's Noma at the top of the heap). Not much of that fervor made its way to our area, but one of the most exciting openings of the year was the work of a Swede. Chris Orrung opened a French bistro in a sweet 1930s Florida bungalow that used to be a yoga studio. He hired young chef Jeff Thornsberry and together they've built a following for their brasserie classics (plus a little Scandinavian gravlax for good measure). It may be the most expensive place on this list, with dinner entrees hovering in the mid $20s, but it still represents tremendous value. It's lovely and date-suitable, with a $21 roast chicken that will knock your socks off. A couple of months ago they expanded their Sunday hours, offering a brunch from noon to 8 p.m., its short menu showcasing quiche and crepes and croque monsieur all best eaten on the idyllic front patio. 146 Fourth Ave. N, Safety Harbor; (727) 797-7979.
Salt and Pepper Bistro | $10.95–$22.95
It was a year in which more crepes crept in. La Creperia Cafe opened in St. Petersburg's Grand Central District (with its own food truck, no less), a new creperie is said to be going into the Bin 27 Bistro spot in Tampa, and in September Jean Claude Lepretre opened Salt and Pepper. Crepes go sweet (heavy on the Nutella) or savory, largely under $13, with croissants, quiches, baguette sandwiches and salads rounding out the mostly French menu. It's a sweet little family-owned restaurant, its exterior lovingly stenciled with curlicued grape vines. 1757 Clearwater-Largo Road N, Largo; (727) 585-3500.
German Bistro 2 | $8.95–$17.95
Free beer. (That was the name of my band in college. Grabs people's attention.) Irena Seidl opened her second tiny German restaurant in the fall with no liquor license. So she gives you beer or wine on the house. And that's not all: A bowl of vinegary potato salad and sliced bread and butter get you started, after which come unlimited sides (stewed red cabbage, sauerkraut, spaetzle). Seidl will gladly give you a little German tutorial as you make your way through holsteinschnitzel and schweinebraten, and you won't have to worry about any pesky diphthongs when you get to the strudel (if you want the delicious schwarzwalderkirschtorte, just point). 1300 East Bay Drive, Largo; (727) 216-6519.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter at @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.