For Tampa Bay area movers and shakers, a familiar mug can be a liability. There are those nights — after a long workday, when your sweat pants seem like two legs of heaven — when you just want a comforting meal, no hoopla, nothing fancy. You don't want to run into anyone you know, be forced to wear makeup or worry at all what your hair looks like. Or more likely, be concerned about ducking a conversation with a constituent, client or maybe even an adversary. • We grilled a handful of local luminaries on just where they go when they need their favorite dish and some peace and quiet. But in some cases, their ideas of secret dining seem very public.
Laura Reiley, Times food critic
Tarpon Springs artist
"I have one place that's really close and one that's really far away. Close by, I slip into Rusty Bellies (in Tarpon Springs) and I get something called Jack's Trio, which is shrimp three ways. One is rock shrimp, which is a big positive thing for me. When no one really knew what that was, my dad would buy pounds of them when he was working on a doctorate at FSU and USF. That was one of those special meals. At Rusty Bellies, the owner goes out and catches those rock shrimp. I get that, a bowl of cheese grits and a beer and kind of hide out on the balcony side, where occasionally you'll see a little raccoon come and poke his head out and you can watch the sponge boat go up the river.
"The one that's far away nobody has ever told you about. It's Johnny and Beanie's Kitchen in Hastings (near St. Augustine). Hastings' origin was that it was the place Flagler had all of his vegetables grown for the Ponce de León Hotel in St. Augustine. There's one stoplight in Hastings and you take a left there. He's only open on the weekdays and there is no menu (there's a sign over the kitchen that says 'menus are for restaurants'). Johnny gets up every morning and goes to the farms and only cooks what he picks that morning."
Ultimate comfort food: "There's the best sweet tea and the best fried chicken, and zipper peas, fresh lima beans, corn bread and fresh collards (at Johnny and Beanie's). I probably go there every three or four months when I get the craving for fried chicken. But it's kind of a crazy thing to suggest."
Managing attorney at Bay Area Legal Services in St. Petersburg
"Due to the nature of our chaotic schedules, we're out and about a lot. We have two kids, 15 and 12, and where we go is a team decision. We rotate so everyone gets a first say. Our No. 1 spot, the one that feels like eating at home is, believe it or not, Beef 'O' Brady's in south St. Petersburg. We have literally been going to that one forever and they have watched my kids grow up. We know all the waitresses. We can go there and be ourselves, it's almost like a family.
"The other one is Gigi's in South Pasadena. I like to go there because it reminds me of my childhood when going out to dinner was a big deal. The way they have the wood paneling and the red lighting, it reminds me of the places we used to go in Pennsylvania outside of Philly when I was a kid. I was there last night and the kids said, 'We know what you're going to say.'
"For me, it's so much about the staff and the people who work there. That just makes such a huge difference, the way you're treated."
Ultimate comfort food: "(At Beef 'O' Brady's) they already know what we want as soon as we get there. For me it's the chicken quesadilla. After a bad day or bad week that's what I want — nothing fancy."
Bob Buckhorn, mayor of Tampa
"I don't get to go anywhere where nobody knows me. . . . For the most part, people are respectful of my family time and my private time, which I appreciate immensely. Where I do hang out is Thai Island on Davis Islands. It's close to the house, I can go over there in shorts, and my kids love it. It's healthy food which, given my schedule, is not often the case with what I eat. We like the proximity and we try to support the independents. My kids, 7 and 12, get to help decide — and as only a 12-year-old can be, they can be pretty relentless.
"The other place we go, which is close to the kids' school, is Osteria Natalina. Spartaco (Giolito) is so entertaining. He's always interacting with the guests."
Ultimate comfort food: "At Thai Island I get the spicy rice with chicken. The chef is the owner's mom, and I can say, 'Tell Mom to make it extra spicy.' At Osteria Natalina, I get the lasagna. It's the best lasagna I ever had."
Executive director, Tampa Museum of Art
"Between business lunches, events and dinners, let's say I'm eating out about 70 percent of the time. I do eat in Sono, the museum's cafe, quite a bit. Late in the afternoon I'll get the artichoke dip with flatbread. My second go-to spot is the new restaurant in the Channelside District called Cena — I love going to the bar and having their asparagus risotto. I have no idea how the other dishes are there. But my complete comfort food ritual is driving to Buffalo Wild Wings in Brandon. There are tons of wing places around me where I could go, but there's something about getting in the car and driving there. I'll go and sit with my iPad and just veg out. That is truly my sanctuary.
"My partner and I have been going to Buffalo Wild Wings for years. He's in Cincinnati, so it's part of my connection to him. . . . In my job I get to be around a lot of people a lot of the time and get treated to amazing dinners, but I love that there are moments that I get to be by myself and think and process. That place in Brandon represents an opportunity for me to relax."
Ultimate comfort food: "At Buffalo Wild Wings I get the mini corn dogs. I just stumbled upon them one day and since then they've been my go-to food. There's a honey mustard that comes with them. But believe me, there's nothing special about these corn dogs."
Chief executive officer of HSN
"With new HSN guests arriving every day, entertaining is a full-time job. While I live in downtown St. Petersburg and enjoy all of the indulgences on Beach Drive, Cafe Ponte in Clearwater is a hidden gem ... from the warm welcome when you enter the door to the cozy ambience, Cafe Ponte allows me to disconnect from a busy day and enjoy an evening with friends. I love the live piano music and sometimes they even let my husband play his classical tunes.
"My other favorite is Mise en Place in Tampa. MaryAnn Ferenc is the ultimate host, and I love taking first-time visitors for their great food and dining experience. Their semiprivate table with the big lazy Susan is the perfect place for a dinner party and an endless supply of fabulous appetizers. Some of my favorites are the sous-vide lobster, the artisanal pizzas and the chicken liver pear port mousse pate. And finally, the Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete wins for having the best gourmet ice pops in the world. I stock up every Saturday on rum raisin."
Ultimate comfort food: "My go-to starter (at Cafe Ponte) is their signature mushroom soup. The truffle cream is heavenly. Their Yukon gold flatbread is sinful if you really want to indulge. Nothing on the menu disappoints, but the salmon is a standout dish for dinner."
Ryan Nece, former Buccaneer and founder of the Ryan Nece Foundation
"I split my time between Tampa and Los Angeles, but I am mostly on an airplane. The difference between the food scenes is that in L.A. you have to spend an arm and a leg and it's more cumbersome to get anywhere. In L.A. the scene is different because people are always worried about how they look. In Tampa, you'll see guys in flip-flops. It's chic versus casual.
"I guess my favorite spot to go is Pane Rustica because of the food and the service. The owners are great people — it's definitely one of the places I have to go to when I'm in town. They have such an eclectic menu and it's completely different at lunch and at dinner. Another place I like is Zudar's Deli near Publix. It's a nice little sandwich place. I'm a big soup fan, and I think their soups are really good. But if I want to go and get away and have a nice glass of wine, I go to Mise en Place because it's quiet."
Ultimate comfort food: One of my favorite things at lunch at Pane Rustica is the stuffed acorn squash. I've been all over the world and I've never seen that.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.