By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
It was the Year of Beer. Also the year of pork belly and kale and bourbon cocktails. It was a year in which trends seemed to spread like wildfire, fueled by social media (cronut, anyone?). It was a year in which menus stated "we use local product whenever possible" and that started to mean fairly often. It was a year of red chandeliers, edgier waiter garb and more of those eerily effective Dyson hand driers. And it was a year, sadly, in which servers continued to ask, "You still working on that?" ∂ We lost a few beloved places (Wine Cellar, the View at CK's, St. Pete Brasserie), but all in all 2013 was a memorably good year for the Tampa Bay dining scene, both in terms of customer numbers and innovation. Across price point, cuisine and geography, here are the Tampa Bay area's top 50 restaurants, starting with the top 10 ranked by number, and the rest geographically.
1502 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-6789; $$$
Why: I was gaga for Gordon Davis' newest restaurant when it opened in May. At the site of what was previously Samba Room, Ceviche and St. Bart's Island House, this seafood house had contemporary good looks, a beguiling wood-smoke scent and a menu of ingredient-forward dishes in spare but sophisticated presentations centering around a hardwood grill. Restaurant reviewing requires constantly eating someplace new, so I sometimes fantasize about having a regular spot where I could order "the usual" and the bartender would know my name. In the fantasy, it's someplace like CopperFish (all right, it's also near my house). Sadly, post-review meals revealed that the menu has undergone a major overhaul and some of the best clean, simple dishes have gotten more complicated.
What to order: A platter of oysters on the half shell is a joy eaten on the patio, maybe followed up with the deep russet housemade chips and a lobster roll or one of the cast-iron seafood skillets.
9) Birch & Vine, The Birchwood
340 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-1080; $$
Why: The Canopy Rooftop Lounge was the hottest hangout in Pinellas County in 2013, a draw across age groups and sartorial styles. And while folks were milling about taking in the sweeping views of Tampa Bay and Straub Park and impatiently awaiting their turn in one of the cool private cabanas, a couple of floors below, Robert Snow, Jason Cline and their team were diligently making Birch & Vine the jewel of Chuck Prather's new Birchwood inn. The sleek dining room is glamorous, and by all accounts the kitchen is a chef's dream of contemporary tools and toys.
What to order: The sous-vide technique is shown off to lovely effect with a butter-poached lobster on a bed of truffled grits with a swirl of vanilla rum butter and a frizzle of fried leek as well as with orange miso scallops accented with little cubes of crisp pork belly and a vibrant veggie succotash.
8) Z Grille
104 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-9600; $$
Why: He plays April Fool's jokes on his newsletter subscribers and spoofs Hooters and Outback (his version: Zooters and Outzack) until a "cease and desist" order makes him pipe down. Despite all the shenanigans, Zack Gross seems to be growing up, Z Grille moving into its fifth year at the bottom of Signature Place. A James Beard semifinalist in 2009, the majorly tattooed chef has set about ditching his burrito and taco past, taking the menu in a more upscale and globe-trotting direction.
What to order: He's known for his deviled eggs and Dr. Pepper fried ribs for good reason, but check out the foie gras steak burger, which you can take fully over the top with the addition of pork belly and a fried egg.
7) Pearl in the Grove
31936 St. Joe Road, Dade City; (352) 588-0008; $$$
Why: It's not because Curtis and Rebecca Beebe are such lovely people. Nor because it's just about the only high-end game in town in Dade City. It's because Pearl is a unique and independent vision, the owners, kitchen team and service staff a small band of serious professionals with a mission. Whether it's the monthly special theme dinners (I went last week to a middle-of-the-last-century dinner that was a hoot) or the regular menu of sophisticated, Southern-inflected New American cuisine, they aim for excellence. Look for restaurant No. 2 in 2014, a casual pub called Local in San Antonio.
What to order: Their fried chicken and BLT pork rinds have lots of devotees, but it's the changing menu's focus on local products that should guide your ordering, from frog's legs gigged in a nearby lake to kumquats from neighborhood trees.
6) Rooster & the Till
6500 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 374-8940; $$
Why: The lamps are made from repurposed chicken feeders, the walls upcycled from old Seminole Heights fencing and the 16-foot bar is made of reclaimed cypress and pine. Everything about Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez's brand-new 37-seater reads like a labor of love. Previously at Harbour Island's Café Dufrain, the duo shares a passion for sourcing food locally, working closely with Urban Oasis in Tampa, Pasture Prime Family Farm in Summerfield and others. I jumped the gun and went in during the first week of business, and while it had that wobbly "let's put on a show" feel of a new restaurant, the promise of greatness is there.
What to order: Plates are "smalls" and "slightly larger." Take this to heart. Nothing is big. I could eat three plates of the roast cauliflower with walnut breadcrumbs, pickled raisins and brown butter, easy. There's a lovely cheese tray and a chalkboard of raw bar items. Going forward it would be nice to have the menu indicate the farm of origin.
5) Mise en Place
442 W Kennedy Blvd., No. 110, Tampa; (813) 254-5373; $$$
Why: Mise is one of the very few local restaurants to have a Wikipedia page. Doesn't sound like much until you start considering all the celebs, politicos and general movers and shakers who have wended their way to Marty Blitz and Maryann Ferenc's posh New American-fusion landmark over the past quarter century. The team has embarked on other projects (Sono Café at the Tampa Museum of Art, Flight Wine Bar, a stint on Visit Florida's board of directors, a new adult-care facility called Berkeley Manor, the list goes on), but it's their flagship restaurant that anchors the Kennedy corridor as a hot spot. The menu and bar program seem always to evolve in tandem, with nods to national fashions and preoccupations without ever feeling "trendy."
What to order: Lunch fare is a little more straightforward than dinner, where Blitz delves deeper in his quest to parry tangy with sweet, meaty with blips of acid and herbal notes. I've had a number of great cornmeal-crusted dishes (green tomatoes, quail) as well as super-tender and plush sous-vide offerings (venison loin). Try whatever barrel-aged cocktails the bar is working on, and the strength of the cheese list means one should always end a meal here in a funk of goat, sheep and cow.
4) The Refinery
5137 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 237-2000; $$
Why: Michelle and Greg Baker are among a teeny number of Tampa Bay restaurant folk who are known outside the area. Some of this is because of Greg's three James Beard nominations (once for best new restaurant, twice semifinalist for Best Chef: South), but it's also because the dynamic couple spend a lot of time paying attention to what's going on elsewhere in the country and participating in events such as the Charleston Wine and Food Festival. This ups Tampa's cred as a serious dining city as well as ensuring some national fetishes end up on the weekly changing menu.
What to order: Every Thursday it's all new. I love how Greg can get wiggy (barbecued fried chicken livers with chocolate-beet gumbo and pickled okra) but also do things that have serious classical French underpinnings (braised radishes, vibrant vegetable purees, crispy sweetbreads). It's not an awful place to order offal, and from 5 to 7 p.m. there are $5 chef plates.
2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-2233; $$$
Why: Chef Chad Johnson is having a serious moment in the sun with the launch of the Epicurean Hotel and Elevage (opened in December, it's still getting its bearings). He's a big part of why SideBern's is a perennial favorite: a chef's chef who seems to truly love tinkering and stretching himself in the kitchen. But general manager Dean Hurst also deserves some major rays, whether that's for helming the Left Coast Bartenders' Guild, as a superstar in national bartending competitions, or for keeping SideBern's and Bern's spirits programs competitive with big-city restaurants anywhere.
What to order: Here's a secret: Monday to Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. the bar offers $6 appetizers and $5 wine and cocktail specials. Run don't walk for their barrel-aged cocktails, which seem to pair amiably with the house charcuterie.
2) Cafe Ponte
13505 Icot Blvd., Suite 214, Clearwater; (727) 538-5768; $$$
Why: Chris Ponte has been poised to make his move for a while. There was the Burger 21 project that didn't work out in his favor, loads of restaurant consulting, an online seafood business that never quite gelled, and talk of an upscale collaboration with John Cooper (former president of Bonefish Grill). This last may be the big news in 2014, but for 2013 the story was Chris Ponte digging in at his decade-old flagship restaurant and making things shine. Without giving numbers he says 2013 was his best year yet, his crackerjack team suavely ministering to a glamorous dining room of 250 seats.
What to order: The problem with beloved restaurants is that they beget beloved dishes you can never shake free of. Ponte and chef Tony Bonanno still do great work with the trumpet mushroom soup, the Yukon gold and bacon flatbread and the foie gras with brioche, but I look forward to seeing some all-new dishes this year. Still, the $37 three-course prix-fixe menu before 6:30 p.m. is an epic Tampa Bay bargain.
912 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 254-7111; $$$
Why: Jeannie Pierola is the face of Edison, one of the only local chefs with name recognition. But one of her greatest triumphs in setting up shop in 2012 is assembling a talented team. With Allie Beasman, Jeremy Pratt and Michael Smith as sous chefs and Erin Kelley as a pastry rock star, Edison turns out consistently exciting food. Her aesthetic features juxtapositions of bold flavors, often drawn from far-flung (and seemingly incongruous) places, in plate presentations that are dramatic without being fussy. The food suits the casual, funky (and loud) dining room, and the new craft cocktail list works seamlessly with the existing beer and wine options.
What to order: Kelley's sugar-crusted butter cake with brown butter ice cream and a toffee sauce (on cover) was one of the best things I tasted in 2013, the top of the perfect, moist cake just crunchy. I was equally in awe of the popcorn pots de creme with cheddar ice cream served at the Enjoy Arts and Tastes St. Pete gala. On the savory side, the chicken liver foie gras mousse was a knockout this year.
Hyde Park/SoHo/Palma Ceia
Bern's Steak House
1208 S Howard Ave.; (813) 251-2421; $$$
Why: I've taken issue with some of Bern's menu hyperbole in the past, but there's no denying that this 58-year-old institution is among the best-known steakhouses in the country. And there's no denying that the enormous restaurant manages to operate like a well-oiled machine, servers undergoing lengthy and rigorous training and legions of local cooks coming up through the ranks in the kitchen here. Then add in the cellar and kitchen tours and the Harry Waugh Dessert Room (50 dessert choices! retro-kooky tableside stereo systems!) and it's easy to see why dinner at Bern's is a Tampa experience up there with seeing your first gator or riding SheiKra.
What to order: Our collective mythology is that Bern's is a special-occasion splurge. Yes, you can slurp up $190 of osetra caviar lickety-split, but a sumptuous 8-ounce, ¾-inch Delmonico commands $36.34 and comes with French onion soup, house salad with choice of dressing, baked potato with all the fixings, onion rings and two side veggies. Nearly every other steakhouse in the area is strictly a la carte, which adds up quickly.
2602 S MacDill Ave.; (813) 902-1979; $$
Why: I have this image in my head of Suzanne Perry proudly presiding over a twin-mattress-sized platter of bacon at the Enjoy Arts and Tastes St. Pete food festival in November. The woman loves bacon. But lucky for us, she loves a lot of things, serially and together, with the kind of manic enthusiasm of a hoarder with A.D.D. In a good way. Datz seems always embarking on something new, the Perrys fully engaged in national trends and zipping off to glean new ideas from notable restaurants around the country. They hired Domenica Macchia this fall to preside over the savory menu at their Dough bakery next door and have spurred Datz's mixologists on to inspired heights of absurdity (e.g., house-infused apple Jelly Belly vodka).
What to order: There are legion fans of Datz's over-the-top stuffed meatloaf, the bacon flight and the chicken and waffles, but my favorite thing is the April in Paris sandwich (melty brie, tomato, arugula, pesto, crusty bread) with chips, shared with a friend so I have room left for a craft cocktail and a couple of William Dean truffles.
3215 S MacDill Ave.; (813) 831-1210; $$
Why: It's about owner Spartaco Giolito. And lasagna. Spartaco and lasagna. And seafood strozzapreti. Years ago Spartaco was a beloved waiter at Donatello; then he had his own eponymous place on MacDill. He sold that to launch a culinary tour company, but returned to his earlier space on MacDill to open Osteria Natalina, named for his mom. He's got a big personality and a booming voice, a kind word for everyone and a tan that just won't quit. The menu is short, leaning to coastal Italian seafood, but if he sees you squinting in a dissatisfied way, he'll roar, "What do you like? You like veal marsala? I can make you veal marsala!"
What to order: There's a lot of Italian food in the Tampa Bay area, much of it forgettable. Osteria succeeds by not trying to be all things to all people, focusing the concise, modestly priced menu on brightly flavored seafood pastas and a lasagna of the day that never wavers in its swoon-worthiness. And if you can't say "strozzapreti" (which means "priest choker," because those pesky Italian priests were always showing up hungry and you had to feed them something sturdy or risk hellfire), just point.
420 W Kennedy Blvd.; (813) 253-0222; $-$$
Why: Nearly unprecedented in our area, Oxford Exchange's decor eclipsed the food. It still does, although Erin Guggino's contemporary American breakfast, lunch and tea dishes continue to be refined and streamlined. Blake and Allison Casper's 24,000-square-foot love note to Tampa includes a charming bookstore, an aspirational giftware shop, Buddy Brew coffee and TeBella tea kiosks and rentable office space upstairs in the Commerce Club, all arrayed gorgeously in a historic 1910 horse stable. First-timers stand around gawping at all the hipness (or the noise level) before checking in with a reservationist who breaks the news gently about the 45-minute wait.
What to order: The chicken burger with jalapeno and queso blanco has emerged as one of the OE favorites, as has the lobster BLT. Earlier in the day, I'm partial to the huevos rancheros with a French press of Timorese Buddy Brew. (Around the corner is the new OE Market where you can pick up kick-butt juices.)
3225 S MacDill Ave.; (813) 902-8828; $$-$$$
Why: Last year Kevin and Karyn Kruszewski said, "maybe next year" on a second Rustica location. I'm still waiting. I can imagine how their breads, pizzas, croissants, sticky buns, scones and cookies would go over in, say, downtown St. Pete. Especially those chocolate espresso cookies. Pane Rustica started more than a decade ago as mostly an artisanal bread bakery, growing into dinner service and expanding to include a smart and rollicking bar. They still do a great deal of wholesale baking and catering, but it has come to be known for its tremendous burgers (Meyer natural beef, bacon onion aioli, spicy tomato jam, yada yada), gutsy pastas and urbane specialty cocktails.
What to order: Before the chocolate espresso cookies come the acorn squash stuffed with chicken salad, a wide slice of fancy pizza or, if you like games of chance, the "shut up and eat" mystery entree (the servers won't hint).
2507 S MacDill Ave.; (813) 258-1916; $$$
Why: When I need a restaurateur to tell it to me straight, no mincing of words or sugar-coating, I call B.T. Nguyen. The lovely and diminutive Vietnamese-American is a woman of forceful opinions and a clear-eyed aesthetic. Her intimate dining room features translucent Philippe Starck-style Louis ghost chairs and lavish raw silk draperies. And her French-Vietnamese menu has stayed sumptuous while edging more toward health-consciousness as Nguyen's mission has shifted.
What to order: I could eat her bo tai chanh every day, a spicy, herbal spin on filet mignon tartare, and in fact her vegetarian pumpkin soup, lush with galangal and coconut milk, is something I fake frequently at home with mixed success.
Anise Global Gastrobar
777 N Ashley Drive; (813) 225-4272; $
Why: This is one of the prettiest restaurants in Tampa, with soaring ceilings, a long, glamorous bar and a dramatic photo wall of Asian food and faces. Xuan and Kevin Hurt (Stinky Bunz food truck) joined forces with craft cocktail guru Ro Patel (previously with Ciro's) for an edgy restaurant concept that reads like a nightclub with loosely Korean food, most dishes hovering around $10.
What to order: The best dishes are the Chinese barbecued pork buns, the red curry crispy chicken buns and the — trust me on this — truffled tater tots.
1120 E Kennedy Blvd.; (813) 374-8840; $$
Why: The Channel District really heated up in 2013, with Pour House and City Dog Cantina, the Mouton Noir bakery, Bamboozle Tea Lounge and the most ambitious of them all, Cena. Only open for dinner, the sophisticated but somewhat antiseptic small dining room is the stage for Michael Buttacavoli's very personal and nurturing Italian fare, bolstered by a short and smart wine list and the way-outside-the-box desserts of pastry chef Evan Schmidt.
What to order: I crave the asparagus-white truffle risotto as well as the crisp, nutty sunchoke chips, but leave room for flights of fancy like the pumpkin panna cotta with pulverized marshmallow and Biscoff gelato.
1202 N Franklin St.; (813) 275-5000; $$
Why: Leslie Shirah was a pioneer, launching Fly more than a decade before downtown Tampa really took flight. Thanks to the Tampa Downtown Partnership's efforts, successes like Curtis Hixon Park and more populated residential projects, downtown is swinging with a raft of new restaurants and cafes. But nothing beats the rooftop bar at Fly, the city spread out prettily below and the mixologists shaking some brilliant cocktails (try the gin gimlet with kaffir lime).
What to order: The menu had a recent overhaul, but a few tried-and-true dishes remain, like the caramelized Brussels sprouts, the spicy tuna tartare with wonton crisps and the truffled mac and cheese.
Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, 2900 Bayport Drive; (813) 207-6800; $$$
Why: The Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay is looking spiff after a $16 million renovation. At Armani's the big change was a redo of the 14th floor outdoor patio with stunning views of a 35-acre nature preserve on the northern shores of Tampa Bay. In the kitchen, Michael Von Burg, who has been with the hotel for years, maintains a steady hand. The antipasti bar is still a local treasure, with top-notch charcuterie and compelling veggie and seafood salads. Markups on wine sting a little, but menu prices are fair-minded for high-end Italian served in a lavish setting.
What to order: My allegiance has shifted from Armani's signature veal scaloppini to the slow-braised ossobuco with orecchiette, but I remain a stalwart fan of Matthew Golding's homey but elegant Italian desserts (check out the chocolate espresso cake).
Renaissance Tampa International Plaza, 4200 Jim Walter Blvd.; (813) 313-3235; $$$
Why: When Fabrizio Schenardi was chef here I wrote about it quite often, probably because the hotel was new and I was obsessed with the stuffed fried olives. Since Brett Gardiner took over in the kitchen the ink hasn't been as fast and furious, but he still sends out great work in this elegant dining room with its blown-glass pendants and lapis-colored stemware. Although he most recently presided over Hapa, his own Hawaiian-inflected fine-dining restaurant in Oldsmar, the thrust at Pelagia is lively Italian.
What to order: The charred octopus is wonderful, and all pastas are offered in half sizes, a boon to those who want several courses or aren't feeling particularly peckish. Pelagia also presents lovely a la carte breakfasts in a more straight-up American vein with a knockout eggs Benedict.
4400 W Boy Scout Blvd.; (813) 877-7290; $$$$
Why: For the first time, Ocean Prime is off my list. This is because there's a new super-high-end-steaks-and-seafood-Bucs-and-Rays-playground kind of place just down the street. O.P. is still good, but Eddie V's offers tremendously suave and proactive service, not to mention must-see restrooms and live jazz nightly in the V Lounge. Tampa's was the ninth Eddie V's nationwide and the first east of Texas. Orlando-based Darden bought the chain in 2011, and this was the first one opened on their watch.
What to order: These are splurge steaks, hovering close to $50 and tipping well over that once you've added sides (and you'll want to add sides, like the roasted baby beets with candied walnuts or the Monterrey-style sweet corn). Eddie V's craft cocktails are alluring, but in that department O.P. might still get the nod.
204 N West Shore Blvd.; (813) 286-1152; $$-$$$
Why: When I need a super smart wine expert to decode something oenological, I turn to Seasons 52's master sommelier, George Miliotes. Many of Darden's other brands (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze) aren't as in need of a pedigreed cork dork, but Seasons 52 (now 36 units strong, with another five in the works) has 100 wines on its list, more than 50 of them by the glass. But what's nabbed the affections of health-conscious diners is the promise of no dish more than 475 calories, no butter or deep fryers, and a range of "mini indulgence" shot-glass-sized desserts.
What to order: The menu changes seasonally, with a focus on sustainably raised seafood (with separate menus for gluten free, vegan, lactose free, etc.). In just about every season I've enjoyed the vegetarian tasting, the current one with quinoa-citrus salad and cedar-roasted tofu. Leaving plenty of room for the chocolate peanut butter mousse.
Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe
5119 N Nebraska Ave.; (813) 234-1000; $$
Why: Ernie Locke (front man for Nervous Turkey) and Melissa Deming opened Ella's in 2009 with a resolutely bohemian mind-set matched by serious culinary ambitions. That attitude seems to have been adopted by all the celebrated Seminole Heights spots (Refinery, Domani Bistro, Independent, the new Rooster & the Till), but Ella's got there first. Their menu has been significantly streamlined, but the highlight is still soul food Sundays ("Praise the Lard") and outsider-art decor.
What to order: The best dishes are comfort food with a touch of ironic hipster (bacon-wrapped meatloaf with onion straws and root beer gravy; banana and peanut butter empanada), but I've always liked their vegetarian dishes such as grilled sweet potato and feta over parsnip puree and herb vinaigrette.
Seminole Hard Rock Tampa, 5223 Orient Road; (813) 627-7628; $$$$
Why: I'm calling it as the most expensive restaurant in Tampa. Not that that's a good thing, but there are times when silly excess is what's called for, like after running the table at Pai Gow Tiles or Spanish 21. Enter through the smoky ding-ding-ding of the casino and you find yourself staring across the glass at a tiny butchery where dry-aged steaks are arrayed temptingly.
What to order: You can hit triple digits on the raw bar sampler (crab legs! Maine lobster!) before pitting yourself against a 26-ounce long bone cowboy ribeye. The wine list goes deep on big-name California cabs.
Cigar City Brewpub
15491 N Dale Mabry Highway; (813) 962-1274; $$
Why: Opened on April Fool's Day in a defunct T.G.I. Friday's, Joey Redner's brewpub further cemented 2013 as the Year of Beer. Superbly designed, it's whimsical and lively with a short, edgy gastropub menu that feels like a breath of fresh air. The menu is in support of head brewer Tim Ogden's lineup of taps (some unique to the brewpub, like the Northdale Pale Ale), but it's not an afterthought, with quirky Cuban-Southern-Italian notes that feel uniquely Tampa.
What to order: The original chef has moved on, but some of the best dishes from the opening menu remain, such as the Hunahpu's Imperial flourless chocolate cake (in which the beer's pasilla chilis and cinnamon can be detected), a gooey Cuban sandwich and the oh-so-beer-friendly fried chicharrones with a bit of salt and lime.
2202 W Waters Ave.; (813) 915-2828; other locations; $$
Why: In high season, the newish Sarasota location has snowbirds lined up around the block. At the fancier bistro location on Hillsborough Avenue the crowds can get thick, but it's at the original Waters spot where your mettle may truly be tested. Every table full, I've been told by a manager, "We're full, just go home," only to persevere out in the rain until a table opened up so I could get my salt and pepper tofu, seafood hot and sour soup and Hong Kong-style roast duck.
What to order: Mix it up with decadent (steamed whole fish with black bean sauce or sizzling honey pepper scallops) and healthy (snow pea tips or other Chinese greens). And when in doubt, ask for guidance.
913 E Hillsborough Ave.; (813) 232-5889; other locations; $
Why: BuzzFeed just named Taco Bus one of the top 25 "most popular food trucks of 2013." We'll buy that. Rene Valenzuela's growing empire has been featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and is perhaps the only food truck in Florida with a national reputation. Now up to five locations (the original, open 24-7, plus St. Pete, downtown Tampa, USF and Brandon) as well as a mobile unit, Taco Bus has built its reputation on authentic, affordable and vegetarian-friendly Mexican grab-and-gos.
What to order: The butternut squash tostada is the most fabled dish, but the lengua (tongue) is also a lush option.
6765 Land O'Lakes Blvd., Land O'Lakes; (813) 501-4976; $
Why: By far the most exciting thing to open in Land O'Lakes in 2013, Bobby and Kristel Heskett's little taqueria was burning up Twitter, retweets and favoriting causing foodies from around Tampa Bay to head up to an inauspicious strip mall and belly up to the counter for cochinita pibil or carne adada tacos and burritos. It's a little Tex-Mex, a little regional Mexican and a whole lot of audacious. And if you do takeout you can feel extra good: all the to-go materials are made of biodegradable potato starch.
What to order: I love the Austinite, juicy carne asada paired with caramelized onion, avo, sour cream, a tiny flurry of jack, cheddar and chihuahua cheeses and a bit of chipotle ranch salsa.
Downtown St. Petersburg
204 Beach Drive NE; (727) 895-5515; $$
Why: When BellaBrava moved from Central Avenue to Beach Drive in 2010, I thought to myself, "It's going to take a lot of pizzas and pastas to pay for that move." The owners went large, banking on Beach becoming the "it" spot in St. Pete. And it happened. In 2013 they announced that they were annexing space next door and expanding to 280 seats, something necessary to cut down on the mad waits Friday and Saturday nights.
What to order: The best way to experience BellaBrava is to pull up a seat at the bar with a buddy, haggle over whether you're getting the sausage and rapini or the hot Sicilian pizza, throw in a wedge salad and a pint of one of the house beers, and lean in to kibbitz over the din.
441 Central Ave.; (727) 820-3500; $
Why: There's always been a near glut of Asian restaurants downtown in St. Petersburg, but until recently no Vietnamese. La V is Thuy Le's second restaurant, a much more upscale and hip space than her 34th Street N grab-and-go spot, but like the first it's a purveyor of cult-fave banh mi sandwiches, boba teas and mint-and-jalapeno-fueled vermicelli and rice bowls. Thuy (pronounced twee) is a lovely and constant presence in the dining room.
What to order: The banh mi is the acme of French-Vietnamese collaboration, a crusty baguette packed with pickled carrot and daikon, fresh herbs, jalapeno rounds and a pile of grilled pork, chewy pork skin, a salty ham they call jambon and a spongy head cheese (if you don't like the words "head cheese," let's agree to call it pâté).
655 Second Ave. S; (727) 822-0999; $$$
Why: As I write this, the team at Rococo is preparing its Wine Spectator entry, hoping to nab the Best of Award of Excellence (only 850 restaurants have that honor) or, gulp, the Grand Award (only 69 restaurants have this one) their first year out of the gate. It's a bold aim, but one that seems within the realm of possibility if you spend a little time with this new steakhouse's wine list. Caledon Concept Partners (parent company of the Ceviche group) opened Rococo in the fall in the historic 1920s YWCA building, defying clichés by showcasing novel veggies and sides (quinoa! kale chips!), offering smaller steak options and a range of women-friendly cocktails. The kitchen has found its groove, although the gray-shirted service team can still bobble on occasion.
What to order: It's a great opportunity to compare the relative merits of grass-fed versus corn-fed beef, as they offer both. Pair the steak with creamed corn kissed faintly by Anaheim and chipotle chilies.
Greater St. Petersburg
7204 Central Ave.; (727) 345-9701; $-$$
Why: When it opened in 2011 I worried about it: It was off the beaten path, launched by a trio who'd never been in the restaurant business, and the prices seemed too low. It was so lovely, this Paris-style French-Vietnamese cafe, with its big windows, fountain-filled umbrellaed courtyard and wonderful soundtrack, but could it last? Yup, it could.
What to order: This isn't French-Vietnamese fusion — it's coffee shop fare, a gooey croque monsieur next to grilled pork noodles; a bowl of rich pho next to a flaky chocolate croissant.
190 37th Ave. N; (727) 898-8226; other locations; $-$$
Why: Dating back to its earliest days in South Tampa in 1996, health and fitness have been a part of the Ciccio culture. Not in a faddish way, but their empire of restaurants (five if you include the upcoming Fit Kitchen on S Howard, which will deliver) has always kept pace with health preoccupations. They offered high-protein, low-carb, gluten-free and lots of other "-frees" before most restaurants knew omissions were in. But here's the trick: It's never seemed pious or abstemious. The best things they do are bowls customized with a protein, a carb, veggies and a sauce.
What to order: At Ciccio Cali the best thing is the spicy Brazilian bowl (blackened chopped chicken, black beans, avocado, corn, cheddar, sour cream, lettuce and choice of dipping sauce) and at Ciccio/Water it's the "hot and crunchy" (chilled Asian noodles with ahi tuna, scallions, jicama, avocado, sriracha aioli and cucumber topped with crispy tempura onions and sesame seeds).
Gateway to India
8300 Bay Pines Blvd.; (727) 828-9977; $$
Why: This fall Sam Kumar took his winning Sarasota concept (lavishly decorated dining room, clubby soundtrack and sleek versions of classic Indian dishes) and brought it to St. Pete. The buffet at lunchtime is solid, but for my money I'd head for dinner and order a la carte: skewered lamb kabobs and a full range of tandoor items; red chile-tinged Goan-style lamb vindaloo and lush chicken korma simmered in a cashew-sweetened creamy sauce.
What to order: Breads are especially good at Gateway. Tip: If you like your dishes spicy, be persuasive.
4912 Fourth St. N; (727) 527-8728; $$
Why: Peter and Shawn Veytia and crew will open Red Mesa Mercado this spring in the burgeoning Edge District. Meanwhile, Red Mesa Cantina is hopping with special events and tequila tastings, and the flagship restaurant continues to shine after 20 years under the watchful eye of chef Chris Fernandez. While he grew up in Oaxaca, "land of the seven moles," some of his best work is regional Mexican put through a contemporary American filter.
What to order: Nothing is incendiary here, but subtle heat powers dishes like a cedar-roasted pork tenderloin rubbed with ancho, cinnamon and brown sugar and paired with cilantro-flecked black beans and a scoop of garlic mashed potato and a bit of fruit salsa. Combination platters, like chile rellenos and an enchilada, are a boon to the indecisive.
3054 Beach Blvd. S; (727) 327-2190; $$
Why: The best restaurant in Gulfport, this cozy Italian original has continued to expand its scope while honing the details. When it first opened in 2007 it was a gorgeous garden patio attached to a fairly perfunctory indoor dining room. The dining room is commensurately lovely now, with a full bar and thoughtful small wine list. The menu, too, has expanded beyond rustic pastas to include ambitious seafood specials and drop-dead desserts like a hazelnut and chocolate ricotta cheesecake.
What to order: Most people swear by the generous bowl of spicy arugula dressed in just a bit of good balsamic, topped with thick shavings of Parmesan, an excellent foil for a bowl of fragrant mussels steamed in white wine.
St. Pete Beach/South Pasadena
The Maritana GrillE
Loews Don CeSar Hotel, 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-1882; $$$
Why: The "reveal" dessert alone is reason to have Maritana on the list: A server pours a blueberry coulis over a dinosaur-sized white chocolate egg, which cracks apart spectacularly to reveal a bit of almond cake and lavender ice cream, vanilla mousse and lemon curd, all while your tablemates are squealing and clapping like idiots. With Kenny Hunsberger as executive chef, there are plenty of other reasons, too. The stylish and intimate dining room (still, the bar is the best seating) is a noble setting in which to investigate the 400+ wine offerings and the new menu broken down by "earth" and "water" categories.
What to order: It's water by a nose. Gulf snapper, grouper and cobia are showcased tremendously with loosely Mediterranean flavors (compressed tomato vinaigrette, romesco sauce, lemon "air").
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
1350 Pasadena Ave. S, South Pasadena; (727) 381-7931; $
Why: Floridians like to catch fish. Some are delicious (grouper, redfish). Some make you wince a little (kingfish, mullet). For those fish that are oily, fishy or otherwise a little hard to swallow, we have a plan. Smoke 'em if you got 'em. An institution for more than 50 years in Pinellas County, prized for its laid-back style and inviting picnic tables, it has more recently been a darling of the Food Network and shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
What to order: The smoked fish spread with saltines is good, the salmon is excellent and Ted Peters also produces fabled cheeseburgers and German potato salad. (Limited hours, no credit cards.)
4200 62nd Ave. N, No. C; (727) 526-3051; $
Why: It's not glamorous, but it's clean, cozy and the staff is friendly. It makes the list on the strength of its pho. The brisket version is spectacular, as is the fatty tendon and other more traditional meaty bits. The broth itself is nuanced, made increasingly interesting with the addition of crunchy bean sprouts, wedges of lime, a tangle of basil and cilantro, and rounds of jalapeno. And then, of course, your trusty friend Sriracha.
What to order: Beyond soup, try the fresh rolls or the eggroll vermicelli bowl.
12551 Indian Rocks Road; (727) 596-6282; $$$
Why: Fine dining in Largo isn't a crowded category, but Dominique Christini continues to maintain his spot at the top. Classical French training explains why his welcoming restaurant has been a fixture since 1986 and why he continues to be a popular teacher of monthly cooking classes. He turns vegetables (that's when you painstakingly carve things into football shapes, no idea why the French demand this), he makes his own bread, and his Béarnaise sauce and vinaigrette are textbook.
What to order: Roast duck with tarragon sauce, Provençale-style rack of lamb and a lofty pouf of Grand Marnier soufflé — all classics.
Bascom's Chop House
3665 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater; (727) 573-3363; $$$
Why: Hands down, the biggest problem in local restaurants is service. There are places in the world where waiting tables is a proud profession, a craft refined diligently over years. Here, not so much, service running the gamut from surly to overly friendly, absentee to bumbling, haughty to likely lobotomized. Bascom's, a Feather Sound stalwart since 2002, has a broad and loyal following, especially amongst businessfolk, because they do it right. Meals are assuredly paced, needs anticipated, suggestions made with tact and solicitousness.
What to order: In a warren of intimate rooms you'll find diners preoccupied with certified Angus steaks wet-aged for a minimum of 28 days. Those steaks may be gilded with lobster Béarnaise or au poivre sauce and accessorized with au gratin potatoes and creamed spinach. In short, classic steakhouse fare, balanced out with a lineup of straightforward but luxurious seafood dishes and a wine list weighted to big reds.
Caretta on the Gulf
Sandpearl Resort, 500 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach; (727) 674-4171; $$$$
Why: When new chef Sean Ragan took over from original chef de cuisine David Thomas, he inherited one of the most gorgeous hotel restaurants in the area. Named for a species of loggerhead turtle, right from the get-go it had all the elements of success: sleek and knowledgeable service, a gorgeous beach view, stunning decor, plus a menu of lavish, seafood-centric contemporary fare. I don't mean to harangue, but local sushi restaurants that ram cream cheese and squiggles of gloppy sauce onto every roll should get a gander at Caretta's sushi menu: spare, clean and elegant presentations that showcase the ocean-breeze flavor of super fresh fish.
What to order: Simple fish like the wild salmon with creamed corn and chanterelles are winning, as is an ingenious preparation that marries slow-braised shortribs with shrimp and cheese grits.
Cristino's Coal Oven Pizza
1101 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater; (727) 443-4900; $
Why: Best pizza in the Tampa Bay area is a three-way tie. On poker night it's takeout pies from Paci's on Dale Mabry, for lunch it's a froufrou slice from Pane Rustica, and when I'm ready to burn a little gas, it's heading over to Clearwater for pizza and gelato at Cristino's. I'm not driving a hybrid, so I'm glad to report that Cristino's has just opened a second location at the corner of Eighth and 17th in Ybor City, near the Crowbar. It's still working the kinks out, so the flagship restaurant on Fort Harrison gets my greater affections. It's coal-oven style, like the fabled Lombardi's or Patsy Grimaldi's in New York, fairly cheesy with a thin crust pocked with charry bubbles.
What to order: I've said it before. With pizza, more ingredients often means more liquid is thrown on the top of your pie, taking a toll on the crust. Keep it simple, stupid, like with the sinful four cheese pie or straight-up margherita.
Sheraton Sand Key, 1160 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater Beach; (727) 595-1611; $$$
Why: A couple of times a year I have reason to talk to executive chef John Harris on the phone. When I hang up, I invariably think, "What a nice guy," followed by the thought, "I can't believe he's still at the Sheraton Sand Key." It's not that the restaurant isn't nice looking, especially with a remodel a couple of years back, but while newer Clearwater Beach hotel restaurants (Caretta, SHOR) make silly-gorgeous use of water views, Rusty's dining room just looks a little stodgy and landlocked. Harris keeps the menu lively, though, with a broad seafood-centric Floribbean palette.
What to order: Most weekdays there's a prime rib buffet ($22.95) and on Saturday it's a seafood buffet ($27.95). It's not the most exhaustive buffet you've ever seen, but the quality is high and the details dialed.
SHOR American Seafood Grill
Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort, 301 S Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach; (727) 373-4780; $$$
Why: Hyatt is surprisingly forward-thinking when it comes to sourcing food, their chefs given freedom to opt for local and sustainable whenever possible. Chef Richard Preston has run with this since the hotel restaurant opened in early 2010. These days it's cage-free eggs, naturally raised beef, sustainable fish and a conscious celebration of notable Florida products like Zellwood corn. Even the bar uses agave nectar, not simple syrup. SHOR's dining room is spare and open, half the seats with an unobstructed view of the gulf beyond, half with an unobstructed view of one of the area's prettiest exhibition kitchens.
What to order: Grouper flits across the whole menu, its best iteration as an entree paired with broccoli rabe and a sweet-tart fig vincotto, and the housemade lobster ravioli come swaddled in a sinful vermouth cream.
Parts of Paris
146 Fourth Ave. N; (727) 797-7979; $$$
Why: Safety Harbor had a good year, with a number of newcomers wriggling into charming bungalows on downtown streets. Still, the top dog is Parts of Paris, opened in 2012 by a Swede, Chris Orrung, its kitchen ably helmed by a young Culinary Institute of Charleston grad, Jeff Thornsberry. The 1936 Florida bungalow is gorgeous, the patio out front some of the nicest alfresco dining around.
What to order: Okay, so it's not like the Tartars did in medieval Russia — kill large mammal, slice, eat — this is filet mignon chopped up, not so fine that it gets gummy. The house tartare comes with a cute little raw yolk, a passel of capers, nicely toasted baguette slices, some pickle, chopped onion and a zippy mustard sauce. The rest of the short menu is expertly executed French brasserie staples, from cassoulet to moules frites, with a mid-priced Francophilic wine list to suit.
315 Main St.; (727) 734-3463; $$$
Why: I'm going to lose some people if I'm honest on this one. Black licorice. Kathy LaRoche's little romantic charmer does things its own way, and that means knock-your-socks-off black licorice ice cream and tiny black pearl-sized housemade licorice candies at meal's end. Don't worry, haters, it's not all Good & Plenty and Black Jack gum — LaRoche's son Adam manages sophisticated spins on classics like rack of lamb and "mother of pearl," a Rockefeller-ish concoction of Florida oysters with spinach, pancetta, a splash of Pernod (well, I guess that's like more licorice) and a drizzle of Mornay sauce.
What to order: With flattering lighting, red roses and a mercifully subdued noise level, this has been a date-night destination since 1996. Some of the dishes date back nearly that far, such as the Long Island duckling with its slow-braised leg and burnished-skinned breast accessorized with a cranberry apple demiglace.
365 Main St.; (727) 734-9226; $$
Why: Tina and Javier Avila are Dunedin dervishes, tinkering with their flagship restaurant (expanding into adjacent space, adding an aerialist in the dining room on Saturday nights), refining their second spot, the brick-oven pizza Pan y Vino, and embarking on new projects like the recently launched Orange Crate Cafe coffeehouse set in a former CSX rail car flanking the Pinellas Trail. It's the Casa, launched in 1991, that still gets my nod. I love the festive/macabre Day of the Dead decor and the lively, veggie-friendly Mexican cuisine.
What to order: Break out of the burrito bind with something entirely different like chiles en nogado, a dish from Puebla of poblanos, not too spicy, stuffed with meaty picadillo and napped with a brandied walnut cream sauce and dotted with bright pomegranate seeds. If you keep floss in your glove box, try the grilled corn on the cob, chile-tinged and fuzzy with Mexican crema and grainy queso cotija.
Dimitri's on the Water
698 Dodecanese Blvd.; (727) 945-9400; $$-$$$
Why: There are seven blocks of shops and restaurants on Tarpon's main drag. Funny thing is, almost none of the restaurants are directly on the water. With the allures of the Anclote River and the St. Nicholas III and VII historic sponge-diving boats offered tableside, Dimitri's is dreamy on a nice day. Right across the street from Mykonos, it is presided over by Mykonos owner Andy Salivaras' son, Dimitri, a Culinary Institute of America grad and among the more serious chefs in Tarpon.
What to order: There is an uncanny homogeneity to many of the Greek menus in Tarpon. You'll find most of the usual suspects at Dimitri's, but do not forgo the appetizer platter of spreads with warm grilled pita wedges or the side dish of rosemary-scented, tomatoey stewed chickpeas on your way to a lemony whole-roasted fish.