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 10 restaurants.
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 MFA, 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 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.