The following is a brief sampler of some recommended restaurants in the Tampa Bay area, grouped by the kind of dining they offer. The restaurants named rotate each week and are selected by the news staff of the St. Petersburg Times, without regard to advertising. For days and hours of operation, call the restaurant. BABALU RESTAURANT & BAR. The friendly spirit of the corner beer garden lives on in this neighborhood tavern, so Babalu provides good eating as well as drinking. The menu is varied but the accent is on large portions and small prices; all-you-can-eat specials, from spaghetti to crab legs, change nightly; giant grouper sandwiches are a favorite anytime. The crowd is a good-natured mix of locals, MacDill airmen, families with kids and pool players.
- 9246 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; 576-7414. Children's portions available. Reservations accepted; no credit cards. Beer and wine.
Prices $2.95 to $9.95.
JACK'S WHALE'S TAIL LOUNGE. A relaxing alternative to the crowded beach. Inside this hideaway there's a sunken bar and outside there are tables with a breeze and a view of the Intracoastal Waterway. Boats dock while you eat. Grouper sandwiches, pizza sticks, grouper nuggets and simple seafood baskets are favorites.
- 3855 Gulf Blvd., St. Petersburg Beach; 360-5971. No reservations.
Full bar service. Lunch, dinner prices, $3.50 to $14.95.
STEAK 'N SHAKE. One of the last of the breed - a real drive-in. Pull up to the spaces outside, eat indoors or use the drive-up window. On Saturday night expect to see convertibles from the '50s and other classic wheels cruising by. It's Happy Days and the Fonz, Tampa-style.
Great for strong coffee and late-night breakfasts or a short-order steak, but the best bites are classic drive-in fare. Have a burger or chili and a milk shake and don't forget the cheese fries.
- 1450 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; 971-9700. Other locations in Tampa: 2315 S Dale Mabry, 4502 Gandy, 5917 E Hillsborough Ave. Open 24 hours.
Non-smoking section available. No credit cards accepted. No alcohol served. Prices, $2.50-$12.
TANGELO'S GRILLE. Name and address have changed a little, but Tangelo's fans will welcome increased seats and airy feeling. Artwork and jazz provide a little sophistication, but food's hearty Cuban fare. Sandwiches - ham, roast beef, pork, chicken - are traditional, and daily soups can be spicy (hope for crab). Specials can be filling bargains, like half a Cuban with black bean soup and pasta salad.
- 226 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg ; 894-1695. No credit cards accepted. Beer and wine served. Meals, $1.95 to $4.95.
MAIN COURSE ANNA'S RAVIOLI AND PASTA CO. Anna's was once only a takeout business, but there are now tables and chairs for eating in. In addition to egg-flour pasta, there's cayenne, whole wheat in various shapes with sauces from alfredo to pesto. All are made on the premises, and they're delicious.
- 5625 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; 522-6627. Beer and wine served.
No credit cards accepted. Dinners, $3.50 to $7.25.
CAPRICCIO CAFE. California Italian has come to town, and it's radical - and good. Start with soup, brie or goat cheese tarts, then the sun-dried tomato house salad and finish with pasta or grilled meat. Every sauce and dish has fresh ingredients and fresher thinking.
On weekends you may wait for seats in the bistro or adjoining antique gallery.
- 3217 S MacDill Ave, Tampa; complimentary wine. Moderately expensive;
dinner entrees, $5.95-$14.95.
CRAB TRAP. A favorite hangout on the banks of the Homosassa, the natural specialty is crabs: hard shell, soft shell or afire with garlic and pepper. You can try all three in a combination platter, or spread out some newspapers and get all you can eat. And you'll like the shrimp, too.
- 5300 S Cherokee Way, Homosassa, (904) 628-1122. Reservations recommended. Customers may bring their own beer or wine. Dinners, $7.95 to $13.95.
FAT JACQUE'S CAJUN CAFE. The food may not be straight from the bayou, but Fat Jacque's has Louisiana flavor, a feel of camaraderie and filling bargains like red beans and rice. Plus there's a newfangled light menu for cholesterol-counters. The Tampa Fat Jacque's is larger and sports an oyster bar, but both sites are good grazing country.
- 3605 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; 874-8657. 11300 Fourth St. N, St.
Petersburg; 578-0158. Full bar service. Dinner prices, $4.95 to $12.95.
FOURTH ST. SHRIMP STORE. A funky place to show out-of-towners that fresh shrimp is everyday fare for us; only a killjoy would quibble.
Seafood comes straight from the cooker, fixed just right and in huge quantities for small change. Frills are limited to Christmas oilcloths on the tables, odd chairs and delightfully detailed, whimsical murals.
- 1006 1/2 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; 822-0325. Non-smoking section available. Beer, wine. Lunch, dinner $3.96 to $8.99.
KEY WEST GRILL. This is Florida fare with more flair than usual at a chain restaurant. The setting is shady, the atmosphere is casual and the food is definitely palate-pleasing, especially for seafood lovers.
The day's fish can be grilled or blackened at your pleasure.
- 2660 Gulf to Bay Blvd., Clearwater; 797-1988. No-smoking section provided. Children's menu available. Full bar. Prices, $3.45 to $13.95.
MAMA LEEANN'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT. Come to Mama when you want consistency, not pretense or flash. The food is fresh and made to order, atmosphere is casual and service so genuinely courteous, it doesn't take long to become a regular or a friend. Try the cheesy eggplant supreme, antipasto salad and real spumoni for dessert.
Helpings can be made to order.
- 954 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg; 822-7073. Full bar. Children's menu available. Entrees, $4.95 to $9.50.
SIAM ROOM. If it's time to try Thai, Siam Room serves the full gamut: fragrantly sweet, fiery hot and refreshingly cool. Start with barbecue sate or laab meat salad. For an entree, try the phad thai noodles or anything in Panang curry to see the rainbow of Siamese spices. Food's not fancy, but it's fresh, creative - and inexpensive.
- 8200 U.S. 19 N, Pinellas Park; 545-2782. Beer, wine. Dinners, $4.50 to $15.
BIG NIGHT OUT BLAIKIE'S. Renovation of this landmark roadhouse has brought citified dining to the country. Steaks are still prime but chicken and shrimp are equally good entrees, all in substantial portions and handsomely served with five-course trimmings.
- 16626 Nebraska Ave., Lutz; 961-4237. Full bar. Dinners $10.95-$25.95.
CHARLEY'S CRAB. Perfect for boulevardiers in training. Sit on the terrace with the piano player and watch the beautiful people glide by on St. Armand's Circle - or sit indoors and let the passers-by envy you. If chic shopping is fatiguing, have a tuna melt or seafood spinach salad; the hungrier should try the "bucket of seafood."
Mussel fans should definitely try Charley's.
- 420 Harding Circle, Sarasota. 388-3964. Reservations recommended.
Non-smoking section provided. Full bar service. Children's menu available. Prices $5.95 to $19.95.
LE BORDEAUX. This Hyde Park fave has just changed hands, but new owners say they won't change or tamper with a thing. Food and atmosphere are very French, but the price is not. Even $20 can buy la grande fete from the goodies on the chalkboard each day. Mood's casual and food's worth the wait - and a glass of Bordeaux.
- 1502 S Howard Ave., Tampa; 254-4387. Beer, wine. Non-smoking. MC, Visa. Dinner prices, $7.50 to 11.50.
SABALS. This old storefront now opens onto a cozy art deco cafe with cooking that is very modern and very good. Pate and hot shrimp appetizers are good for starters; house salad is a treat, as are homemade soups and breads. Entrees range from swordfish and filet mignon to scallops on black pepper linguine with pesto sauce.
- 315 Main St., Dunedin; 734-3463. Reservations recommended; beer wine; dinner entrees $7.50 to $18.
SEAPORT INN. Here you can sign up for a trip to foreign treasures or sample those the owners have brought home to Pasco, including Old World gourmet cooking. Forget the tableside to-do, the soups and sauces show true class. Go for rich, classic dishes or as an alternative, turbot baked on a board.
- 11217 U.S. 19, Port Richey; 863-5402 Reservations recommended.
Children's menu available. Dinners, $7.60 to $18.50.