CAFE CREOLE. The setting is ye olde Ybor, the history Cuban, the food and music imported from New Orleans. Skip the dirty rice, but don't miss softshell crabs, oyster po' boys, crawfish or occasional zydeco bands._ 1330 Ninth Ave., Tampa; 247-6283. Full bar, credit cards. Prices, $5.25 to $12.95.
HOPS GRILL & BREWERY. One of the area's first "brew pubs," Hops makes its beer and most of its food from scratch and does well in both categories. The four house beers range from a surprisingly tasty light to a British-style pale ale. Expect more than bar food, too: pastas, soups and steaks all show extra effort.
_ 1451 U.S. 19 S, Clearwater; 531-5300. Beer, wine. Credit cards. Prices, $2.45 to $13.95.
ILE DE FRANCE. Don't judge this one by its cover or provincial location. Enter the castle and you'll find a citadel of French cooking and charm. The menu is classic with Provencal accents. Fine veal and steaks, perfect sole and superb bouillabaisse are served with style and warmth .
_ 13911 Old Dixie Highway, Hudson; 863-7994. Beer, wine. Reservations recommended. Dinners, $10.95 to $17.50.
KEEGAN'S SEAFOOD GRILLE. Size and decor are modest, but the menu's ambitious, and the kitchen usually delivers some of the most clever seafood on the beaches, from ceviche to grilled fish, for bargain prices. Most entrees are modest in size, but linguine with mussels is a feast.
_ 1311 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach, 596-2477. Beer, wine; no non-smoking area. No credit cards. Prices, $4.50 to $8.95.
ANI'S MEDITERRANEAN DELI. This is mostly a takeout counter with folding chairs and zero atmosphere, but that won't matter to underground gourmets, vegetarians and fans of Middle Eastern food. Here they make sandwiches of meatless falafel and baba ghanouj eggplant dip and other goodies.
_ 6570 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; 345-6611. No credit cards. No alcohol. Prices, $1.50 to $4.75.
DELGATO'S WORLD OF PASTA. More shopping-center Italian restaurants should be this good. Pasta, soups, bread and desserts are fresh and made with care and red sauce is hearty. Add a plate of antipasto or lamb shank cacciatore for a fine dinner under $10; lunches are cheaper and just as good.
_ 1352 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor; 786-6140. Non-smoking section provided. Beer, wine. Dinners, $4.99 to $9.95.
ATENE. The downtown St. Petersburg menu is brighter since swank food returned to this equally swank room in the Plaza; here you can indulge in gourmet lunches and dinners at modest prices. Eclectic cuisine combines rich old-school sauces, nouvelle presentation with a slight Eastern European accent. Soups and meats are first-rate; low-fat healthful alternatives are tasty.
_ 111 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg; 898-7900; full bar; dinners, $10.95 to $16.95.