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 will vary 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.
MEL'S HOT DOGS. The big daddy of hot dog places in the area. Mel's does only dogs and sausagelike relations. Service is assembly-line, but the atmosphere puts the accent on the hot dog.
_ 4136 E Busch Blvd., Tampa; 985-8000. Beer, wine served; no credit cards accepted. Sandwiches, $1.99-$4.99.
MUNCH'S. Cooking from the heart and soul of southern St. Petersburg is served here all day, from 99-cent breakfast specials to Munchburger lunches and country dinners. Munch's has old-fashioned cooking and prices and decades of local memorabilia. For a newer taste, have the spinach shrimp pie.
_ 3920 Sixth St. S, St. Petersburg; 896-5972. No credit cards. $2.30 to $5.95 for dinner.
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.
TED PETERS FAMOUS SMOKED FISH. Outdoor tables (and the indoor fireplace) have been a roadside landmark so long it now looks out on six lanes of traffic. The charm however is in the food: smoked Florida mullet and mackerel and terrific hamburgers served with no pretense. Beware the Tuesday closing.
_ 1350 Pasadena Ave. S, South Pasadena; 381-7931. Beer. No credit cards. Prices, $2.95 to $7.95.
ALVAREZ. The jefe of a small clump of Mexican restaurants in Palmetto, the Alvarez family's restaurant serves up an authentic menu for Latinos and gringos. There are hearty breakfasts of tortillas and tacos as well as sizzling platters of fajitas, burritos. Atmosphere is congenial, and prices are bargains.
_ 1431 Eighth Ave. W, Palmetto; 729-2232. No-smoking section available; beer, wine. No credit cards. Prices, $2.99 to $6.99.
B.T. BONES STEAKHOUSE. If you like your beef with the brand of the Old West, head out to a home-grown chain's version of a Texas steak 'n' beer palace. Meat's not always butterknife-tender, but you can bet the cuts will be hefty, the prices puny and the atmosphere kicked-back.
_ 7022 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg (and other locations in Tampa Bay). No reservations. Full bar. No non-smoking area. Moderate prices, $5.50 to $13.95.
BOSTON COOKER. This place serves reliable seafood and treats you like family, proving hospitality is not exclusively Southern. Rolls are served hot from the oven in unlimited quantity; salads refilled without question. Maine lobster, fresh scrod and big-belly Ipswich clams provide a strong New England flavor.
_ 16023 Tampa Palms Blvd. W (City Plaza), Tampa; 972-9600. 1130 State Road 584, Oldsmar; 855-2311. Reservations recommended. Full bar. Non-smoking section available. Dinners, $6.95 to $15.95.
BUDAPEST. Not much room in here and not much room left on your plate; this is hearty Hungarian family eating. Don't mind the no-nonsense service; goulash, paprikash and spaetzle dumplings are pure comfort foods, plentiful and affordable.
_ 7411 U.S. 19 N, New Port Richey; 848-4437. Reservations suggested. Credit cards not accepted. Beer, wine. Dinners, $4.95 to $8.95.
CAFE DON JOSE. One of Tampa's newer Spanish restaurants, Cafe Don Jose is in a shopping center but it has a patio setting, attentive service and a typical menu of Tampa favorites. In addition to chicken and rice and other reliable standards, there are some creative specials every day, often using fresh fish. It goes well with brandy-spiked sangria.
_ 11009 56th St., Temple Terrace; 985-2392. Reservations recommended for weekends. Non-smoking section available. Dinner, $9.95 to $22.95.
CAMPANELLA'S ART IN ITALIAN CUISINE. This is the latest home of the shopping-center roccoco cooking and fabulous sauces of Rafaelle Campanella. The food, from ordinary pasta to risotto, is zestful, and the atmosphere is as expansive as the portions (but do indulge in the bread).
_7420 49th St. N, Pinellas Park; 544-7388. Beer, wine. No non-smoking section. Prices: $5.99 to $9.99.
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. The miniature brewery's educational, and the atmosphere's congenial.
_ 1451 U.S. 19 S, Clearwater; 531-5300. Full bar. Credit cards. Prices, $2.45 to $13.95.
OMI'S BAVARIAN INN _ The music is taped, and the decor is kitschy, but there's plenty of oompah on your plate: huge schnitzels, kraut, red cabbage and potato dumplings. Soups are homemade, and German hospitality is as genuine as the beer.
_ 14702 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach; 393-9654. No non-smoking section. Beer, wine. Dinners, $6.80 to $12.45.
OUTBACK STEAKHOUSES. The Australian flavor is in the decor and the entree names; the food is All-American steaks and chicken fresh from grilling on "the barbie," all at modest prices for immodest portions. Best bets are roast beef, grilled chicken, onion appetizers and fresh bread.
_ 3403 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, 875-4329. (Other locations at 3690 East Bay Drive, Largo; Park St. and Tyrone Boulevard, St. Petersburg; Carrollwood, Sarasota and Brandon.) Beer, wine and liquor served. Non-smoking section provided. Dinners $6.95 to $15.95).
BERN'S STEAK HOUSE. Overlook hodge-podge decor (part ooh-la-la, part hardware store), focus on wines and the open kitchen, and you'll see Bern's is still a monumental achievement. Beef's still the best eating, but fish and vegetables are fresh, too; the wine list is a treasure. Dessert room is many steps up in class and a grand finish for the evening.
_ 1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; 251-2421. Non-smoking section available. Hamburgers and steak sandwiches available for children. Reservations recommended. Dinner, $15 to $50.
HERITAGE GRILLE. The fresh taste of modern American cuisine, from duck pizza to tuna steak, is now here in a strikingly decorated old-home downtown. Creativity shows in soups and ice creams, which change daily; grilled fish and meats with wild mushrooms and eclectic salsas of herbs and fruits are excellent.
_ 256 Second St. N, St. Petersburg, 823-6382. Full bar. Reservations recommended. Dinner prices, $9.95 to $14.95.
THE LOBSTER POT. Inside the nooks and crannies of a corny nautical setting is one of the best local seafood houses. The chefs concentrate on lobster in classic versions, but they handle all seafood well and as simply as you wish.
_ 17614 Gulf Blvd., Redington Shores, 391-8592. Reservations recommended. Beer and wine served. No-smoking section available. Expensive: $11.75 to $21.50.
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.