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TASTES OF TAMPA BAY

(ran TP edition)

A brief sampler of recommended restaurants in the Tampa area, grouped by the kind of dining they offer. The restaurants are selected by the news staff of the Times, without regard to advertising. For days and hours of operation, call the restaurant.

MAIN COURSE

BELLA ITALIAN CAFE. This is a fun place for chic, one-person-size pizzas with designer toppings and good salads. The paper-covered tables come equipped with crayons, so you can sketch your dinner partner _ or your neighbors _ between courses.

_ 1314 S Howard Ave., Tampa, 254-3355. No reservations. Full bar.

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. 3682 Tampa Road, Oldsmar; 855-2311. Reservations recommended. Full bar.

CACTUS CLUB. Watch out for the shark over the bar _ and the terrestrial variety in the crowd! Come early on Friday or Saturday and grab an outdoor table to watch Hyde Park regulars launch the evening's first wave of nightclubbing. Food is fern-bar Southwest with some old American stand-bys. Bar features some of the best local mixology.

_ Olde Hyde Park Village, Snow and Swann avenues, Tampa; 251-4089. Full bar.

CAFE CREOLE. The setting is ye olde Ybor, the history Cuban, the food and music imported from New Orleans. Add a big, trendy crowd and it makes a spicy blend. Don't miss soft-shell crabs, oyster po' boys, crawfish or occasional zydeco bands; they've got real bayou flavor. Plus there are plenty of snacks and small portions for grazing and light dining.

_ 1330 Ninth Ave., Tampa; 247-6283. Full bar.

CAFE DON JOSE. 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.

CHILI'S. This Texas-based chain started out dressing up Tex-Mex food with fern bar decor and now they've updated the menu as well. It's a fun place to sit back and sip a Top Shelf Margarita and munch on spicy chicken tacos, lively fajitas or a grilled tuna salad.

_ 2903 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 875-2513 (and other locations in Tampa Bay area). Full bar. Children's menu.

THE COLONNADE. Tampa has stopped here for a bay view and plain food for 50 years with good reason. Seafood is varied, from grilled salmon to Florida's fried favorites, and comes with good trimmings like spinach salad and fresh muffins.

_ 3401 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa; 839-7558. Full bar. No reservations.

GIANNI'S. The see-and-be scene in Hyde Park for the casual crowd that likes Italian food and plenty of it. The waiting game played out in the adjacent wine bar is half the fun. House salads and pasta dishes are fresh, flavorful and for healthy appetites; desserts sinful.

_ 317 S Howard Ave., 251-8623. Beer, wine.

HO HO CHINOIS. Chinese food for those comfortable with black-tie service and French decor. The menu is largely traditional, but with a lighter hand than usual. Lobster and steamed whole fish are the specialties. Be sure to have the fish with soy and ginger.

_ 720 S Howard Ave., Tampa; 254-9557. Full bar. Children's menu.

HOPS GRILL & BAR. 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 three house beers range from a surprisingly tasty light to a British-style amber 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.

_ Carrollwood: 14303 N Dale Mabry Highway; 264-0522; South Tampa: 327 N Dale Mabry Highway, 871-3600; West Tampa: 3030 N Rocky Point Drive, 282-9350; Pinellas: 33086 U.S. 19 N (just north of Gulf-to-Bay); 789-5678. Full bar.

LATAM. Cuban and Spanish food doesn't get any better than this in a casual, homey setting. Try roast pork with onions, moros y cristianos and fried platanos, but don't overlook the seafood. In season, there's sea bass, yellowtail snapper and Florida lobster as well as the standard pompano and trout. Menu prices are easy on the wallet and nightly specials even cheaper. Soups, side dishes and flan never disappoint.

_ 2511 W Columbus Drive, Tampa; 877-7338. Full bar. Closed Tuesdays.

MELTING POT. No matter if you think the fondue fad is passe, you'll probably still spend several happy hours here, cooking your own finger food, whether you boil it in oil or low-fat bouillon or dip it in cheese or chocolate. With new healthful choices, people of every appetite can play with their food.

_ 13164 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, 962-6936. 2221 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; 895-6358. 2141 Main St., Dunedin, 734-5110. Beer, wine. Reservations recommended; dinner only.

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 in Largo, St. Petersburg, Carrollwood, Sarasota and Brandon.) Full bar.

RED BARN. Just what the name says: a red barn with tables inside where they serve steak that competes with Bern's. You should be a dedicated carnivore to enjoy this place. Order the Porterhouse (priced by the pound) and indulge. There's also seafood and old Southern favorites like chicken and ham.

_ 6150 New Tampa Highway, Lakeland, 686-2754. Reservations recommended. Full bar.

SAM OH JUNG. To find out what sets Korean food apart from other Asian cuisines, try the bul gogi and other beef dishes here or the fish. You'll find four seasons of flavor, from fiery kim chee pickle to sesame and sweets. Most entrees come with a tableful of condiments and rice so you can combine your favorites. (There's also sushi for appetizers.)

_ 602 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 871-3233. Beer and wine.

SUKOTHAI. The fanciest Thai restaurant in Tampa, and one of the area's oldest, Sukothai features elaborate dishes, eye-appealing plate presentations, beautiful woodwork and special floor-level, pillow-cushioned seating upon request. Try phad Thai noodles or the sweet, sour and spicy chicken with three spices, duck with veggies, orange sauce and cashews, whole red snapper with fresh pepper sauce or grouper with garlic.

_ 8201-A N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 933-7990. Beer, wine.

TAJ. This first-class North Indian restaurant is a sensory adventure with no risks (except not getting a table): Both place and plates are pretty and sparklingly clean. There's a caravan of curries, from sweet kormas to spinach sag, made with chicken, lamb, beef, shrimp and vegetables, in all degrees of heat. Treat yourself to naan and other fresh Indian breads and ice cream for a true Indian feast.

_ 2734-B E. Fowler Ave., Tampa; 971-8483. Beer, wine.

TEX MEX CANTINA. A small local Mexican chain with an accent on funk and fun and typical fare: The food is not pretty and a little greasy but it's served in hearty portions and it's good enough to attract a following among the young and chic. Fajitas, margaritas are favorites.

_ 6415 Courtney Campbell Parkway, Tampa; 281-0164. Full bar.

THAILAND RESTAURANT. Never a disappointing meal of Thai or Chinese food in this casual place. Be sure to try village noodles, pork satay and the seasoned, chopped beef salad. Papaya salad, if available, is a must. If the catch of the day is whole fish, try that too.

_ 5252 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; 837-1793. Beer, wine.

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