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Outback trio in Top 10 of 2000

Roy's, Zazarac and Lee Roy Selmon's Southern Comforts restaurants show that the Tampa-based chain has a way with new projects.

Small, independent restaurateurs knew 2000 would be tough, with a millennial flood of million-dollar restaurants opening in mega-projects on both sides of Tampa Bay.

The big surprise is that the big new tastes so far came not from still-developing BayWalk or Centro Ybor, but from the test kitchens and acquisitions of Outback Steakhouse Inc.

Topping the list was Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi. He linked his chain, Roy's, to Outback, part of the wave of new projects from the Tampa beef outfit that ate America. Of the four concepts Outbackers premiered this year, three reach that "new level" of corporatespeak _ and my list of the top 10 new restaurants of 2000.

My favorites this year include two other projects that lavished big bucks on decor and food, and charged accordingly, making the $100 dinner-for-two tab more common. Chains, imports and theme restaurants created rough competition for local mom 'n' pops.

Is that fair? Doesn't matter, they're here.

Besides, a huge budget for architecture or interior design isn't enough; several restaurants with great eye appeal arrived this year but never excited or satisfied the palate.

The small restaurant's best chance remains delivering good or creative food. I found valiant efforts this year among not-so-new efforts like the grand tour of Vietnam at little Ben Thanh in St. Petersburg, plain-brown-paper Cracker eating at the Crab Shack and the ultimate grouper sammitch at Dockside Dave's on Madeira Beach.

There also was encouraging news of heroic producers turning out artisanal foods: Golden Fleece goat cheese feta in Lecanto, Rosa Fiorelli wines in Bradenton, Backwater Bayou jerky in Tarpon Springs, Fray's doughnuts in St. Petersburg, Diadre's fine chocolates in Dunedin and countless hot sauces. But we still need more bread bakeries.

Energy and imagination was on the Tampa side of the bay this year, but mostly it came from the corporations and their new improved taste. Chalk this one up to the big boys.

And now, the best of the new in 2000:

1. Roy's: The best food this year doesn't taste like Florida at all; it's from a chain that started in Hawaii, and more than a dozen other cities have tasted it. Who cares? What an import Outback hath wrought. Yamaguchi introduces us to luscious Hawaiian fish, "aloha service," plus beautiful sauces of Asian flavors and French polish. Plus you get a chocolate souffle. Relaxed dining on food this good is millennial luxury, wherever it came from.

4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697

2. Travis: Best reason to go north on U.S. 19 at rush hour is to get off at Travis, the brightest new spot in north Pinellas. Robert Masson glazes, crusts and sauces steak, lamb, pork and salmon with traditions from classic to Korean. Every vegetable and starch, from timbales to rice cakes, show extra care. You might not expect it here, but we should.

28530 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater; (727) 712-9101

3. Zazarac: Our first taste of Outback's new generation, this time with Anne Kearney of New Orleans' Peristyle as the consulting chef, gave us a big helping of Louisiana sophistication in food, service and decor. Zazarac's food is not blackened or red hot. Instead, veal sirloin, brabant potatoes, redfish in court bouillon and garlic Parmesan soup show the subtlety of great chefs, and the time and care they took generations ago and again now.

3702 W McKay Ave., Tampa; (813) 350-0481

4. New City Bistro: Veteran innovators Roger and Terry Lenzi spun off a modest little boite from New City Diner. NCB has good fish, fresh bread, carefully considered side dishes, smart sauces and vegetarian entrees, all presented with style, clever wines and sharp service. After a year's struggle failed to find a crowd, Lenzi is giving his passion for Southwestern a shot. The nuevo menu with tortilla-crusted shrimp, sweet potato enchiladas and sangria granita promises to be just as slick.

3333 S Westshore Blvd.; Tampa; (813) 805-0250.

5. Big City Tavern: The boys from West Palm took over the top floor of the grand old Cuban Club and made it the hippest space in Centro Ybor. The food is familiar, from burgers to pad Thai, but slicked up a notch in cost and presentation. Best so far are pork chops, hearty pastas (penne, porcini and arugula or chicken and grilled sausage), good breads, side dishes and eggs (chicken and sturgeon). You'll smack your lips over the decor, retro and nouveau, too.

1600 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City, Tampa; (813) 247-3000

6. Ballyhoo Grill & Raw Bar: South Pinellas beachgoers who swallow an oyster shooter in a martini glass full of dark beer got their first taste of the fish house secrets the Fragale family has mastered in Tarpon Springs and Citrus Park. You can have your seafood cooked too, and not just fried. The kitchen demands fresh product, cooks to temperature, fixes it plain and fancy (adding everything from artichokes to wasabi), delivered with the best beach service. It comes with no airs, just a Gulf breeze and sand on the floor.

16699 Gulf Blvd., North Redington Beach; (727) 320-0536

7. Tum Rub Thai: Another victory for everyday eating _ and Thai food is weeknight family dinner fare nowadays. Gentle service and smart taste fill this little strip-center spot and every place setting with yummy yum salads, heart-warming soups, spicy frog legs, a big catch of seafood and a surprising variety of desserts.

32716 U.S. 19 N, Palm Lake Shopping Center, Palm Harbor; (727) 781-3515

8. Fred's: In a year of excessive development, the good taste of a gourmet neighborhood in Sarasota stands out, with a wine shop, tasting room and Fred's at the center. This is a brasserie by feel and custom and a modern bistro by flavor, not corny theming. Stick to monster burgers, perfect steaks and comforting meatloaf if you wish, or take a wild ride on a calamari pine nut pizza or crisped sea bass on bok choy and mushrooms.

1917 S Osprey Ave., Sarasota; (941) 364-5811

9. Lee Roy Selmon's Southern Comforts: For this one, Outback tapped another great cook, Lee Roy's mom, a tiny Oklahoma woman whose simple cooking stuck to the ribs of the great Buccaneer running back (for whom the toll road is named) and an imposing football family. This restaurant sets out as broad and filling a Southern menu as I've seen, from meatloaf, ribs and fried green tomatoes to the best shrimp and grits on the planet. Take-home bags will strain your arm, but they'll save you room for peach cobbler with Blue Bell ice cream.

4302 Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa (813) 871-3287.

10. Bonefish Grill: A modest taste of modern style in grilled fish, crusty bread, risotto, open kitchen and a hip logo came to St. Petersburg last winter, and the traffic jam lasted all year. Bowls of smoky mussels and pasta tossed with rock shrimp stand out on a menu of staples, but the jazzy scene has an uptown crowd at the bar and an SRO crowd in line.

5901 Fourth St. N; St. Petersburg; (727) 521-3434