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DINING OUT

The City Times dining guide is a selective listing of Tampa restaurants recommended by St. Petersburg Times food critic Chris Sherman.

Price: Cost of a dinner for two with tax and tip is indicated by the number of dollar signs: $ _ Inexpensive (less than $25); $$ _ Moderate ($25 to $50); $$$ _ Expensive ($60 and up).

CHEAP THRILLS

OLD MEETING HOUSE $

Meet they have for more than 50 years. For generations, South Tampa has come here for home-made ice cream: babes in arms licking cones they can't hold, schoolkids dallying in the soda shop and families enjoying a sundae night out. They know you can get backyard burgers, diner breakfasts and blueplate dinners at the same old-fashioned taste and price. 901 S Howard Ave.; 251-1754.

STEAK 'N SHAKE $

Enjoy the gleaming black, white and cool new interior or use the drive-up window outside. Great for strong coffee and late-night breakfast, brownie fix or a short-order steak, but best bites are classic drive-in fare. Have a Steakburger or chili with a milkshake, and don't forget the fries. No credit cards. 2315 S Dale Mabry Highway; v51-3350.

LUCKY DILL $

You just can't please some people, but the rest of us admit we're not living in Brooklyn. So we stand on line to eat in a deli that has real corned beef and clatter and a bakery counter to die for. It can be a jumble inside, but the soups have matzoh balls the size of Manhattan. The downtown Tampa branch of the Mitow family's Palm Harbor success gives you comfort food with a comforting accent for the foods and times you miss. 400 N Tampa St. (entrance on Ashley Street); 222-3455.

DON PAN $

From Venezuela by way of Miami comes a different Latin flavor. Here, the best roast pork sandwich comes stuffed inside cornmeal arepas and the pastry cases are loaded with ooey-gooey goodies pretty as a patisserie. 202 N Dale Mabry; 350-0500.

MAIN COURSE

YOKO'S $$

This tiny bento box of a restaurant has compartments for terrific fresh sushi and sashimi (and clever specials), for tatami seating or table-and-chairs dining. Tempura, from vegetable to shrimp, is perfect; so is the miso soup. 3217 S MacDill Ave.; 835-4311.

IL GABBIANO $$

Colors of red, white and green with lattice trim make it look like a good neighorhood Italian restaurant, but the Westshore neighborhood got more. Pastas, veal and fish are classically prepared, and Ali Seghrouchni's black-tie staff delivers smooth European service. If that's not enough, stop in for Moroccan night every Tuesday. 3671 S Westshore Blvd.; 831-0694.

CALIFORNIA PIZZA KITCHEN $

International Plaza is lousy with chicken burrito or BLT pizzas and other hip pies, but this chain spices them up with short-order rattle-dazzle that makes the mall sound like a dime store. Try Thai chicken, the chopped salads, killer desserts or the two-soups, one-bowl trick. It's food to shop for. International Plaza; 353-8155.

TAMPA BAY BREWING CO. $

Kwitcher drinking and eat your beer. Not quite. Try a couple of the dozen finely crafted ales, stouts and porters at Tampa's one true brewpub, but do check the solid food carefully. Chefs here cook brilliantly with beer; it glazes meats, steams mussels, punches up pizza dough and swirls in ice cream. You need more beer like this; so does Ybor. 1812 15th St. N; 247-1422.

BYBLOS $$

The hummus and baba ghanoush never looked so stylish as they do in the first Middle Eastern restaurant uptown enough to rub shoulders with MacDill antique merchants. Bright contemporary setting showcases old favorites and rarities like makanek sausage, Lebanese mousakaa shawarma beef and homemade yogurt cheese. Check out the market's olives and pastries. 2832 S MacDill Ave.; 805-7977.

DATE NIGHT

BERNINI $$-$$$

Italian-style innovation, big-city hustle and flash made this old bank a glam spot where the people-watching is choice, and the food is, too. Classy appetizers, rich soups, bright salads, wood-oven pizzas, clever polenta, rich pasta dishes like lobster ravioli. Plus martini madness and a fine cigar. 1702 E Seventh Ave.; 248-0099

BONEFISH GRILL $$

Hip design, cool music and modern seafood grilling from trendy St. Petersburg has South Tampa wowed: more fish than steak, good salads, crusty bread and worldly touches of artichokes, goat cheese and risotto. Warning: Locals have waited decades for contemporary fish, so they don't mind standing in line at a chain. Best dishes are smoky mussels in a tomato-citrus broth and rock shrimp. 3665 Henderson Blvd.; 876-3535.

MALIO'S $$-$$$

Malio Iavarone doesn't do retro, he does warm (and wet) welcomes, clubby booths, martinis, piano bar and beef because his people love it. Seafood pasta with princess sauce, softshell crab sandwiches and peach amaretto desserts are fine but beef's best, from prime rib down to the not-so-humble chopped sirloin. And everyone gets big-shot hospitality. 301 S Dale Mabry Highway; 875-3927.

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