The Weekend dining guide is a listing of restaurants around Tampa Bay sampled and recommended by St. Petersburg Times food critic Chris Sherman and other staffers. Recommendations are not related to advertising. A portion of the guide runs weekly in Weekend. You can also find dining listings at www.tampabay.com.
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).
HOURS: Hours and days of operation change frequently, so it's wise to call ahead.
RESERVATIONS: Most restaurants welcome reservations. If you cannot keep a reservation, notify the restaurant promptly.
CREDIT CARDS: Accepted unless otherwise noted.
TIP US OFF: Got a favorite restaurant we haven't reviewed? Contact us at weekendsptimes.com or send a note and a menu to Weekend Dining Guide, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
+ PACIFIC RIM +
Pacific Wave $$ to $$$
Off the main drag, Peter Tanhnavong gives downtown slices of St. Petersburg's secret hip side as sharp as the sushi and sashimi and as rare as Hawaiian nairagi. From smoked beef tataki to crab cakes and the dangerous chocolate lava cake, it's beautiful food you want to eat. Service is equally smooth. 211 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-5235. www.pacificwaveonline.com.
Rice & Co. $$
This postmodern bistro makes the mall safe for pan-Asian food that's fresh and hip. Slick choices roam the Pacific, from sushi to beef with citrus zest, udon noodles with tempura and bright papaya shrimp salad. All served in cool design under the Gen Zen banner "Eat rice, drink tea, slurp noodles." Westfield Shoppingtown Citrus Park, Tampa; (813) 920-7423.
So it's not local, but we can be glad such a chain landed here. The islands' celebrity chef paired with Outback to give its hometown a delicious lesson in modern cooking: great fish, from opakapaka to sturgeon, vibrant Asian spices, a radical wine list. It's smoothed out by aloha service, sauces made with classic French technique and a worldwide pantry of ginger, stout, poppy seed, nam pla and more. Rice never tasted so good. 4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697. www.roysrestaurant.com. One of Chris Sherman's best restaurants of 2003.
+ CASUAL +
Dan Marino's Town Tavern $$
This is no sports bar. The Miami look here is the high-style, high-energy club scene. The menu has contemporary staples, with nods to Southwest, Pacific, Mediterranean and Mom's cooking. Best bets include meatloaf, chicken strips and seared tuna with white and black sesame seeds. Most unusual are flatbreads, a big house-made crisp seeded cracker not at all like pizza. In BayWalk, Second Street and Second Avenue N, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-4413. www.danmarinosrestaurant.com.
Diners create their own dinners with more possibilities than a satellite dish. Pick up a tray with a big and small bowl. Fill the big one with meat, seafood, vegetables, pasta and such, the small with one of a dozen sauces. A cook will saute your choices at the massive grill. Take it back to the table, eat with rice or flour tortillas. Repeat if you wish. The trick is choosing the right combination. Best to pick a sauce first, then select from meats and vegetables. Centro Ybor, Tampa, (813) 241-8300; and BayWalk, St. Petersburg, (727) 894-5700. www.diningatdish.com.
Kafe Kokopelli $$
The Dade City restaurant's whimsical decor and small-town warmth aren't the only attractions. From gourmet specials to fresh gator with kumquat salsa, the food is fun. Kafe Kokopelli can serve many functions: a courthouse restaurant, an ersatz Bennigan's, a big night out for a family celebration, a place for a too-tired-to-cook weeknight supper or a date with bananas foster and a live combo. 37940 Live Oak Ave., Dade City; (352) 523-0055.
This mild-mannered former coffee bar serves lunch all day, from 11 a.m. until early evening, plus dinner entrees. The lunch menu fits the classic format of soups, salads and sandwiches, but the formats have been elevated to Asian noodle bowls, baby green salads and Italian panini. 3235 Tampa Road, Suite 105B, Palm Harbor; (727) 773-8839.
This chain invented the drive-up burger stand in Oklahoma 50 years ago to deliver food as "fast as the speed of sound." Although its burgers are thin and unexciting, this is one of the few chains to carry hot dogs, corn dogs and BLTs. And it has tater tots! The restaurant is famous for its limeades punched up with cherry or strawberry and for the roller-skating servers who come to the car. Ten locations around Tampa Bay. www.sonicdrivein.com.
+ MEXICAN +
Clearwater's home away from Hidalgo has a full spectrum of sauces, salsas and moles and the authentic peppers that go into them. Carne asada tastes of pasilla, and adobos have vinegar punch. Great tamales and hot caldos. Beer, wine. 1840 Drew St., Clearwater; (727) 446-7469.
Casa Tina $$
Seafood and vegetarian entrees are staples on this Mexican menu. Tortillas can be filled with squash, spinach or wild mushrooms, and fish may be garnished Veracruzana, with tomatillo mole or maybe papayas. Beer, wine. 369 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 734-9226. casatinas.com.
Poke through the menu for hearty goodies such as tacos filled with freshly grilled carne asada, enchiladas topped with pork and soup. Estela's chicken soup is more than a full meal: rice, meat, fresh tomato, avocado and cilantro in a broth no one had the heart to defat. The food is fresh, and the sauces don't come from a can. 209 E Davis Blvd., Tampa, (813) 251-0558; or 312 E Brandon Blvd., Brandon, (813) 657-1421. www.estelas.com.
Mexico Lindo $
This grocery squeezes in a few booths and folding chairs between aisles of salsa and norteno CDs, and its tacos are overstuffed with authentic flavor, too. You can get tacos packed with lamb, chicken, chorizo and all kinds of beef and pork, plus stews and sopas on weekends. Stop here or at any of the taquerias, bakeries and butcher shops feeding our booming Mexican community in Clearwater and beyond. You won't want the other stuff again. 812 Court St., Clearwater; (727) 443-5892. One of Chris Sherman's best restaurants of 2003.
Pancho's Villa Mexican Restaurant $
Bring a good book because there's always a line for the few rustic tables behind the bright-red clapboard facade in San Antonio. It's worth the wait, though, for such TexMex favorites as taquitos, fajitas, crisp tacos, golden chiles rellenos or wonderful chocolaty moles. 32804 Pennsylvania Ave., San Antonio; (352) 588-3037.
Red Mesa $$
Kitchen uses Mexican cheeses, chipotle peppers and pine nuts to create traditional items, such as pozole hominy soup, and contemporary Southwestern fusions, among them crawfish quesadillas. Staples are good; salads and hearty churrasco steaks, cedar-planked salmon and grilled quail are even better. Beer, wine. 4912 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 527-8728. One of Chris Sherman's best restaurants of 2003.
Viva la Frida $$
Five years of struggle turned a used-car lot in Seminole Heights into a stunningly warm, charming oasis of art and imagination. Good tastes old and new abound, among them the mole Colorado, with the genuine savory flavor of peppers and Mexican chocolate, and the chile verde, with the tart punch of green tomatillos. 5901 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 231-9199.
+ STEAKS +
Fleming's aims to be a different kind of steakhouse, casual, youthful and more inviting to women, but much is familiar. The distinctions: bone-in Kansas City strips and T-bones; the richest, juiciest veal chop in town; spinach so lightly sauteed it's still a green vegetable; and an addictive key lime pie. Wedge salads, the iceberg's retro revenge, are well executed. Wine is well-selected, well-organized and deep by-the-glass. 4322 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 874-9463. www.flemingssteakhouse.com.
Julian's at the Heritage $$$
St. Petersburg's big spenders get their own top-dollar steakhouse, where booths and bills are the same size as the $30 steaks: big and juicy. Veal is a worthy alternative here. Best sides are crab cakes, scallops and creamed spinach. Professional service. Full bar. 256 Second St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-6382.
Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse $$
Beef, pure beef, and bargain dinners are the centerpiece of the first Seltzer's restaurants outside Canada. Plates and crowds are huge, but prices are small. A 1-pound slab of prime rib is $13. Have yours with mushroom sauce. Enjoy the '50s photos while you wait. Full bar. 3500 Tyrone Blvd., St. Petersburg, (727) 381-7267; 4744 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, (813) 873-7267; 18409 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater, (727) 519-7267. www.samseltzers.com.
+ CARIBBEAN +
Bahama Breeze $$
You can't see the Caribbean from this corporate pleasure dome on the causeway, but you can hear the islands and get a taste of them here. Lively-up music makes waits on the veranda more fun than a theme park. Drinks are mixed with tropical spirits, and meats and fish are done up with fire and spice. Full bar. 3045 N Rocky Point Drive E, Tampa; (813) 289-7922. www.bahamabreeze.com.
Guppy's on the Beach Seafood Grill & Bar $$
Fresh finfish, Caribbean fire, Southwestern flair and healthful ingredients make fun fusion in Margaritaville-by-the-Sea. Fresh fish gets uptown treatment with everything from beet 'n' bean salsa and brandy sauces to potato crust. Trimmings are packed with fruits, herbs and grains. Full bar. 1701 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 593-2032.
Saffron's $ to $$
Edythe James, the pioneer Jamaican chef who taught Pinellas to love and even cook island food, uses Caribbean spice to revive the funky old Prado nightclub on Boca Ciega Bay. Jerk, curries, island peppers and sweet spices liven up vegetables, seafood, steaks and even teas. Plus, there's lively music in the cook-up on weekends. Full bar. 1700 Park St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 345-6400. www.saffronscuisine.com.
St. Bart's Island House $$-$$$
The former Le Bordeaux, named after the most fashionable of the French Antilles, remains upscale, more New American than French, and sweet on the tropics. Main dishes are appropriately long on fish. Hors d'oeuvres are a good part of the main menu and all of the bar menu. Full bar. 1502 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-0367.
+ CONTINENTAL +
Bon Appetit $$ to $$$
Tables with bay views and traditional indulgences such as rack of lamb, sweetbreads, escargot and Dover sole. The menu has been updated with pastas, grilled fish, fresh herbs and half-orders, but there are rich sauces and strudels as well. Brunch on Sundays, plus dock facilities. 148 Marina Plaza, Dunedin; (727) 733-2151. www.bonappetit-restaurant.com.
The Pepper Mill $$ to $$$
Omnivorous menu includes gourmet classics and contemporary sauces; some of the best comes from the grill, especially a namesake steak, and other grilled meat and fish. Rich desserts, affordable wines and smooth service. Full bar. 1575 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater; (727) 449-2988. www.ilovepeppermill.com.