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May we suggest . . .

. . . these restaurants sampled and recommended by St. Petersburg Times food critic Chris Sherman. Recommendations are not related to advertising. A sampling of Sherman's picks runs each week. Price: Dinner for two with tax and tip: $ - inexpensive (less than $25); $$ - moderate ($25 to $50); $$$ - expensive ($60 and up). Tip us off: Got a restaurant we should try? Send submissions to weekend@sptimes.com or to Weekend, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Casual dining

Courtside Grille $$

This is the sports bar reinvented with $8 sandwiches and grownup dinners for a millennial crowd. Courtside is unusually long on seafood, from mussels in red wine to shrimp salad on rye with sprouts. Much of the rest is familiar: Philly cheese steak, seafood linguine and chicken teriyaki, but done with extra style and care. Full bar. 110 Fountain Parkway N, St. Petersburg; (727) 561-7433. www.courtsidegrille.com.

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.danmarinos restaurant.com.

Dish $$

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.

Mecca $

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.

Sonic $

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.

Seafood

Backfin Blue $$

These shady old streets are the perfect setting for backporch cooking done with care and generosity. Chef Harold Russell keeps his plateful of funky Gulfport perfectly simple - lump crab cakes, big prime rib, meatloaf and grouper - and remembers to get fresh vegetables. 2913 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 343-2583 or www.backfinbluecafe.com. One of Chris Sherman's best restaurants of 2005.

Frenchy's $ to $$

Forget fancy settings. These cozy, hole-in-the-wall favorites on Clearwater Beach serve up seafood fresh from the boat at bargain prices. Served with cold beer, good humor and modest fixings (plus great desserts). Look for grouper, oysters and stone crab in season. Beer, wine. Frenchy's Saltwater Cafe, 419 Poinsettia Ave., (727) 461-6295; Frenchy's Cafe, 41 Baymont St., (727) 446-3607; Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, 7 Rockaway St., (727) 446-4844; Frenchy's South Beach Cafe, 351 S Gulfview Blvd., (727) 441-9991. www.frenchysonline.com.

Island Way Grill $$-$$$

A T-bone sweetened with Korean barbecue is the equal of the restaurant's boat-fresh fish, raw bar and sushi. Best dishes have clever Asian accents, like baby bok choy in sake and fish crusted in wasabi peas or crushed fortune cookies. Smart management misses few tricks: early birds for the neighbors, oyster shooters, boatload brunch on Sunday, world-class bar stock, brilliant wine selection, all-weather patio seating with a marina view, or indoor dining with Duncan McClellan magic glass. 20 Island Way, Clearwater Beach; (727) 461-6617 or www.islandwaygrill.com. One of Chris Sherman's best restaurants of 2005.

Mid Peninsula Seafood $

Before seafood went yupscale, you bought it in fish markets straight from the counter. Buy fresh whiting, sea bass, salmon and snapper, plus oysters, shrimp, crab and conch, raw or cooked to order in sandwiches, dinners or to go, broiled, steamed or, best of all, fried. Good hush puppies and prices under $5, too. Beer, wine. 400 49th St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 327-8309.

Steaks

Bern's Steak House $$ to $$$

The late Bern Laxer's passion for quality remains and still brings connoisseurs of red wine and red meat to his legendary steakhouse and cellars. A new generation is adding subtle innovations in desserts and trimmings. Steak haters can have fish fresh from the tank, tour the kitchen, sample the caviar, marvel at the wine list and luxuriate in the dessert room. Red velvet alert: The taste that counts is in the food, not decor, although revamping is under way. Full bar. 1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-2421. www.bernssteakhouse.com.

J. Alexander's $$

Handsome, comfy bistro from a Nashville chain delivers painstaking quality in food, service and decor. Menu is familiar, not fancy, but roast chicken, steaks, Caesar salad, fish and desserts are best in class. Full bar. 913 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 354-9006.

Outback Steakhouses $$

Birthplace of the chain that put steak back on the yupscale menu and Tampa on Wall Street is worth a visit by carnivores and stockholders alike. Steaks, lamb, chicken and shrimp "on the barbie" plus smooth operation can still draw lines. 3403 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, (813) 875-4329, and many other locations. www.outbacksteak house.com.

St. Larry's $$

Swank trimmings match the rich quality of red meat to give this north Pinellas neighborhood spot big-city treats. Good cuts of beef, fish and duck get dressed up with crab, bacon, cheese, exotic hollandaises and onion marmalade. Fine bar stock and affordable wines too. Fountains Plaza, 34980 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor; (727) 786-0077.

Shula's Steak House $$$

Eat (and spend) like a winner here, a big winner. Entrees are hefty enough to embarrass an NFL lineman. Most beef comes in 1-pound slabs, and lobsters are much bigger, but the clubby setting suits the skybox set. Best bets in sides are shredded potatoes and apple pie. Wines cost less than some steaks. Full bar. Wyndham Westshore, 4860 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 286-4366. www.donshula.com.

Texas Cattle Company $$

The people here have cooked steaks over wood fires for 25 years. So overlook the '70s Western theme and passable side dishes. The star here is the meat: pretty, well-marbled classic cuts, some prime and mostly choice, aged and cut in house. 2600 34th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 527-3335.

French

Le Bouchon $$

You want fine soup, fresh pate, great wine discoveries, a French accent and no airfare? It would be grand to have such an all-day menu at a bistro on every corner, but we'll have to make do with one fine serving. Lucky Belleair Bluffs is the one place you can try it all. Don't miss the soup, fresh pate or rilletes; for a bigger meal, have duck and bon marche wine. 796 N Indian Rocks Road, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 585-9777 or www.lebouchonbistro.com. One of Chris Sherman's best restaurants of 2005.

Cafe de France $$

Leave the beach sun outside. Behind the white-lace curtains you'll find la belle France and long-beloved specialties. Look for frog legs, coquille St. Jacques, great bearnaise sauce, pork chops in Calvados and chevre salad. Beer, wine. 15225 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach; (727) 392-8627.

Cafe Largo $$$

Don't be surprised to find polished French food in an office complex in Largo. For 15 years, it has been the place for souffles, sweetbreads, duck, pate, lamb or a taste of Provence, the sunny side of France. 12551 Indian Rocks Road, Largo; (727) 596-6282.

Chateau France $$$

Sheer high price - appetizers average $11 and entrees start at $29 not counting Beluga or chateaubriand - will impress. But that money does buy something friendly and familiar, not nouvelle or intimidating, just the old-school Continental: red meat, lobster and chocolate souffles served with fuss and a slight French accent. 136 Fourth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 894-7163. www.chateaufrance cuisine.com.

La Cachette $$$

Continental cooking survives on the beach with charm in this intimate restaurant, where the Jacksons still cook with cognac and brioche; it's like having dinner with your aunt the gourmet. Make reservations, bring cash and your own wine; $37 buys three courses of goodies such as duck confit, lamb chops and pork encroute, rare treats of lamb kidneys and sweetbreads, or heirloom butter pie from Canada. 321 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 596-5439.

Chinese

China Yuan $-$$

This homey spot has the best Chinese decor possible: smoked poultry, pork and squid glistening in the case. If barbecued duck or whole fish make you squeamish, you can still fill a table for a happy family (and friends) with fresh greens, salted eggplant hot pot and the best-ever shrimp wonton soup. 8502 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 936-7388.

Dragon Phoenix $

Strip-center ordinary on the outside, Dragon is unusual in the kitchen with fresh, crisp veggies rare in Chinese restaurants. Try hot and sour soup, Szechuan crab and Singapore chow fun noodles. Beer, wine. 9621 Bay Pines Blvd., St. Petersburg; (727) 399-8646.

Eastern Flavor $

Hints of Hong Kong, bright-green vegetables and authentic tastes make this a staple for Chinese fans in North Pinellas. Decor is friendly and low key; duck, noodles and hot pots are favorites. 2455 McMullen-Booth Road (Building D), Safety Harbor; (727) 726-8601.

Steaks

E&E Stakeout Grill $$-$$$

Eugen Fuhrmann's place in its days as a lobster parlor and nuevo Southwest cantina has served the gentry of Belleair Bluffs, ancien regime and nouveaux, for years. Lucky them. Steaks are well-bought, well-aged and pepper seasoned, with as much flavor as tenderness. Wine is affordable, stone and wood trim is artfully primal. Don't let the regulars have all the fun. Full bar. 100 N Indian Rocks Road, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 585-6399; www.3bestchefs.com. One of Chris Sherman's best restaurants of 2005.

Fleming's $$$

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 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, which are 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 $17. 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.

Spoto's the Steak Joint $$

Red meat is the stock in trade here. Spoto's just buys all choice or better Angus beef, and the owner does the careful trimming. But check out the venison, buffalo and elk, too. Salads, veggies and sides have less panache. Service is top notch. Full bar. 4871 Park St. N, St. Petersburg, (727) 545-9481; 1280 Main St., Dunedin, (727) 734-0008.

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