... these restaurants sampled and recommended by St. Petersburg Times food critics. Inclusion is not related to advertising. For more recommendations - and to search by cuisine, price, location and more - go to dining.tampabay.com. Got a restaurant we should try? Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Weekend, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
Most entrees less than $10
Beak's Old Florida
Cuisine: Casual Dining, Local Flavor Beak's is the kind of comfortable, good-time neighborhood joint that usually takes decades to create. On a pleasant stretch of St. Petersburg's Grand Central District, it doesn't so much have decor as an astounding accretion of stuff. The serious funk factor is courtesy of owners Evelyn Powell and Jamie Farquharson (the latter the founder of the Bubble Room on Captiva back in 1978) and the culinary focus is bar-food-with-a-twist, most of these twists improvements upon the originals. It's a grown-ups only place at night. 2451 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 321-9100.
El Toro Negro
Cuisine: Mexican An authentic Mexican taqueria, where tacos of barbecue meat come with onions, cilantro and lime, has come to tiny Kenneth City, between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, along with juicy pork carnitas, chicharons and great seafood. You'll love eating words like gorditas, "little fat ones'' of hand-shaped cornmeal and beef or chicken, and birria, a filling soup of stewed goat and peppers. 5780 54th Ave. N, Kenneth City. (727) 541-4901.
Fray's Donuts and Deli
Cuisine: Breads and Dessert, Deli and Cafe Real doughnuts for real doughnut lovers, and really big, too. They're made and glazed fresh daily, sugary enough to put a smile on a cup of black coffee. A full selection of deli sandwiches and salads served as well. 5236 16th St. N, St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg. (727) 528-1410.
Cuisine: Vietnamese A sophisticated taste of Southeast Asia is served with family warmth and everyday prices. The menu is short and sweet . . . and sour and hot and cool, with the combination of peppers, nuts, mint and herbs we've come to love. At lunch, there are simple rice dishes and classic pho and bun. Finish with delicate flan or rich iced coffee. 3324 Gandy Blvd., Tampa. (813) 831-3432.
La Cabana de Tio
Cuisine: Mexican Fresh tortillas are the draw; La Cabana del Tio may be the only restaurant in the Tampa Bay area making fresh corn tortillas every day. But you can taste the difference with the first bite. A fresh corn tortilla has a richer, chewier texture. These are warm and charred brown, with the slightly misshapen look of something handmade. They form the perfect vehicle for some of the best tacos around. 1709 Drew St., Clearwater. (727) 466-0504.
Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant
Cuisine: Vietnamese Vietnam's bright noodle salads, beefy stews and broth full of fresh herbs have proved to be one of the best ethnic cuisines on the Florida menu. 5944 34th St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 521-3378.
Old Northeast Tavern
Cuisine: Pizza, Sandwiches Neighborhood flavor and friends are reborn on this warm and worn corner. Tavernkeepers updated a pizza and sandwich menu with portobellos, artichokes, good cheeses and a serious wine list. And you can still hang out under the glow of the beer signs. 201 Seventh Ave. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 821-8070.
Cuisine: Barbecue Home-grown barbecue chain puts its brand on the redskin potato salad and on the high-quality meats cooked slowly over an oak fire. Bossing the pit are founders-owners Tim Sherrell and Gary Taylor, who got their start with their first store in New Port Richey in 1985 and have kept a firm hand on quality control. 2270 Commercial Way, Spring Hill. (352) 688-2677, or 4221 Little Road, New Port Richey. (727) 376-2677.
Cuisine: Breakfast and Lunch, Sandwiches Folks have stood in line here for 20 years for something beyond the mere sandwich. The Awful Awful triple-decker choices would stump Dagwood: turkey, roast beef, ham and two cheeses? Or the tuna salad, hard-boiled egg, ham and cheese? Both come with cole slaw. Plus subs, burgers, fries and spinach pies. You want more? Shame, shame. 9291 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 577-0888.
Cuisine: Deli and Cafe, German For 50 years, you have been able to get sturdy breads, lusty wurst, hams and cold cuts, fine imported jams, chocolates and artisanal Eurpopean ways here. Three generations pitch in to make sauerkraut, potato salad and great sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. 4327 W El Prado Blvd., Tampa. (813) 839-6666.
Cuisine: Breakfast and Lunch, Family Style/Home Cooking Locals have celebrated breakfast for more than a quarter-century at Skyway Jack's. The restaurant has changed locations, and founder John Thomas is gone, but the glorious country indulgence of eggs, fried potatoes, sweet waffles, pancakes and all manner of oink continues. If you don't start every day like this, you'll love the one day you do. 2795 34th St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 867-1907.
Most entrees $10-$20
Cuisine: Barbecue, Latin American, Steaks Many of the area's growing number of all-you-can-eat churrascarias (that's shoo-HOSS-ka-REE-ahs) are pricey opportunities to experience the barbecuing style of the Gaucha region in the Brazilian highlands. Brasa Grill, on the other hand, offers 18 cuts of grilled meat, plus a buffet, for $21.99 - a bargain. The basic idea is that, once seated, diners are treated to a parade of hearty roasted meats, carved tableside from long skewers. Small laminated tabletop cards have a green side ("go") and a red side ("please, I can't eat more meat"). Flip accordingly. 6507 W Waters Ave., Tampa. (813) 886-7858.
Cuisine: Italian, Seafood Southern Italian and proud of it, Carmine Cervelli doesn't shrink from tomato sauce. Whether enriched with clams and sea urchin or plain tomato-tomato, he ladles it on heavily. There's a meaty selection of antipasto, squid-ink pasta, homemade mozzarella, fresh fish and taverna charm. 1710 Alt. U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor. (727) 784-7779.
Cuisine: Seafood The menu is standard-issue modern: four or five grilled fish with contemporary sauces, mussels, pasta and steaks, with a mild tropical accent in the sides. The greater distinction is the careful choice of ingredients, raw and prepared, the starting point of all good restaurants. This one brags about the freshness of its seafood by listing the home ports of all its products on its daily menu. 10103 Montague St., Tampa. (813) 920-0045.
Estela's Mexican Restaurant
Cuisine: Mexican Study the menu for hearty goodies, such as tacos filled with freshly grilled carne asada, enchiladas topped with pork and soup. Chicken soup is crammed with 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. 10478 Roosevelt Blvd., in Gateway Crossing Shopping Center, St. Petersburg. (727) 578-5380; 312 E Brandon Blvd., Brandon. (813) 657-1421; 4015 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 832-4030. www.estelas.com
Cuisine: New American, Sandwiches Humble outside, exquisite within: Dave Shiplett has perfect local fish, great chops, mac-n-cheese crust, guava brulee, pinot and ham hocks, hooray. Finfish and shellfish keep local color, thanks to this native son who traded surfboards for chef's knives. 5629 Manatee Ave. W, Bradenton. (941) 792-0990.
Cuisine: New American The new digs are bigger, yet it only means more room for a wide spectrum of Safety Harbor's native artwork and Paul Kapsalis' equally imaginative cooking. From Greek pizza lunches to full dinners and bar munchies. 156 Fourth Ave. N, Safety Harbor. (727) 669-6762.
Hops Grill and Brewery
Cuisine: American, Brew Pubs The first microbrewery around Tampa Bay was strong stuff; more than a decade later it's a chain with 50-plus units. Hops brews beer on all premises and keeps its food fresh and simple. Borrowings from the Caribbean and Asia add up to better-than-usual fern bar fare. 33086 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor. (727) 789-5678. www.hopsonline.com
Moon Under Water
Cuisine: Pub A fine Anglo-colonial afternoon, a view of Tampa Bay and a taste of pub grub from around the former British empire: curries, tabouleh and burgers. Beer is the pride of Wales. 332 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-6160.
Cuisine: Bistro, Brunches, New American This busy fixture puts out three meals a day with upscale trim and imagination with hints of eastern Europe, Greece, the Middle East, Asia, Italy and Latin America. Lunch is long on garden party luncheon staples, from quiches to wraps and paninis; dinner can be chicken breasts, grouper or pot roast, but O Bistro can doll them up, beef them up and gild them too. The wine list is well-stocked and reasonable; service is friendly and efficient. 6661 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 381-1212.
St. Larry's Restaurant
Cuisine: New American, Seafood, Steaks 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. 34980 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor. (727) 786-0077. www.saintlarrys.com
Tampa Bay Brewing Co.
Cuisine: American, Brew Pubs Almost a dozen beers are brewing here in sparkling Centro Ybor digs, from light to stout. And the place cooks as well as it brews, with beer in vinaigrettes, pizza, ice cream and glazes. Eat as heartily as you drink. 1600 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City. (813) 247-1422. www.tampabaybrewing company.com
Valencia Garden Restaurant
Cuisine: Spanish/Cuban One of the oldest paella palaces for power lunch and dinner on the classics, our own trout a la rusa and chicken with yellow rice. For a change, try beef with the tang of Argentinas chimichurri sauce. 811 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. (813) 253-3773. www.valenciagarden.com
Walt'z Fish Shak
Cuisine: American, Local Flavor, Seafood Perfect grouper sandwiches are just the start in one of the hidden-pleasures of John's Pass. Walt'z is a parrothead shack of driftwood and reggae colors where you might luck into amberjack or cobia or a Buffett-worthy sunset. You'll always get great yucca fries. 224 Boardwalk Place E, Madeira Beach. (727) 395-0732. www.waltzfishshak.com
Most entrees $20 or more
Cuisine: New American, Seafood This comfy spot still pioneers New Pinellas cuisine. Whether the dishes borrow from Southeast Asia, Jamaica or the American Southwest, original or classic sauces are perfect, as good as the fanciest entree on the plate. Too many choices? Go for the lamb. 3285 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor. (727) 789-5176.
Cuisine: Fine Dining, French In this intimate hideaway, Dominic Christini has a trapdoor that leads from Largo to Languedoc, Provencal and the rest of France. From pates to unknown wines, this is top-rate dining, with a fresh menu every two weeks in a variety of regional accents. 12551 Indian Rocks Road, Largo. (727) 596-6282.
Cuisine: Italian You may dine next to big shots, but fine dining Italian-style in this tiny hideaway is casual and comfortable. Veal is at its best here; salmon-stuffed ravioli is exquisite; linguine with clam sauce is perfect. All are set off by crisp salads, fresh vegetables and first-rate service. 4205 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. (813) 835-6622.
Cuisine: Continental, French Sheer high price will impress showoffs. But that money does buy something friendly and familiar, not nouvelle or intimidating, just the old-school Continental. Big bucks dining as it has been for generations: red meat, lobster and chocolate souffles served with fuss and a slight French accent. 136 Fourth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 894-7163. chateaufranceonline.com
Heilman's Beachcomber Restaurant
Cuisine: American, Seafood Old-timers know Bob Heilman's for its fried chicken and clubby Manhattans. Insiders know it for wine - especially pinot noir - from elegant Burgundy to upstart Oregon, where Bob Jr. has his own vineyard. 447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater. (727) 442-4144. www.heilmansbeach comber.com
Cuisine: Seafood The food is hip and the bar scene hops with smart mixing on both sides of the bar. Top-dollar entrees pair fresh finfish, lamb and duck with fresher trimmings like coconut risotto and Tabasco maple drizzle. 208 S Howard Ave., Tampa. (813) 258-3302. www. mangrovesseafoodgrille.com
Cuisine: Pacific Rim, Sushi Step inside, and you're on a beautiful course for the Pacific piloted by Peter Tanhnavong and Robert Huffnagle. Naturally, the sushi's brilliant and entrees are prettier, duck with pad Thai noodles or Hawaiian fish in macadamia crust or crispy-skin salmon. Stay for homemade ice cream and to wallow in good service. 211 Second St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 822-5235. www.pacificwave restaurant.com