These are restaurants that we can recommend for date nights, special occasions and a good meal. You can find more Tampa Bay restaurants and bars by searching our database at tampabay.com/things-to-do. Inclusion in this list or database is not related to advertising. If you have a restaurant or bar youÍd like us to check out, e-mail us at email@example.com.
* * *
Most entrees less than $10
The new Tampa Bay History Center has hired the right restaurateur. Richard Gonzmart, great-grandson of Casimiro Hernandez Sr., founder of Tampa's iconic Columbia Restaurant, is passionate about local food history and about Cuban sandwiches (not necessarily in that order). The center's Columbia Cafe concerns itself with authenticity. It has a gorgeous wooden bar that is a reproduction of the original Columbia's bar, with black-and-white prints on the walls. Its menu is dotted with chunky text explaining the Ybor staples (devil crab croquettes, Cuban bread, Spanish bean soup). 801 Old Water St., Tampa. (813) 229-5511. www.columbiarestaurant.com
Fred's Southern Kitchen
Cuisine: Buffet/cafeteria, Southern.
The Johnson family started selling barbecue sandwiches out of a filling station in Plant City in the 1950s. Eventually the filling station gave way to Johnson's Restaurant, which in turn spawned a mini empire of Johnson Barbeque and Fred's Southern Kitchen restaurants in Lakeland, Bartow, Winter Haven and Plant City. They have a new venture called Sundown, a steak and seafood restaurant, set to open in Winter Haven. The flagship restaurant, within spitting distance of the State Farmer's Market, has a Johnson Barbeque restaurant next door, the waft of ribs perfuming the wide parking lot. At dinner they truck some of those slow-smoked pork ribs over to Fred's to commingle with all of the other country cooking on the buffet. This is a no-booze kind of place. Look around and the sweet-as-pie servers are hefting pitchers of iced tea all over the comfy dining room, refilling here, grabbing a pile of empty plates there. 1401 W Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Plant City. (813) 752-7763. www.fredssouthernkitchen.com
Love's Artifacts Bar & Grille
What started out as a rib stand on the corner of a used car lot has taken over the car lot and is now a full-fledged neighborhood hangout. Try the ribs, sure, but don't miss the fried chicken and buttery mashed potatoes. And if the fried jalapenos stuffed with peanut butter sound weird, well, try them anyway. And take a minute to look around and at the estate-sale decor. 4914 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. (813) 831-3273.
Moscato's Bella Cucina
Cuisine: Italian, Pizza, Sandwiches.
Don't take for granted the word "homemade" on the menu here. The crusty Italian bread? Made there. The semolina pasta? You might hear them rolling it out. And the tiramisu might have been recently layered by the person that hands it over to you. Formerly a takeout only place, the restaurant recently relocated to a sit-down space on Central Avenue. 449 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 322-4313. www.moscatosbellacucina.com
* * *
Most entrees $10 to $20
Acropolis Bar & Grill
Sam and Costa Waez tweaked their Ybor City Acropolis formula for suburban sensibilities, opening at the site of the defunct Tampa Brickyard. The kitchen serves until 3 a.m. on the weekends, midnight during the week. The staff is young, attractive and prone to launching into fits of grapevine dancing at the slightest provocation. They yell "opa!" and break plates, a belly dancer undulates on the weekends, a DJ spins world music late into the night. The shawarma platter is a huge plate packed with soft, warm pita and a pile of shaved meat (a lamb and beef mix), surrounded by roasted veggies, a heap of Greek salad and another of paprika-seasoned fries. Vegetarians will be especially pleased at their options: tahini-heady hummus and baba ghanoush, a roasted veggie sandwich anchored by nutty eggplant; falafel offered as a wrap or app, drizzled with more tangy tahini sauce. 14947 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. # 100, Tampa. (813) 971-1787. www.acropolistaverna.com
Corteo's Pizza & Pasta
Cuisine: Italian, Pizza.
There is one clear choice at Corteo's (younger sibling to longtime Palm Harbor fave Michele's). And that choice is pizza. The crust, baked dark, not crispy like a cracker, but not doughy; chewy and with good tooth resistance. Once the initial choice (pizza, please) has been made, there are a number of good directions in which to amble. The white pizza is the best, the mantle of goo a just-perfect balance of mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan, little flecks of basil a bright counterpoint against all that cheese. The Neapolitan is similarly luscious, its tomato sauce a good balance of sweet and tangy, not too aggressively tomato-pasty. The restaurant space is tidy and functional, not particularly glamorous, with unclothed tables and simple cafe chairs - just right for a pizza joint. 32922 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor. 727-781-9114. corteos.com
Cuisine: Seafood casual.
These days there are a whole mess of Crabby Bill's, which began as Captain Bill's in 1975. There's a franchise or offshoot in nearly every community in Pinellas County, most of them run, as owner Matt Loder says, by "cousins, in-laws and outlaws." The most recent addition is on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, in the space vacated by Bennigan's when that company went bankrupt in 2008. The appetizer list leans heavy on the deep fryer, shrimp in all manner of guises getting the hot oil treatment, and the entree is an array of familiar steamed, fried and grilled shell- and finfish. Without taking itself too seriously or getting too fussy, it's a cheery outpost of well-priced seafood for regular folk. 9900 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 362-5507. www.crabbybills.com
Hungry Pasco mallgoers can take a break from the afternoon of retail therapy to have at a single sheet of forthright and familiar Italian staples that read like competent homemade versions of foods you've eaten many times before. The restaurant, at the Shops of Wiregrass, is attractive and open, with shaded patio dining along the outdoor mall's central walkway and an Italian dessert case at the front that turns heads. 2001 Piazza Ave., Suite 100, Wesley Chapel. (813) 991-1414. pagellis.com
Sandbar Seafood & Spirits
Cuisine: American casual, Seafood casual.
This decades-old favorite is one of the few restaurants in Tampa Bay where you can walk down a set of steps and find yourself sloshing through the teal gulf. Yes, it's plopped right there on the north strand of Anna Maria Island and still serving up tasty seafood and killer pina coladas. You can dine inside (but save that as a refuge if you get caught in a wicked thunderstorm in the summer) or outside on one of their open or covered decks. Whether you're coming off the sand for a quick bite of lunch or making a date night out of it with dinner and live music, this quintessential Tampa Bay experience won't disappoint. 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria. (941) 778-0444. www.sandbar-restaurant.com
The Living Room
Cuisine: Tapas/small plates.
Sarah Johnson wants people to hang out in the Living Room, opening it with her family in August 2009 and Dunedin residents have taken to this newcomer immediately. The affordable small-plate menu has been embraced for its novelty and vegetarian friendliness. A plate of snappy haricots verts is perfectly paired with almonds and shallots in a classic brown butter. Stem-on artichokes, glistening with a rosemary butter, get capped with a Parmesan-mozzarella herb crust; whole portobellos are stuffed with lush sauteed spinach. Simple, healthy, but with verve. 487 Main St., Dunedin. (727) 736-5202. www.thelivingroomonmain.com
Twisted Cork Grille
Cuisine: American casual.
The Twisted Cork Grille is the kind of diamond in the rough that every restaurant critic hopes to find more often. On paper, entrees look fairly straightforward: burgers, ribs, fried shrimp, pork chops. But it's the details that make things sing. It feels like a labor of love, done on the cheap, but with lots of good ideas executed through sheer willpower and elbow grease. 3405 34th St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 525-2675. twistedcorkgrille.com
Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe (Most entrees $10 to $20)
Cuisine: American casual, Vegetarian.
Ella's has been embraced by Seminole Heights scenesters, everyone charmed by its collection of American outsider and visionary art (each artist's work getting a thoughtful page of explication on the menu). But what makes Ella's one of the most resoundingly hopeful openings of the year is the bright, clean flavors of dishes with an eye to healthfulness and visual appeal. For example, tempura-battered shrimp and yams come with a pile of long romaine leaves and a tangle of mint, cilantro and basil. Roll it all, Vietnamese-style, and dip it in an updated fish sauce flavored with apricot. Try the house bruschetta, really a salad of tomato, cucumber, basil and fresh mozzarella, which you spoon onto garlicky toasts. It reads like healthy but sophisticated home cooking. 5119 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa. (813) 234-1000. ellasfolkartcafe.com
Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe (Most entrees $10 to $20)