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 youÕd like us to check out, e-mail us at email@example.com.
* * *
Most entrees less than $10
Tampa natives Julian Lara and Chris Politis chose a theme everyone could relate to: rock 'n' roll. And they hired a ringer to consult on the menu and tweak the recipes: chef Chris Ponte of Cafe Ponte fame. And then they launched CJ's Bar-B-Skew in September with the kind of steady-handedness usually reserved for chain concepts. In addition to the usual suspects (ribs, chicken, pulled pork), offerings include a series of Greek-inspired and healthy skewered goodies loaded onto warmed pitas as well as a number of superlative sides (green-apple-heavy cole slaw, fried okra with a spicy piquillo pepper sauce, smoked hummus). 10047 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 963-1110. www.cjsbarbskew.com
* * *
Most entrees $10 to $20
Casa Tina Gourmet Mexican & Vegetarian
Cuisine: Breakfast or brunch, Mexican, Vegetarian.
After a move from a smaller space, Casa Tina already it looks like it has been there forever, with a long fuchsia wall packed to capacity with old photos and funky mirrors, the opposite weathered brick wall tattooed with a Day of the Dead skeleton mariachi band painting. Doors are flung wide to the front patio and maximum Main Street viewing. The food is still casual, affordable, fun and Mexican, with a special emphasis on vegetarian and vegan versions of most dishes. Veracruz-style fish tacos and sizzling fajitas are also crowd-pleasers. 365 Main St., Dunedin. (727) 734-9226. www.casatinas.com
Cuisine: American upscale, Italian, Steak house, Sushi.
It's not Tampa's MacDinton's/South Howard level of mayhem, but it's no small feat to get so many folks in southwest Pasco out on a Saturday night. And what's the draw? Sushi. Oh, and steaks. And Italian food. There's also seafood, raw bar items and a lot of dishes from the wood grill. It's a menu with a more-is-more aesthetic. This is risky behavior. Few kitchens can handle such a vast menu, especially across several cuisines. By and large, though, Grille 54 pulls things off. One person can be in the mood for spaghetti and meatballs, another for a tempura shrimp Mexican roll and still another for a Long Island "Mini Skirt," with its tasty gin-tequila roundhouse. 10900 State Road 54, Suite #105, New Port Richey. (727) 376-0254. www.grille54.com
Libby's Cafe and Bar
Cuisine: American upscale.
At lunch, think dazzling BLTs and burgers served with fries and house-made ketchup that can cause compulsive behavior. At dinner, simple grilled fishes and steaks satisfy and leave space for desserts that make you feel like a kid: tall and fluffy key lime pie decorated whimsically with gummy bears or a gargantuan, just-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie topped with softly melting vanilla ice cream. Its generous French doors thrown open to the street, Libby's has the bustle of an urban hot spot, crowded with families, business folk and Hillview neighborhood scenesters. 1917 S Osprey, Sarasota. (941) 487-7300. libbyscafebar.com
Peg's Cantina & Brew Pub
Cuisine: Casual Dining, Mexican, Pizza, Pub.
Notice first the crazy-fabulous beer list: an array of Belgian ales and lambics, as well as all those American microbrews with the adolescent names (Butthead bock, anyone?). During the week, the menu is healthy, homey Mexican; on the weekend, they crank up the pizza oven and turn out unfussy, saucy, thin-crust pies. Inside the lovingly renovated bungalow, just a few tables and a simple bar accommodate diners; the bulk of the seating is outdoors in the landscaped yard. This means the next-door neighbor might be mowing his lawn or chucking a ball for his dog, part of the entertainment as you waggle tortilla chips into smolderingly creamy chipotle dip or guacamole while you wait for a shrimp burrito or duo of soft pork tacos. 3038 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport. (727) 328-2720. www.pegscantina.com
Primi Urban Cafe
Cuisine: Bistro, Italian.
At the end of 2009, Irene and Arno Waltsleben sold the charming Italian downtown St. Petersburg restaurant to Saverio Macaluso, an Italian from Rome. Macaluso has updated the interior and the menu, added a piano, and recently announced new executive chef Tony Macaroni, along with a full Italian kitchen. The wine list has been expanded to include boutique Italian bottlings. 27 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 895-4909. www.primiurbancafe.com
Spoto's Grill 131
Cuisine: American upscale, Steak house.
Bob Spoto opened his latest venture on the site of a restaurant he opened back in 1991. Right out of the gate Grill 131 has done everything right. Attractive without being busy or precious, it's a big restaurant (4,000 square feet and more than 150 seats) that manages to feel intimate. Its adjacent bar is sleek and clubby, easy to imagine filled with stylish hordes. The food is familiar, heavy on the steaks, chops and fillets of fish, but every single dish has a fillip of something unexpected or something au courant. Think thinly pounded beef carpaccio lush with truffle oil and topped with a pouf of microgreens and a sprinkling of smoked sea salt. An Asian accent here, a deep nod to the Mediterranean there, but underneath it all is recognizable food, competently prepared. 13079 Park Blvd., Seminole. (727) 393-1703. grill131.com
* * *
Most entrees $20 or more
Cuisine: Asian, French, Vietnamese.
B.T. Nguyen-Batley presents the flavors of France and Vietnam with a style of her own, half feng shui, half fashion model. She recently downsized to a 16-table restaurant from her 200-seat space in Old Hyde Park Village. Though the new places will have a different feel and menu from the old one, it will still reflect the classic French-Vietnamese cuisine she dished up at BT for 23 years. 2507 S MacDill Ave., Tampa. (813) 258-1916. www.restaurantbt.com
Cuisine: American upscale, Fine dining, Seafood upscale.
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.'s own vineyard is located. 447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater. (727) 442-4144. www.bobheilmans.com
Cuisine: American upscale, French, Italian.
With the warmth and connectedness of a neighborhood stalwart, most of Michael's short menu is familiar territory, a mix of American, French and Italian comfort foods, from a fragrant bowl of French onion soup to a generous heap of penne Bolognese or a luxurious steak Oscar. 11720 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 964-8334. www.michaelsgrill.com
Mystic Fish Seafood Grill
Cuisine: American upscale, Bistro, Seafood upscale.
Veteran chefs added this flash to old North Pinellas several years ago, and it hasn't dimmed. Familiar Bermuda fish chowder and lobster bisque remain, yet there's always something extra: Asian BBQ short ribs, togorashi seared ahi tuna, maple leaf duck breast. Wine list is smartly selected and priced. 3253 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor. (727) 771-1800. 3bestchefs.com/mystic