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 you'd like us to check out, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Most entrees less than $10
Little Greek (South Tampa)
Cuisine: Casual Dining, Greek.
This venture is a clean, pleasant, order-at-the-counter affair with a tiny footprint and open galley kitchen. It seems geared primarily for takeout, its attractive but spare dining room going largely underused. Chicken, gyros, lamb or veggies: Stuff it in a pita, tuck it in a wrap, toss it over rice or salad, then give it a swirl of tzatziki or hummus and you're on your way. 1155 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 443-4594. mylittlegreek.com
Mekenita Mexican Grille
Rand Packer, the celebrated former chef at Roy's in Tampa, chucked the fancy world of Hawaiian-style misoyaki butterfish for something new and different, aiming to fill a gap in the culinary landscape near his home in Lutz. It's a funky and affordable outpost of regional Mexican cuisine, cooking from Oaxaca, the land of seven moles. Order at the counter from a short menu of tamales and thick tortilla cups called sopes, salads, tacos and burritos (stuffed with smoked pork, grilled skirt steak or wahoo), then amble over to the small salsa bar and stock up. Pair it all with deep purple and cinnamony sangria or one of a changing lineup of agua frescas. 17623 N Dale Mabry Highway, Lutz. (813) 264-1212.
Cuisine: Casual Dining, Sushi.
Max Silavutiset, Hoa Ly and Crystal Nguyen started a little order-at-the-counter sushi bar aided and abetted by an automated sushi roller, the AUTEC Maki Master. With bins of sliced fish, smelt roe, texture bits like sesame seeds and tempura chips, and sauces, you conjure up your dream roll, the counter worker assembles it and the robot rolls and slices. Rollbotto has a casual industrial chic that makes it a gathering spot for young folks, with a price point that keeps even the more ambitious rolls, all generously portioned, easy on the wallet. Prices range from $6.50-$9.95. 221 First St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 487-2681.
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Most entrees $10 to $20
China Yuan Restaurant
Cuisine: Asian, Chinese.
Chinese food doesn't get better, simpler or cheaper than this spot in north Tampa. Barbecued pork, duck and chicken hang above the counter, awaiting your command. Have some and save room for salt and pepper shrimp, fresh greens and claypot eggplant. And then it all got better with an expansion and renovation: huge, round tables make it ideal for a big party. 8502 N Armenia Ave. # 1a, Tampa. (813) 936-7388. chinayuanrestaurant.com
Fire Bar & Grill
Cuisine: Burgers, New American, Pizza.
New in 2012, the decor is a little clunky and amateurish, but Fire is certainly smokin' on the culinary front, having hired chef Ryan Kelly, a Culinary Institute of America grad and longtime alum of Roy's and most Tampa Bay Brewing Co. He has a serious knack of bringing contemporary New American culinary fixations to a broad audience at a very reasonable price point. You can grab a burger or some and watch the game on one of the flatscreens, but the reason it has become an overnight girls'-night-out spot (beyond the really good happy hour deals) is because Kelly knows hip food. He does a wood-planked salmon set atop shaved English cuke and topped with a limey-minty salad that is Vietnamese in tenor, as well as a pork belly dish with a maple-miso cure and served over cheesy grits with a few crunchy chicharrons that rivals that at Edison or other hot spots. 3023 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. (813) 870-3473. firebargrill.com
This is the kind of sweetly earnest restaurant that you'd like to think unfurls fully realized from the ground, good basic ingredients and a healthy inoculation of Italian culinary know-how nurtured by sweat and love. Its setting is a teeny bit foyer and mostly outdoor patio covered with a chickee thatch and populated by a hodgepodge of picnic tables. The menu's short, the same at lunch and dinner and weighted to crusty pressed panini and pastas topped with one of a handful of simple sauces. 3054 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport. (727) 327-2190. piastrattoria.com
Cuisine: Asian, Sushi.
Smart sushi, sharp sake and the fieriest beef tartare that Seoul cooking can make. Plus the Tampa location's 30-foot ceilings shelter one of the few great spaces and hip crowds to survive the malling of Ybor City. 1600 E Eighth Ave., Tampa. (813) 242-6688. samuraiblue.com
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Most entrees $20 or more
Cuisine: American upscale, Fine dining, French.
Cafe Ponte is still a yardstick against which the area's other fine dining restaurants may be measured. The dining room looks positively spruce, its red, sage and black color scheme crisp and stylish; linens and table appointments are top-notch. Servers are courteous and professional even when slammed, their dark trousers and sage shirts rather posh. The kitchen's focus: a New American palate with a few Mediterranean and Asian doodads: a tower of seared foie gras, the signature wild mushroom bisque and a lush entree pairing sweet seared scallops with a ragu of soft-braised shortribs, creamy corn polenta and a caramelized shallot sauce - like some crazy Jenga move, it's a towering flavor profile you can't believe works. 13505 Icot Blvd. # 214, Clearwater. (727) 538-5768. cafeponte.com
It bears the distinction of being the oldest restaurant in Florida (started in 1905), not to mention the nation's largest Spanish/Cuban restaurant (13 rooms extending one city block). The food doesn't seem as reliably standout these days, but the experience is worth picking through a workhorse paella or sipping a pedestrian sangria. Some of these waiters have been here a lifetime, the many rooms manage to stay packed, and there are stirring Flamenco shows Monday-Saturday nights. 2117 E Seventh Ave., Tampa. (813) 248-4961. columbiarestaurant.com
The blush is not off the rose at this decades-old Tampa original. In the dining room, tuxedoed waiters have the assurance only longtime employment provides, whether that's guiding guests through the menu or whipping up a tableside Caesar (the best in town). The food is rigorously traditional Northern Italian, with just about everything we can think of made in house (all right, not the penne or other macaroni). The wine list is stunning, with a breadth of prices, regions, varietal, and large and small production represented. But wine costs a pretty penny, and the menu is in financial lockstep. This is splurge country, but well worth the do-re-mi. 232 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 875-6660. donatellorestaurant.com