When it came time to talk to our new food critic about the annual top restaurants package we usually publish this time of year, we quickly realized it would be a big ask.
Not only was Helen Freund a new addition to the Tampa Bay Times in 2019, she was new to Florida and to the Tampa Bay area, which as areas go is intimidatingly large. It seemed like a good year for a different approach to our list.
As we were brainstorming, we kept coming back to a question Helen asked when she first got to the Times and introduced herself to readers: What are the area’s most iconic restaurants? Not the trendiest or the newest, or the ones with the best tasting menus, but those classic spots that have helped establish this region’s culinary backbone.
When we actually began working on this list, which publishes Thursday on tampabay.com, we asked readers to send their suggestions to Helen. She got hundreds of emails, which, I can tell you, is not always the case with every topic. People love to talk about where they love to eat, and this was no exception.
I’ve lived in the Tampa Bay area for almost 15 years. Working on this project was a fun opportunity to take stock of the classic spots I have known and loved: Cafe Ponte, where my husband and I had one of our first grownup, white-tablecloth meals; the Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple, close to my alma mater the University of South Florida; Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber, where I’ve spent lovely evenings with family staying at the beach. And I got to know places and meals I wasn’t so familiar with: La Teresita’s communal counter, the shrimp boils at Lorene’s Fish House.
One thing I’m excited for this year are some keepsake postcards we’ve created to accompany the list, at least one for each of the 25 spots featured. They feature new and old photographs taken by Tampa Bay Times photographers, some dating back as far as the 1950s. It’s a sweet glimpse at Tampa Bay through the years — and a great way to entice your out-of-town relatives to come visit.
You can purchase them at a happy hour event we’re hosting Thursday to celebrate the debut of the list. It’s from 6 to 8 p.m. at 490 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, in the lobby of the building where the Times’ offices are located.
There will also be free snacks, drink deals and some giveaways. And you’ll get to mingle with the Times food team, plus some of the folks behind the restaurants featured on the list. It’s free, but you need to RSVP at tampabay.com/happyhour. We hope to see you there.