Here’s what readers had to say about their favorite Tampa Bay restaurants

We asked what the area’s most iconic restaurants are, and the emails came pouring in.
Harley Griffin, 22, right, serves the famous 1905 salad to Tom Shelly, left, and John Skutt while they have lunch at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
Harley Griffin, 22, right, serves the famous 1905 salad to Tom Shelly, left, and John Skutt while they have lunch at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 29, 2020|Updated Jan. 29, 2020

A few months ago, I asked readers a question: What are Tampa Bay’s most iconic restaurants? Within hours, dozens of emails started pouring in. As the weeks passed, that number reached the hundreds.

On Thursday, we’ll publish our list of Tampa Bay’s Most Iconic Restaurants, a project I’ve been working on for the past couple of months. It wasn’t an easy task. As a newcomer to the Tampa Bay area, I needed a lot of help narrowing down the list.

What I quickly learned is that Tampa Bay diners are as passionate about food as anyone. And how could we not be? We’ve got such a wide and diverse culinary landscape, from the seafood spots dotting the beaches to fine dining stalwarts and mom-and-pop shops that have survived throughout the decades.

I couldn’t have made my list without the tremendous outpouring of recommendations from readers. Our list had to be capped at 25, and there were so many worthy recommendations beyond that to share. So we compiled a collection of those reader suggestions here.

From memories of anniversaries and birthdays to favorite spots to grab a Cuban sandwich, here’s what Tampa Bay Times readers had to say about their favorite restaurants.

On what makes a restaurant iconic

For me, iconic is something that helps define the place. A place you take vacationing tourists. A place you always want to go to when you are in the area. A place to soak up the local vibe. — Debbie Ollerman

I think when a restaurant stays in business this many years it is a true testament to their quality of food and service. — Cheryl Becker

I, personally, am saddened by the lack of really “iconic” restaurants in Tampa Bay. I remember getting dressed up for special nights out. It’s reflective of the times that so many eating establishments are so casual. There used to be places like Cafe Don Jose, Roland et Pierre’s, (94th) Aero Squadron...It seems the only remaining true icon, in my opinion, is Bern’s. I wonder where they went?! Let it be known I’m a 73 year old. — Iris Moon

Fan favorites

Crabby Bill’s (Indian Rocks Beach)

Crabby Bill’s in Indians Rock Beach is TOP ICONIC because of one word: FAMILY ... What started small with mom and pop has became a must go must see must visit place. The food, the atmosphere, the employees, and the owners — this place makes you want to come again. — Diane

Bob Heilman's Beachcomber has been a Clearwater Beach mainstay since 1948.
Bob Heilman's Beachcomber has been a Clearwater Beach mainstay since 1948.

Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber (Clearwater Beach)

By far there is none better than (Bob) Heilman’s Beachcomber on Mandalay in Clearwater Beach. Iconic as in longevity but classic as far as food. I’m 73 and have been going there with my parents from the 50s. The food and service are the best with a great piano bar ... and they still serve a relish tray and great homemade peppermint ice cream. Fried chicken is their signature dish but don’t let that deceive you. This is a classy restaurant with classic food and cocktails! — Brenda St.Clair Elting

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You can’t complete your list without including Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber restaurant on Clearwater Beach. It’s been there since 1948 and has prospered while so many restaurants have come and gone. And for an iconic menu item — choose the “back-to-the-farm” fried chicken. You won’t be disappointed. — Jack Vandermade

I highly recommend Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber at Clearwater Beach for great food, great piano entertainment and wonderful servers, some of whom may have been there over 30 years. I grew up in St. Pete and it was my parents’ favorite place to take us for special occasions going back 50 + years. We just celebrated our 50th anniversary there — with complimentary dessert and always their complimentary wonderful relish tray. — Carol Peele

The Black Pearl (Dunedin)

The place we go for anniversaries and other special occasions ... exquisite service and food. — David and Sylvia Camburn

Bon Appetit (Dunedin)

Great outdoor bar with view of the river, music during happy hour. Excellent service, classic entrees, old world servers, piano music on weekends, lovely ladies lunch, romantic dinners. Parking at Dunedin Marina is metered, also can park in the hotel lobby if not busy. Make reservations; ask for window view. — Patricia O’Beirne

Munch’s (St. Petersburg)

One of my fondest memories was that as a child, my father would take us there every Wednesday where pancakes — the best in town — were 19 cents (and) all you can eat. — Peter Meros

The Chattaway has been open for decades at 358 22nd Ave. S, St. Petersburg.
The Chattaway has been open for decades at 358 22nd Ave. S, St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

The Chattaway (St. Petersburg)

A truly iconic restaurant in south St. Petersburg is Chattaway, which has been in the same spot for almost 100 years. No visit to St. Petersburg is complete without a trip to Chattaway with its famous Chattaburger and beautifully landscaped bathtubs. — Judy Gallizzi

El Cap (St. Petersburg)

Hands down the best burger & fries around ... no comparison. — Bobbie Dusenberry

The Columbia Restaurant (Tampa)

You cannot even wander into this territory without starting with the Columbia. Not only do they make wonderful Spanish food, but their Thanksgiving meal is perfection. — Gail George-Coppens

My father worked as a waiter (no one objected to being called a waiter in earlier years) at the Columbia in the late 1940s and created the 1905 Salad so I’m partial, but not withstanding the connection I would vote for the place without hesitation. — Tony Noriega

Harvey’s 4th Street Grill (St. Petersburg)

This is the classic neighborhood bar and restaurant. It was Cheers before Cheers. The decor is full of local history, there’s a long bar with vintage beer advertising, plenty of regular patrons, low staff turnover (some have been there for decades) and a wide-ranging menu that never disappoints. If you can’t find something you love at Harvey’s there’s just something wrong with you. They serve the very best fried grouper sandwich anywhere (sorry, Hurricane!) and the potato salad is always wonderful. Want the perfect filet mignon? Harvey’s is the place. There’s nothing fancy here, just good food, good drinks, good service and good friends. — Andrea Wilson

Skipper’s Smokehouse (Tampa)

It’s our go-to place so that out-of-town visitors can try gator. — Judy Bryant

Whistle Stop Cafe (Safety Harbor)

It was here when I moved here in 1999. It’s been a favorite with locals, and the food is good. The fact that all of the seating is outdoors and it grew from an ice cream stand from what I understand makes it truly a Tampa Bay original. — Kristin Langley

Beach and seafood restaurants

Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish (St. Petersburg)

I love Ted Peters Smoked Fish. We go every time family or friends are in town. The fish spread to-go is at most of our parties as well. The quality has always been the best and the staff is excellent. — Tricia Burrows

Oystercatchers (Tampa)

One of the first fresh seafood restaurants in Tampa. It was always strange to me that we don’t have a lot of great seafood places. — Jay Molino

The Hurricane (Pass-a-Grille)

Great views and if you go to the beach, you must stop there for a drink — preferably at sunset. — Debbie Ollerman

Palm Pavilion (Clearwater Beach)

Another place I love for how it makes me feel when I go there. This is Florida and it feels so good. — Debbie Ollerman

The Candy Kitchen (Madeira Beach)

House-made ice cream, generous servings and a vast, eclectic assortment of old-fashioned candies. The original has been on Madeira Beach for 69 years. Expect a line out the door! — Charlie Johnson

Mystic Fish (Palm Harbor)

We have taken all kinds of guests with us to dine and no one has been disappointed in their meal. We have never had a bad meal ourselves. The service is usually great, and always very good. It is always full whenever we go. There isn’t another restaurant we can say these things about, this consistency over many years. It is a gem in a Palm Harbor strip mall. — Rebecca McGoye

Frenchy’s (Clearwater Beach)

The original Frenchy’s in Clearwater Beach (was) the beginning of the empire, and best cheeseburger in paradise. — John Skicewicz

Rustie Bellies (Tarpon Springs)

Not Greek (but) fabulous seafood, views and entertainment. I did have to look up ICONIC to be sure. — Brian Kramer

Salt Rock Grill (Indian Shores)

The restaurant opened in April of 1997 when our downtown was still a hub for homeless and the beach was basically a fish sandwich, burger and sunset destination. I was a bartender there from opening day for the next 16 years. It was such a hot spot, folks came from Fort Myers and the east coast to check it out. Very modern and chic, “California-ish,” in my mind it started the revolution of upscale casual dining in our area. Frank Chivas now has many restaurants, but (Salt Rock Grill) started it all. — Colleen Travers

Crab Shack Restaurant (St. Petersburg)

It is totally kitschy and original. New restaurants try to make their decor this good but they can’t. The ceiling is different in each area and the bare concrete floors are uneven. The bathrooms are small and old. It is a place that one can sit at the bar with your oysters and beer and share conversation and a patch of common ground with the people next to you. We dine at some nice places but when out of towners visit we take them to the Crab Shack because it is genuine. Order yourself some oysters and a half pound of boiled shrimp and some smoked mullet spread and crackers. A pitcher of Amber Bock beer will wash it all down nicely. — Mike Kuzel

Cuban fare

La Teresita (Tampa)

In Tampa (the original) — a gathering place for the locals for years. You sit around a rectangular serving area on padded swivel stools. Get to hear everyone’s conversation in Spanish. You get your food fast and there is a lot of it. — Luverne Mas Taylor

Forest Hills Grocery (Tampa)

It’s always busy with great deviled crabs, stuffed potatoes and good quality meats. My main attraction for more than 20 years has been their Cuban sandwiches. They are fantastic and not overpriced. My daughter once stated the Cuban sandwiches “had too much meat.” Is that even possible? — Don Coleman

West Tampa Sandwich Shop (Tampa)

It is a little Cuban hole in the wall that opens at 5 a.m. every morning for the working man. Eggs, chorizo and buttered Cuban bread with a large styrofoam cup of cafe con leche. On the wall are pictures of the many visitors, including every local, state and national political figure over the last few decades. — Bruce Philipoom

Brocato’s Sandwich Shop, Tampa

I live in Hudson, and when I’m in the mood for the best Cuban sandwich in Tampa I drive almost 100 miles round-trip to Brocato’s Sandwich Shop. I was first introduced to their Cubans many years ago by someone born and raised in Tampa. — Larry Miller

La Septima, Brandon

Has great Spanish and Cuban food. — Marilyn Lewis

Go Italian

Alfano’s Restaurant (Clearwater)

We had our rehearsal dinner here 30 years ago! — Jay Molino

Villa Gallace (Indian Rocks Beach)

We have been fortunate enough to enjoy Villa Gallace for over 20 years. Fine Italian dining with fabulous staff, along with iconic Italian dishes as well as seafood and their famous veal chop. We have taken guests to Villa Gallace over the years and have never been disappointed. Being a family-run restaurant patrons are treated like family. — Jane Kaufmann

Mazzaro’s Italian Market (St. Petersburg)

An Italian “Disneyland." — Sandra Pugliese

Villagio Restaurante (Lutz)

As a resident of Lutz for more than 30 years, I have come to LOVE the Villagio Restaurante on Flagship Drive in Lutz. It may not look like much on the outside, but once you step in you will be drenched in Italy. It is our go-to place for any special occasion for family and friends. They have private rooms to accommodate any size party. The food is simple and delicious. We have never had a bad meal there. — Cheryl Ayres

Breakfast spots

Nicki’s Omelet Grill (Tampa)

Old-fashioned diner, great breakfast. — Sandra Pugliese

Sea Horse (Pass-a-Grille)

In the early ’80s, I lived in Pass-a-Grille. Working for Carl and Jackie at the Seahorse Restaurant on Pass-a-Grille beach, I had the world in my hands. At 21 years old I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. Casual. Great food. Great location. Great vibe. The millionaires mingled with the fishermen. The lines were blurred, and life was simple and good. Timeless. — Mary Cunningham