1. Life & Culture

The top 50 restaurants in the Tampa Bay area

Published Dec. 30, 2013

Years ago I did a call-in radio show about restaurants. Long before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye, I would bring a fat stack of index cards to the studio, their corners furled from nervous riffling, the thick paper dimpled with dried sweat. With them, I was armed. "Where can I find the best (insert cuisine or dish here)?" I covered a huge metro area, my odometer ridiculous and glove box choked with menus. But these index cards broke it all down: three worthy places in each neighborhood or town. Sure it was subjective, as all criticism is. But these were the three places that surpassed others at their price point or in their class, the ones I was wowed by and rooting for. I haven't bought index cards in years. But if I did, these 50 (well, 51) would be in my rumpled pile right now.


Slick and corporate is the name of the game in this part of town. But in a good way. The top restaurants here cater to business diners, travelers tripping through TIA, high-end shoppers and a surprising concentration of Tampa Bay sports celebs and other luminaries.

With impeccable service and a lovely dining room, Roy's has been the elder statesman in this district, with lunches added a couple of years back and newish chef Ryan Leto turning out Roy Yamaguchi's elegant Hawaiian fusion cuisine, nicely showcased in a new winter prix-fixe three-course menu for $36.95 (which includes the molten chocolate cake although sadly not the miso butterfish).

But Darden juggernaut Seasons 52 (now 21 units strong, with another three in the works) has nabbed some of the area's health-conscious diners with its promise of no dish more than 475 calories, no butter or deep fryers, and a range of "mini indulgence" shot-glass-sized desserts.

And Cameron Mitchell's Ocean Prime has siphoned away devotees from some of the area's top steak houses (Bern's, Charley's, Malio's Prime, Shula's, etc.) with the added enticements of top-notch seafood and sides, cutting-edge cocktails and a glamorous setting reminiscent of the dining room of a majestic old cruise ship.

•Roy's, 4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697;

• Seasons 52, 204 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 286-1152;

• Ocean Prime, 2205 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 490-5288;


As the site of the Republican National Convention in August, downtown Tampa restaurants will surely have a robust 2012.

Mise en Place, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2011, remains fleet of foot, Marty Blitz in the kitchen and partner Maryann Ferenc in the dining room and the greater Tampa community. Left to my own devices, I start there with one of bar manager Nate DeWitt's savvy cocktails, segue into a couple of small plates (fish especially) and then finish up with a selection from the city's smartest cheese program.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Fly Bar has undergone some changes in the last year or two, closing for lunch and brunch and giving chef Fred Quinones room to tinker with the menu. It's still small plates, emanating from the kitchen whenever the dishes are ready, with the garlic fries and shrimp and grits at the top of the heap. Plus: The rooftop bar is super cool. Minus: Bands are occasionally dinner-conversation killers.

If you live downtown you probably already know about the huge yoga class that convenes in Curtis Hixon Park on Sundays from 5 to 6 p.m. ($2 suggested donation). The only fly in the ointment is that Bamboozle Cafe is closed on Sundays — what would be more perfect? You could get flexy and strong, then amble over to grab super-fresh, super-healthy rice paper rolls or a vermicelli bowl at Tampa's most charming Vietnamese cafe. Go heavy on the spicy Sriracha because owner Lynn Pham is about as sweet as they come.

• Mise en Place, 442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 254-5373;

• Fly Bar & Restaurant, 1202 N Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 275-5000;

• Bamboozle Cafe, 516 N Tampa St., Tampa; (813) 223-7320;


Cafe Dufrain's executive chef Ferrell Alvarez has big news. Together with partners Ty Rodriguez and Cathy Hume, he has just launched Local Dirt, a quarterly magazine about sustainability and the slow-food movement. Alvarez's passion is clear from the menu at the charming 10-year-old Harbour Island original, with more than 80 percent of the menu including local and sustainably sourced foods.

Just about as old, on adjacent Davis Islands, 220 East continues to please with its cozy atmosphere and affably hodge-podge menu. Many islanders head in for the French onion soup and a blue cheese burger, and it's one of the few remaining restaurants in the area that will cook the catch of angler customers.

Just down the block, Clay McElmurray and Penn Karach preside over their charming Thai Island, another veteran on Davis Islands, with a broader menu than the greatest-hits approach at many area Thai restaurants. Try one of the unusual appetizers like the banana leaf-wrapped bandan chicken (and, after dinner, if you feel like a little island stroll, head to the funky little nearby Soobak for a swirly cone of frozen yogurt).

• Cafe Dufrain, 707 Harbour Post Drive, Tampa; (813) 275-9701;

• 220 East, 220 E Davis Blvd., Tampa; (813) 259-1220;

• Thai Island, 210 E Davis Blvd., Tampa; (813) 251-9111


This quirky residential neighborhood's cup runneth over. Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe seems to have started something: A resolutely bohemian mind-set matched by serious culinary ambition mark Ella's, the nearby Refinery and beer-intensive Independent (which only recently began serving food).

Ernie Locke and Melissa Deming opened Ella's in 2009, filling it with the work of regional visionary artists, bands on the weekends and Soul Food Sundays that include some of my favorite dishes (try the chicken and waffles or the fried catfish).

The Refinery came a little later, but its James Beard nomination last February catapulted it to prominence. What makes Michelle and Greg Baker's approach so laudable is constant reinvention, each Thursday night revealing an entirely new menu. A couple of weeks back I had a stunning pan-fried trout with kooky molecular gastronomy beads of intense tangerine juice, a scoop of gutsy red flannel hash, nutty roasted acorn squash with bacon and a dribble of gorgeous beurre blanc pulling it all together. Lovely. Plus, the greatest soundtrack ever.

And for a while the converted gas station that became the Independent was so deadly serious about craft beer that it sold nothing else. Since then they've added this: a grilled cheese that will blow your mind, with molten Gouda on rye bread with pears sauteed in honey and five-spice. There are other things on the menu (a liverwurst sandwich, a vegan BLT), but I can't get beyond the grilled cheese.

• Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe, 5119 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 234-1000;

• The Refinery, 5137 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 237-2000;

• The Independent Bar & Cafe, 5016 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 341-4883;


The South Tampa playing field is crowded with standouts, such that I agonized to leave Restaurant BT and Ciro's Speakeasy & Supper Club off my list. Nonetheless, SideBern's, Datz and Pane Rustica get my highest admiration in the neighborhood, mostly for the same reason. Their tendency to expand, reinvent, tinker and explore means all three provide excitement and novelty to even regular customers.

SideBern's underwent a recent lounge remodel, but the real heavy lifting often takes place in the brains of chef Chad Johnson and general manager-mixologist Dean Hurst (who is also responsible for some of the restaurant's artwork). Each pays close attention to the world's food and drink trends and developments, diligently bringing ideas home to Tampa in ways that make sense for a local audience.

At Datz, Suzanne and Roger Perry and their crew seem in a state of perpetual motion: "Eh, minimize the deli, now it's a gastropub, let's do cheesemaking classes, oh, and cask cocktails, er, can we fit a case in here for macarons and super-fancy William Dean chocolates?"

Pane Rustica annexed more space mid 2010 and added a bar and extra seating, and it's currently gearing up to launch an all-new dinner menu. Still, I swoop in for a slice of pizza, the acorn squash filled with Mediterranean chicken salad or, if I'm feeling extra zesty, the mystery dinner entree — you order it and take your chances.

• SideBern's, 2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-2233;

• Datz, 2616 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-7000;

• Pane Rustica, 3225 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 902-8828;


Why is Ybor so tough for restaurants? In preparing to write this, I scrolled back through the past four years of reviews, only to realize that of 12 Ybor City restaurants reviewed, only five are still in business (and I've reviewed a couple of cycles of restaurants in the same spaces: Big City Tavern and Teatro; the Nest and Buddha Lounge). For a while, the century-old cigar-rolling center of town was being marketed to restaurateurs nationally as the Next Big Gay Destination, a la Key West or Provincetown. It didn't quite gel, but there are several stalwarts that have weathered the vicissitudes of the market and continue to draw diners to brave the throngs of Ybor's party people.

At the Columbia, indefatigable owner Richard Gonzmart had a busy year, launching Screaming Richard Tequila and two private-label wines (all benefitting some of his beloved causes) as well as targeting 2012 to open a location at Tampa International Airport. Meanwhile, the Cuban sandwiches, 1905 salads and flamenco shows continue to draw admirers.

The Laughing Cat outgrew its location in 2011, slipping into the space vacated by Streetcar Charlie's and reopening promptly with a more pared down menu of chef Franco LoRe's most popular dishes (like the sauteed "crazy chicken" dredged in chopped nuts and napped in a creamy garlic white wine sauce, or one of the housemade gnocchi dishes).

Established Ybor restaurateur Jason Fernandez took things casual in 2011 when he opened Hot Willy's Sausage and Italian Beef Superstore, but the bulk of his attention is still focused on Bernini, set in the historic Bank of Ybor building. If the valet parking and crisp-tender fried calamari don't lure you in, the half-price pastas and entrees and $2 Finlandia martinis from 4 to 7 p.m. will.

• The Columbia, 2117 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City; (813) 248-4961;

• The Laughing Cat, 1811 N 15th St., Ybor City; (813) 241-2998;

• Bernini, 1702 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City; (813) 248-0099;


The biggest thing to happen in Carrollwood in a while is Carmel Café, the slick new minichain (there's another one in Clearwater) from Chris Sullivan, the co-founder and former CEO of the Outback empire. He's a wine enthusiast, this guy, putting together a Mediterranean concept that is largely in support of an ambitious wine list (wines offered by 3-ounce taste, 6- and 9-ounce glass, and by the bottle), which is presented on individual iPads with lots of cool descriptions and pairing ideas.

Grille One Sixteen was the last big thing in Carrollwood, but its star is rising again, with a second location announced for a spring 2012 opening on Dale Mabry just north of Kennedy Boulevard. Meanwhile, recently promoted chef Bryan Gallagher continues to please the Miami-stylish clientele with the signature pretzel bread, fancy sliders and warm doughnuts for dessert.

In the Van Dyke Commons shopping center, Rand Packer (formerly with Roy's) started doing Baja-style fish tacos and other punchy regional Mexican dishes at Mekenita Mexican Grille long before 2011 became Tampa Bay's Year of the Taco. It's a little place, charming and affordable, with an order-at-the-counter system that makes this a natural for local families.

• Carmel Café and Wine Bar, 14306 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 265-1415;

• Grille One Sixteen, 15405 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 265-0116;

• Mekenita Mexican Grille, 17623 N Dale Mabry Highway, Lutz; (813) 264-1212;


Front Burner Brands, a restaurant management company overseeing GrillSmith and the Melting Pot, hit it big in 2011 with Burger 21, with its first location in Westchase and second in Carrollwood (and additional locations planned for New Tampa, Lakeside Village in Lakeland and the Orlando area). The concept is simple: 21 chef-inspired (and that chef was, briefly, Chris Ponte) burgers, from ahi to black bean, served in a festive, fast-casual ambience.

Nick Pappas may have had his hands full opening Besa Grill these past few months in Clearwater, but his flagship restaurant FlameStone Grill continues to go strong in Oldsmar. His secret is embracing trends, from stone-oven flatbreads and tableside guacamole to Kobe sliders and a heavy use of Twitter.

And nearby, Tom Pritchard and Frank Chivas' newest location of Rumba Island Bar & Grill took a little while to open its doors, but has been met with eager enthusiasts. It inherited a great space (Suro and Twisted Bamboo before that), with an attractive but feel-good atmosphere and Jamaican-inspired, seafood-heavy fare.

• Burger 21, 9664 W Linebaugh Ave., Tampa; (813) 475-5921;

• FlameStone Grill, 4009 Tampa Road, Oldsmar; (813) 814-7778;

• Rumba Island Bar & Grill, 3687 Tampa Road, Oldsmar; (813) 475-5974;


This time of year the desperate calls start coming. "Do you know of a romantic restaurant that won't break the bank?" To head off some of those Valentine's Day emergencies this season, I'll say it here: Pia's Trattoria. One of the first places I reviewed for the Times, this teeny spot had a major remodel last year, very nice. But I'd still sit outside in the garden with its candles and tiny lights and colorful tablecloths. Despite the garden's subtropical Floridian foliage, slurping up mussels in rich broth or penne with spicy sun-dried tomato sauce there feels like a vacation in Italy.

Not far away, Harold Russell has been churning out meals in a 1920s bungalow kitchen since 1997 at Backfin Blue. As the name implies, crab sidles into the limelight in the form of cakes or crab-stuffed portobellos, but here's a tip: Monday is prime rib day for a scant $11.95.

Habana Café predates Backfin by a year, with a little upstairs art gallery and its own cigars and smoking room. Recently owner Jo Hastings has added in plucky Cuban classics like boliche (slow-simmered eye of round stuffed with sausage), ropa vieja and tostones (little fried plantain flying saucers).

• Pia's Trattoria, 3054 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 327-2190;

• Backfin Blue Cafe, 2913 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 343-2583;

• Habana Café, 5402 Gulfport Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 321-8855;


Zack Gross is like fruitcake (I didn't say he is a fruitcake): You either love him or you hate him. He's audacious, unapologetic, with a lot of tattoos and even more 'tude. All of this shows at Z Grille, the restaurant he and wife Jennifer opened at the bottom of Signature Place in 2008. These days he's trying to get away from the burritos and tacos he was known for at his first restaurants, but he will not be able to divest himself of deviled eggs or Dr Pepper fried ribs if St. Petersburg diners have any say.

And nearby Red Mesa Cantina gets the nod over flagship restaurant Red Mesa (which actually has slightly better food) for sheer coolness. The Lucha Bar is downright hip, the tequila list is the best in town and the duck taco with grilled pineapple is about as much fun as you can have for $4.25.

Our third restaurant in this category is far from the hubbub of downtown. Alésia Restaurant was opened in 2011 by first-time restaurant owners Sandra Ly-Flores, Erika Ly and Paul Hsu. It's an airy, lovely space in which to linger over casual French and Vietnamese cafe classics (from croque monsieur to pho) at super-reasonable prices, nothing over $8.50.

• Z Grille, 104 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-9600;

• Red Mesa Cantina, 128 Third St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-8226;

• Alésia Restaurant, 7204 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 345-9701;


Leaf through an in-flight magazine and on nearly every page you see ads with smiling men dressed in gaucho costumes proffering meat on long swords. The Brazilian churrascaria seems to have jumped the shark, but one thing about the whole-lot-of-meat-on-swords phenomenon seems to hold true: These places are expensive. Dinner at Boizao and Texas de Brazil in Tampa start at $39.90 and $42.99, respectively. TerraMar, which renovated and doubled its size about a month ago, can hook you up for $16.99, including hot and cold buffet and all the classic churrascaria cuts.

As a food critic, I eat wherever and whatever my review schedule dictates. Left to my own devices? A bowl of pho is just about the perfect food — noodles and bright herbs and puddles of Sriracha-tinged broth as restorative as anything I can think of. Ben Thanh, homey and not much to look at, makes some of the best around. They also have a number of self-roll dishes with rice paper, noodles and meats that seem like part hobby, part dinner.

Sesto Ramadori and Micheline Rozon have owned the Florida Pasta Company for years. Not a stretch, then, that a few years back they opened Da Sesto as a showcase for their wares. As with the two previous Pinellas Parkers, it's a charming independent with very personal service (plus seriously good ravioli).

• TerraMar Brazilian Steakhouse, 6715 49th St. N, Pinellas Park; (727) 525-1100;

• Ben Thanh, 4200 62nd Ave. N, Pinellas Park; (727) 526-3051

• Da Sesto, 7199 66th St. N, Pinellas Park; (727) 209-2695;


Dominique Christini has been a rigorous defender of classical French cuisine in Largo since 1986, sending out his cote de veau aux champignons and Grand Marnier souffle at Café Largo while other French restaurants withered along with our attentions (remember Chateau France?). It's a style of cooking that cycles back around, though, seeming relevant and chic again. Christini hedges his bet by hosting cooking classes, indoctrinating Largo cooks into the majesty and mystery of the mother sauces (not to mention the powerful healing qualities of butter).

Grill 131 is Bob Spoto's 13th restaurant, opened in 2008 at the site of another restaurant he opened back in 1991. Far from unlucky, it has settled in beautifully, giving Seminole a consistent go-to spot for baby back ribs (one of Spoto's signature dishes always), prime rib and a knockout early-bird menu.

E & E Stakeout Grill reopened this fall after a short but extensive remodel, looking sleek and spry after 26 years in the business. It's a something-for-everyone menu, from burgers to shoot-the-works surf and turf. (Plus one to watch: Cali Shack replaced Boulevard Bistro in November. It's the same owners, only now the concept is very affordable wraps, tacos, burgers and wings. They are still getting their bearings, but it has the makings of a fun hangout.)

• Café Largo, 12551 Indian Rocks Road, No. 18, Largo; (727) 596-6282;

• Spoto's Grill 131, 13079 Park Blvd., Seminole; (727) 393-1703;

• E & E Stakeout Grill, 100 Indian Rocks Road N, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 585-6399;


Am I going to surprise anyone if I say Salt Rock Grill? I've said it before and I'll say it again: Tom Pritchard and Frank Chivas are pros, they know seafood and they know how to provide value to legions of customers. In short, great patio dining with views of the Intracoastal, steaks cooked at a blistering 1,200 degrees and an absurdly low-priced early menu. And Pritchard is the kind of raconteur that every legendary party needs.

Villa Gallace is something else entirely: an insider secret often overlooked by sand-dusted tourists. But for well over a decade, when Pinellas locals want feather-light gnocchi or sophisticated zuppe di pesce, this unassuming independent is where they head.

At nearby Slyce, the logo is part pizza wedge, part martini glass, not a bad combination. This newcomer is clubbier than most beach spots, with froufrou or classic pizza options and a decent wine list.

• Salt Rock Grill, 19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores; (727) 593-7625;

• Villa Gallace, 109 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 596-0200;

• Slyce Pizza Bar, 311 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 408-5272;


Mario Batali is coming in February. Do you know what he wants? He wants to eat drop-dead delicious local seafood with his feet in the sand of a Pinellas beach. Why is that so hard? Plenty of beachy spots, yes, but great local seafood? Get on it, restaurateurs. We can't disappoint Mario. Meanwhile, for something fancier and rarefied, Eric Neri continues to have a steady hand on the rudder at Maritana Grille at the Don CeSar. Whether sous vide or cast-iron seared, he has a way with seafood.

Walter Gerbase, longtime owner of Walt'z Fish Shak at John's Pass Village, suffered major health problems in 2011, but partner Sue Zirnewskie has kept things going. The M.O. is simple. A chalkboard reveals the day's domestic-only catch, usually three items. Grouper, cobia, amberjack; fried, blackened or grilled; sold until they run out.

The Pearl is another fancy-ish spot (Valentine's-appropriate) with a $10 early-bird, live music on weekends and chef Karim Chiadmi's classical eye.

• Maritana Grille, 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-1882

• Walt'z Fish Shak, 224 Boardwalk Place E, Madeira Beach; (727) 395-0732

• The Pearl, 163 107th Ave., Treasure Island; (727) 360-9151;


Happy birthday, Cafe Ponte! It's been a great 10 years, to be celebrated with a public birthday party Friday and Saturday, six courses for $75. Chris Ponte has had his hand in a number of other projects in the past few years, but he recently re-upped his commitment to his flagship project, redoing carpets, lighting and other elements of his fine-dining destination in the ICOT Center.

The Ceviche empire's Tampa restaurant is set to open in its new location in the next week or two, so we're giving the nod to the Clearwater outpost in the old Tio Pepe space (but I like the downtown St. Pete one, too). As with the others, it's a raucous place for shared tapas, sangria and live music.

And for kickin' it old school (evidence: there's a relish tray), Bob Heilman's Beachcomber continues to satisfy with bronzed grouper, clams casino and a darn good burger, all in a white-tablecloth setting.

• Cafe Ponte, 13505 Icot Blvd., No. 214, Clearwater; (727) 538-5768;

• Ceviche, 2930 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 799-3082;

• Bob Heilman's Beachcomber, 447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach; (727) 442-4144;


A Dunedin haiku: Your dogs are welcome/cafes and bars bay warmly/panting civic pride. Dunedin residents don't just think they have the best Main Street in Pinellas, they know it, with gobs of culinary talent piled onto a few blocks.

My favorite rookie is Cafe DePaz, opened in October in a lovely bungalow with a luscious Mediterranean menu and a come-hither cocktail lineup.

My favorite veteran is Casa Tina, owners Javier and Tina Avila avid supporters of the community. But it's the offbeat Day of the Dead decor and vegetarian-friendly Mexican menu that keep the place swinging.

Head due north from Dunedin and you'll run into free-spirited little Ozona, the newish Ohana Cafe feeling like the beating heart. Owner Teresa Kerr exudes a warm aloha spirit and the affordable menu focuses on vegan, vegetarian and healthy dishes, many with a Hawaiian twist.

• Cafe DePaz, 680 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 216-6222;

• Casa Tina, 365 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 734-9226;

• The Ohana Cafe, 306 Orange St. N, Ozona; (727) 787-1234;


In September I did a roundup of Tarpon Springs restaurants, a welcome opportunity to re-examine the Greek sponge diving/tourist destination. With space constraints, I left a good one out: Zante Café Neo. Partly it was because I'd stopped by and the hours of operation seemed loosey-goosey, partly because I'd written about it in the past. Whew, did I get an earful from the restaurant's fans. Brad Sullivan and his wife preside over a space that's somewhere between a funhouse and a flea market, with a menu that is mostly straight-up New Orleans. Could they be hoarders? Maybe, but you stop thinking about such things while eating the crawfish etouffee.

Dimitri's on the Water is my favorite Greek place in Tarpon, a newbie launched by Mykonos-owner Andy Salivaras' son, Dimitri. It's right on the water and they do sophisticated whole fresh fish dishes and rustic Greek sides.

And Tracey Swade's Currents has been one of my faves for a while, as much for the stylish New American cuisine as for the long bar that starred in the 1953 Robert Wagner sponge drama, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef.

• Zante Café Neo, 13 N Safford Ave., Tarpon Springs; (727) 934-5558;

• Dimitri's on the Water, 690 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; (727) 945-9400;

• Currents, 200 E Tarpon Ave., Tarpon Springs; (727) 940-5377

Laura Reiley can be reached at or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.


This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge