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7 reasons why Tampa is one of 7 up-and-coming culinary destinations

TripAdvisor ranks Tampa among other cities, including Birmingham, Dallas and Kansas City. Here’s why it should be on your list for your next food-based adventure.
TAILYR IRVINE | Times People try samples from chefs who have restaurants set to open in the Sparkman Wharf during the Sparkman Wharf preview event on Wednesday, September 12, 2018 in Tampa.
Published May 7
Updated May 8

TAMPA — The secret is out.

Tampa’s food scene isn’t just for bay area residents and the casual visitor any more. The city, with its cornucopia of culinary contributions, is gaining a reputation as one of the top up-and-coming culinary destinations in the United States. Travel website TripAdvisor recently named Tampa — along with Birmingham, St. Louis, Richmond, Dallas, Kansas City and Indianapolis — as one of seven such up-and-comers, joining dozens of other publications in acknowledging Tampa’s growing dominance as a dining destination.

So, here are seven reasons why we think you should choose Tampa for your next food-based adventure.

1. Can’t decide on a restaurant? Pick a food hall

Armature Works is a fully restored mixed-use building that breathes new life into the historic Tampa Heights neighborhood. With its unobstructed view of the Hillsborough River, the historic structure has been reinvented as a premier community destination with innovative eateries, Heights Public Market, reimagined event spaces and an exclusive coworking space. [Armature Works]

Food halls have been a massively growing trend in the last few years and Tampa has taken notice. There’s Sparkman Wharf, the waterside, outdoor food hall made largely of linked metal shipping containers harkening to the nearby Port of Tampa. A short drive away you’ve got the picturesque and antiquey Armature Works (also on the water) and a few blocks from there is the more table-service friendly Hall on Franklin.

From lawn games, to indoor market vibes and limitless dining options, each Hall offers a unique dining experience and are quickly becoming major attractions for natives and visitors alike.

2. Celebrity chefs sure seem to like it here

Celebrity chef and restaurant owner Fabio Viviani poses for a portrait during a preview of his new Italian restaurant Osteria Tampa in downtown Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times files (2018)

Tampa seems to be a beacon for talent lately. Not only do we have some homegrown stars like Greg Baker, Chris Ponte, Jeannie Pierola and Ferrell Alvarez to name a few, but world-renowned celebrity chefs are choosing Tampa to sow some oats.

Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani has Osteria, Art Smith brought his Oprah-approved fried chicken to Splitsville and Anne Kearney, a veteran of Emeril Lagasse and Food Network, is behind the menu at Oak & Ola.

3. We have an entire hotel just for food lovers

The Foie Gras and Ham Hock Terrine (foreground) and the Moules Dijonnaise and the Bolita and Bingo at Elevage at the Epicurean Hotel in Tampa. [MONICA HERNDON | Times files (2018)]

Aptly named the Epicurean (Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who included the consumption of delicious food in his teachings), the south Tampa hotel describes itself as a “Foodie’s paradise come to life.” It’s brought to you by the same folks responsible for Bern’s Steakhouse, an institution in Tampa, and has frequently been included in Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards for best hotel in Florida.

If food hotel doesn’t tell you a city is a food destination, what does?

4. Some of our chefs get nominated for James Beard awards

Chef Jeannie Pierola is responsible for Edison: Food+Drink Lab, Swigamajig at Sparkman Wharf and other notable eateries in Tampa.

The James Beard Awards are basically the Oscars of the food world. That’s kind of a big deal. This year, two women behind some of the bay area’s raddest kitchens made it to the semi-finals.

The aforementioned Jeannie Pierola, who is responsible for Edison: Food+Drink Lab, Swigamajig at Sparkman Wharf and the soon-to-come Counter Culture, got the nod for Best Chef: south category. And Rachel Bennet, the 30-year-old chef at the Library at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital (formally called the Peabody), was nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year.

5. It’s a great place to grab a drink

Morgan Zuch mixes up a cocktail at Mandarin Heights in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times files (2018)]

Tampa is definitely a drinking city. Heck, there’s even an annual event where everyone basically forgets that they’re adults, dresses like pirates and gets sloshed.

But it’s also good for a casual cocktail, fresh craft beer or generally unique experience.

Bars like Ciro’s Speakeasy, Mandarin Heights and Hotel Bar serve up the craftiest of cocktails. The Tampa microbrew scene continues to explode with pioneers like Cigar City being joined by the likes of Coppertail, Angry Chair, Florida Avenue Brewing and Tampa Bay Brewing to name a few.

Then there are arcade bars like the Lowry Parcade and Gen X Tavern, a new 80s/90s nostalgia bar and roving events like the First United Church of Nintendo where you can play almost any Nintendo game from any console in the company’s history.

Plus, Tampa’s got drinking neighborhoods for everyone. Hyde Park, Seminole Heights, Ybor City ... they all sport an active and diverse nightlife.

6. We’ve got some righteous ramen

Ichicoro Ramen 5229 N Florida Ave. in Tampa. serves Champon ramen with a pork/chicken broth, head-on gulf shrimp, chasyu asado, ginger tempura, scallion, corn, shitake and sesame. [Times files]

When Ichicoro Ramen opened in late 2015, it was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings Tampa had ever seen. Nearly four years later, the #ramenarmy has only grown in strength. Tampa Bay now has three Ichicoro’s, each with a different flair. There are two in Tampa and one in St. Pete.

Ramen has been on the culinary radar for some time. But Ichicoro’s Florida-centric take on the classic Japanese dish exploded onto the scene in a big way. It debuted as a popular pop-up in Manhattan before opening in Tampa and garnered swaths of attention for its proprietary noodle blend, nuanced broth and simple, but extremely customizable array of house-made ingredients.

Other noodle spots and worthy ramen restaurants have since popped up, but Ichicoro continues THE place to score high-quality noods in the bay area and one worth a trip to the Big Guava.

7. Tampa is part of Tampa Bay, which has even more niche culinary scenes to offer a short ride away

Sausage and banana pepper pizza at Pizzeria Gregario. It's unexpected: A pizzeria in Safety Harbor that is a stickler about ingredients, sourcing most veggies and proteins from local farms. [JIM DAMASKE | Times files]

Sure, Tampa proper has a great scene and wealth of culinary choices on its own, but what really makes it shine is that its part of a larger network of communities with even more remarkable food locales.

Like the whole celebrity chef idea? Television personality Ray Lampe, also known as Dr. BBQ, opened an eponymous restaurant in St. Petersburg’s Edge District last year. Tampa staples such as Oxford Exchange and Datz are making their way across the bay.

Into the whole craft beer thing? Pinellas County has you covered with plenty of breweries to keep you busy and even hosts internationally recognized beer conferences.

Craft cocktails more of your thing? Try Mandarin Hide or Saigon Blonde for a start.

Pinellas County communities such as Dunedin and Safety Harbor lend themselves to walk-able mini food tours filled with craft beer, unique cocktails and some really good eating.

In fact, Tampa Bay as a whole has so many cool options to craft your own food tours, we did just that.

If you’re like me and most of your travel decisions are based on where the next meal or beverage is gonna come from, Tampa Bay is on its way to being the place to be.

And if that’s not enough, don’t forget, we invented the Cuban Sandwich.

The Cuban sandwich, Columbia Restaurant style. [Times files]

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