There’s no debating that 2020 has been a challenging year for the restaurant world. When the coronavirus pandemic prompted the shutdown of Florida restaurants in early March, there was no telling what the future held. And after the six-week shutter, the months that followed were mired in uncertainty as restaurants struggled to regain their footing amid capacity restrictions, restructuring efforts that included to-go and delivery operations and a dining populace somewhat hesitant about eating out.
The year didn’t pass without some big losses: In May, the iconic Clearwater fine-dining restaurant Cafe Ponte shuttered following an 18-year run. Later in the fall, Tampa live music institution and restaurant Skipper’s Smokehouse closed, and this month marked the closure of Pass-a-Grille’s the Seahorse and Tampa’s Boca and Four Green Fields.
But while restaurants in hard-hit areas across the country have closed down en masse, Tampa Bay hasn’t fared as poorly. In fact, the bay area saw a large number of restaurant openings. While opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic might sound like a risky proposition, many restaurants had pre-existing leases and business plans already in motion by the time coronavirus cases first started rising.
There was a lot of news on the local food hall front, too: Tampa’s food hall pioneer the Hall on Franklin closed permanently this month, and plans for the Armature Works crew to open a new hall inside Bill Edwards’ Sundial development in St. Petersburg appear to be at least temporarily stalled pending a lawsuit. Meanwhile, Armature Works in Tampa welcomed several new vendor stalls, including confection queen Julie Curry’s Bake’n Babes and Muchachas, a new Mexican spot sporting quesabirria tacos from Empamamas proprietor Stephanie Swanz. There were shuffles at St. Petersburg’s Baum Avenue Market, including when vegan spots Valhalla Bakery and Lucy’s left to open their own brick-and-mortar up the street on Central Avenue. And in November, the Ciccio Restaurant Group decided to get into the food court game with their new hybrid concept On the Fly in St. Petersburg, which combines several of their most popular concepts, including Sweet Soul and Taco Dirty.
Yes, 2020 has been a tough year. But it doesn’t appear to have curbed any of the creativity, tenacity or ingenuity in the industry. If anything, this year has illuminated how hard-working, hopeful and persistent Tampa Bay’s culinary players are. The list that follows is by no means all encompassing — by our most recent count, there were more than 40 new spots that opened in the past year. But here are the 25 newcomers that have grabbed our attention.
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In October, the wait was finally over for devoted fans of Anju Korean Gastrotruck, the cheeky Korean food concept from husband-and-wife duo Mee Ae and Dan Wolney. They were regulars on the food truck circuit, popping up at food festivals, weddings, office parties and local breweries. At their new — and first — brick-and-mortar location in St. Petersburg, the team is serving an expanded menu of their greatest hits, from bulgogi- and queso-topped tater tots to crispy, crunchy Korean-fried chicken wings. What’s more, the spot is also serving wine, beer, sake and soju. Pulling up a chair for some boneless chicken “K-pops” and a local craft brew is easier than ever.
2827 16th St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-252-3991. anjustpete.com.
The Black Chef Eatery
The small restaurant opened in May inside the Ybor City Food Mart on E Seventh Avenue. Mammie Luke and her husband Kyle run the spot together with Mammie’s brother, Edward Keith. Kyle Luke, the restaurant’s executive chef, created the restaurant’s signature “yuppi” sauce, a sweet and savory honey-based elixir. The fried yuppi wings are the spot’s bestseller. The short menu, which the couple say they’re expanding next year, also includes fried catfish and shrimp and sides like smoked turkey-studded collard greens, baked macaroni and cheese, corn bread, potato salad and seasoned fries. For dessert there’s fruit salad if you’re feeling well-behaved and a creamy banana pudding, if you’re not.
1821 E Seventh Ave., Tampa. 813-530-5363.
Bogota Kitchen + Bar
Latin American and Florida flavors mingle at this outdoor restaurant that opened in October in downtown Palm Harbor. (Owner Louise Goetz once ran LuLu’s Beach House Cafe in the same location.) The Latin fusion concept includes a number of creative mashups like ropa vieja-stuffed arepas and loaded yuca fries topped with chili, sour cream and pico de gallo. The tropical-leaning cocktail menu features margaritas, caipirinhas and mojitos. At night, the restaurant frequently hosts live music on the covered outdoor patio, a dreamy spot to spend an evening under the dangling pendant lights.
917 11th St., Palm Harbor. 727-754-5047. facebook.com/BOGOTAKITCHEN.
Casa Santo Stefano
Richard Gonzmart’s long-awaited Sicilian restaurant pays homage to the Southern Italian immigrants that arrived in Ybor City in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The restaurant, which sits inside the historic brick building once home to the Ferlita Macaroni factory, is a labor of love that takes no shortcuts: Chef Alessio Selleri spent four years researching and perfecting the Sicilian menu, and the Sunday supper dishes feel like they’ve been plucked straight from nonna’s recipe box. Cheese, olive oils and dried pasta are all imported from Sicily and the wine list is 100 percent Sicilian. There is no outdoor seating yet, but the upstairs rooftop patio and bar — Santo’s Drinkeria — is poised to open in early 2021.
1607 N 22nd St., Tampa. 813-248-1925. casasantostefano.com.
Donovan’s Modern American Meatery
Datz and Dr. BBQ proprietors Roger and Suzanne Perry opened their modern steak house inside Riverview’s Winthrop Town Centre in October, taking over the space that was formerly home to Boca. With a similar buildout, the new spot imbues an industrial-yet-cozy steak house aesthetic where a 14-foot custom-built grill and smoker serves as the anchor and central powerhouse of the operation. Whimsical starters and shared dishes include giant steak-cut onion rings and an edible beef tallow candle that melts as it burns. More serious fodder can be found on the steak menu, a collection of Angus beef cuts with premium add-ons (tempura-battered lobster tail, anyone?) and “enhancements” like chimichurri and cognac peppercorn sauce.
11206 Sullivan St., Riverview. 813-295-8445. donovansmeatery.com.
Billing itself as a Caribbean fusion restaurant, the new casual counter spot in St. Pete’s Grand Central District kicked off in January, featuring a build-your-own-bowl concept combining Florida and Caribbean cooking techniques. The assembly-line ordering format means guests can mix and match proteins with starches, sides and sauces. The restaurant also lists a number of signature bowls, including the Yardbird, a savory combo of smoked paprika chicken, sweet plantains, coconut rice, ginger black beans and a jerk aioli. Tropical thirst quenchers include acai juice, fresh coconut, lime and ginger juice, and mango mimosas.
2410 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-826-0198. thefloribbean.com.
Stepping into the restaurant at Ybor City’s buzzy new Hotel Haya can feel a bit like entering a glamorous Cuban social club of a different era: Low-slung booths, sultry lighting and a glass chandelier in the center of the dining room imbue a loungelike atmosphere with a time warp effect. Chef Douglas Rodriguez, a tenured player in South Florida’s culinary scene, designed the upscale Latin menu where ingredients like kaffir lime and serrano chiles decorate a cobia agua chile, links of Argentine-style chorizo sausages are smoked in-house and a massive “Dirty Bone” tomahawk ribeye is served with a tableside shaving of crispy beef chicharron and zingy chimichurri.
Hotel Haya, 1412 E Seventh Ave., Tampa. 813-568-1200. hotelhaya.com.
June marked the long-awaited comeback for one of Tampa’s most well-known nightlife spots when Fly Bar opened inside Tampa’s Lafayette Arcade building. Shareable snacks like crab and corn dip, a cold Asian noodle salad with ginger vinaigrette, and truffled mac and cheese are paired with “jazz-inspired” cocktails. Unlike the original location, there’s no rooftop bar — but a spacious outdoor patio offers up a nice spot to while away an afternoon or evening.
442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. 813-803-8550. flyrestauranttampa.com.
Fo’ Cheezy Twisted Meltz
Restraint is not part of the game at this St. Pete Beach newcomer, where excess is king. The restaurant, from chef and Food Network contestant Robert Hesse (Hell’s Kitchen), is named for his grilled cheese food truck of the same name. The tagline “Not yo’ mamma’s grilled cheese” is an apt description for the over-the-top cheesy creations here. Take the Seoul Brother, which combines Korean barbecue beef short ribs, a fried egg, wonton chips, cilantro pesto, miso sauce and pepper jack and cheddar cheeses. Or the loaded tater tots topped with smoked bacon, fondue, sour cream and scallions. This is the kind of food designed to either soak up one too many late-night drinks or provide some lifesaving fodder the morning after.
6305 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. 727-827-7677. focheezy.com.
Every neighborhood needs a good Italian pizza joint and sports bar, and in October, downtown Dunedin got a new contender for the genre. It’s the latest endeavor from chef Traci Bryant, who together with partners Kurt Ferguson and Shane Bittaker runs the nearby restaurants Caracara and Taco Baby. The menu includes creative touches to Italian antipasti like sopressata with braised fennel and olives, white anchovies served with goat cheese and truffle oil, and marinated mushrooms tossed with peppers and provolone. The highlight here are the Neapolitan-style pizzas, which emerge from the restaurant’s brick oven perfectly pockmarked with charred bubbles of dough and crispy, chewy crusts.
718 Broadway, Dunedin. 727-754-2573. pallinospizza.com.
Outdoor foodie playground and event space Sparkman Wharf is now anchored by this sprawling 220-seat Mexican restaurant from New York-based chef Joe Isidori. The restaurant, which includes a large outdoor patio, sits at the street-front corner at the park’s entrance and features an eclectic and creative Mexican menu with plenty of mashups and fusion fare, from pickled serrano-topped hummus to Korean barbecue beef burritos and a Tex-Mex wedge salad. A large tequila bar features prominently and includes tequila and mezcal flights and just about every spin one can imagine on a margarita, from a spicy watermelon version to one made with pineapple, lime and raspberry puree.
615 Channelside Drive, Suite 114, Tampa. 855-352-8676. jotoro.com.
In what was possibly one of the year’s most ambitious restaurant openings, this intimate, omakase-style Japanese spot has proved that the market for expense account and destination fine dining is still very much alive. With just one seating of eight guests per night, owners Eric and Adriana Fralick’s new tasting menu-only restaurant has remained booked solid since its late July opening, and with an envelope-pushing menu like this, it’s not hard to see why. Cornmeal-dusted anago (saltwater eel) is flash-fried and served with burrata, confit tomatoes and black garlic molasses; New Zealand’s Ora King salmon is topped with Persian lime zest, Persian lime powder, garlic and sesame brittle and French trout roe; and Providence Cattle beef tongue is served with a black mustard demi-glace and matsutake mushrooms. Reservations are made through Tock, a prepaid ticketing system, and the nightly menu, which features 12 to 14 courses, runs $225 per person. For an extra $95 a pop, guests receive an additional caviar selection with each course.
800 W Platt St., Tampa. 813-284-7423. koyatampa.com.
What’s elevated fast food, you might ask? This downtown Tampa newcomer seems to have found the answer. A stone’s throw from the Hub and Tampa Theatre, Nojaks opened in November and has already created quite the buzz. With a teeny menu that’s almost entirely vegan, the sandwiches and burgers here come served on fluffy, homemade potato rolls; smoky, spicy chili is made with heirloom Rancho Gordo beans; and a rotating cast of sides includes crunchy and fresh vegetable-forward stars. With contactless curbside pickup options and a small selection of natural wine and craft beers to-go, this spot feels primed for the pandemic. Though the menu is short, the high-caliber cooking found here highlights the kind of precision only a small-batch operation can yield.
305 E Polk St., Tampa. nojakstastyfoods.com.
Oronzo Honest Italian
Best known for his Neapolitan-style pizzerias, Dan Bavaro decided to take a more fast-casual approach to this newcomer on Highwood Preserve Parkway in Tampa. The concept hinges on a mix-and-match format using ingredients like pasta, flatbreads and Italian sauces, all made in-house. The flatbreads, rolled out into 12-inch rounds called piatti, are topped with ingredients like burrata, tomatoes, arugula, spicy Italian sausage and prosciutto before getting a 90-second bake. Although the concept was hatched way before 2020 turned the restaurant world on its head, the assembly-line format, iPad ordering system and curbside pickup options feel perfectly suited to the times.
18027 Highwoods Preserve Parkway, Tampa. 813-730-0100. oronzo.com.
This off-the-beaten-path foodie destination in Pinellas Park delivers big rewards for anyone in search of some seriously spicy noodle soups. Sithisak “Pooh” Wongasawanuek and his wife, Phonphen “Patti” Kanjanakrairoek, opened their small nook-of-a-restaurant in July as an homage to the street noodles of Bangkok. What might seem like a uniform genre at first delivers a unique selection of dishes, each one carrying a powerhouse of flavors. Starters like the impossibly flaky Thai curry puffs and the restaurant’s signature boat noodle dish are more than enough reason to make the trip.
6527 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park. 727-289-4153.
Enjoy a slice of Tampa history in this reimagined diner setting where chefs Ben Pomales and Adrianna Siller (formerly of Rooster & the Till and Gallito) churn out creative and playful spins on counter-service classics. Despite the historic setting in what was once Pickford Sundries (the original lunch counter is still there), this is not your average diner: Grilled cheese sandwiches get a leg up with Brussels sprouts and caramelized onions, egg creams receive a Thai tea spin with coconut milk, and “fancy” egg sandwiches are served on focaccia with green tomatoes, fried potato sticks and a spiced aioli.
2606 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa. 813-308-9668. pickfordscounter.com.
In August, Raquel “Jingle” Baluyut opened the Filipino restaurant inside St. Petersburg’s Baum Avenue Market with the help of her sister, Josie Barber, who runs the neighboring health food concept Karma Juice Bar and Eatery. The bright and airy space now feels less like an incubator for startups and more like a cohesive creation of Baluyut and Barber’s making. Baluyut’s cooking is a tribute to the traditional Filipino dishes she grew up eating: crispy, deep-fried lumpia rolls, soothing chicken afritada stew and lechon kawali — fried hunks of pork belly that practically melt in your mouth.
1113 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-655-8758. pinoystpete.com.
Rome + Fig
Restaurant industry veterans Kristine and Eric Zostant opened the modern North Hyde Park restaurant in July. (The spot’s name is a nod to the location, at N Rome Avenue and W Fig Street.) The upscale restaurant’s “globally inspired” theme is mirrored in the menu’s geographic wanderings and includes dishes like wings with scallions and peanuts, Filipino-inspired duck lumpia, a filet mignon with mashed yuca tots and a chargrilled ribeye steak served with duck fat potatoes and bearnaise sauce.
317 N Rome Ave., Tampa. 813-253-3353. romeandfigbistro.com.
Sea Worthy Fish + Bar
In 2015, Hope Montgomery and Jason Ruhe opened Brick & Mortar in downtown St. Petersburg to great acclaim. It should come as no surprise that five years later, their sophomore effort brings food just as delicious, with a seafaring twist. The new restaurant, which opened in early 2020, is inspired by the couple’s love for the open water and includes standout dishes like seared scallops with bucatini carbonara and a whole fried fresh catch plated atop coconut rice and a snappy green papaya slaw. The restaurant interior imbues cozy nautical vibes but the best seat in the house is on the outdoor deck where ― if you time it just right — you can catch spectacular views of the sunset.
1110 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde. 727-623-0468.
The St. Pete Pier
When the long-awaited St. Pete Pier opened in July — a $92 million project encompassing an expansive 26-acre entertainment district — so did several restaurants. The more casual spots — Driftwood Cafe and Spa Beach Bistro — offer a breezy option for parents or casual pier strollers to pop in for a slice of pizza or an ice cream and coffee. Author Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille provides a casual indoor-outdoor Floridian setting and a seafood-forward Caribbean-inspired menu while Teak, the pier’s most upscale spot, and the rooftop bar and lounge Pier Teaki provide breathtaking and unparalleled views of the downtown St. Petersburg skyline and Tampa Bay.
600 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg. stpetepier.org.
Tacos Las Californias
When Marlly Sanchez-Garcia opened her Tampa restaurant in July, she had no idea that the Armenia Avenue spot would become synonymous with one dish: quesabirria. Part crunchy fried taco, part impossibly cheesy beef quesadilla, the finished product is dipped into a crimson-hued birria consomme and finished with cilantro and onions. The restaurant includes a small indoor setting in what was once Sanchez-Garcia’s father’s bar. Takeout is the best way to get in and out quickly, as the line here can get long fast.
7007 N Armenia Ave., Tampa. 813-384-0615. facebook.com/tacoslascalifornias.
Two locations of this Polynesian-themed bar and grill opened this year, beginning with the Skyway Marina District location at St. Petersburg’s Maximo Marina in July. The much larger Riverview locale — an $8 million project two years in the making — followed in fall. Both spots sport waterfront settings with sprawling indoor-outdoor setups and a menu focused on beachy seaside eats, like raw oysters and smoked fish spread, peel-and-eat shrimp, sandwiches and seafood platters.
3769 50th Ave. S, St. Petersburg, 727-810-8454; 10708 Palmetto St., Riverview, 813-683-8454. tikidocks.com.
The Urban Stillhouse
St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District is now home to a sprawling hybrid of a business where booze — in particular Horse Soldier bourbon ― is the main focus. Designed with distilleries in Scotland and Kentucky in mind, the 16,000-square-foot bilevel building features industrial touches and a sleek decor. Guests can sip cocktails at the downstairs lounge, sample whiskey flights inside the private tasting room or nosh on shareable plates like crispy artichoke hearts with mint, Parmesan and lemon aioli, and larger dishes like a grilled Niman Ranch pork chop served with caramelized peaches, wild mushrooms and marcona almonds.
2232 Fifth Ave. S, St. Petersburg. 727-440-8040. theurbanstillhouse.com.
Arguably one of the year’s buzziest openings, the new restaurant from proprietors Rob Reinsmith, formerly of Noble Crust, and the Bends owner Matt Kaye holds up to the hype. Following a late-summer opening, the tropical-themed restaurant has remained a hot spot on St. Pete’s dining scene. With a spacious — and covered — outdoor dining setup, a creative menu that touches on bright Caribbean flavors (snapper ceviche with watermelon and plantain chips; jerk octopus with Meyer lemon jam) and a cocktail menu heavy on the tequila and mezcal, the restaurant feels a lot like the ‘burg’s very own tropical oasis.
2710 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.
This Tampa Heights Mexican restaurant opened inside the Pearl Apartments across from Armature Works at the onset of the pandemic. Billed as a modern Mexican restaurant, the colorful eatery features a menu that includes creative spins on tacos, burritos and sides, like the esquites (Mexican street corn) topped with tajin aioli, queso fresco, crema and tajin sprinkles. There’s a good amount of sidewalk seating for those who prefer outdoor dining, and the bottomless mimosa brunch scene and Drag Queen Bingo nights can get lively.
307 W Palm Ave., Tampa. 833-962-4485. ilovexochitl.com.