On March 11, 2020, I published the last restaurant review I would write for the rest of that year.
Of course, I had no idea what the future held at the time. That week, we ran a playful rundown of the Filipino fare served at Jollibee, a fast-food restaurant with a cultlike international following that had recently opened in Pinellas Park.
I’ve been a restaurant critic for close to seven years now and I can say with some certainty that I never expected my last review before a pandemic to focus on the nuances and flavor profiles of Jolly Spaghetti and Chickenjoy.
But then again, everything that came after March 2020 was a surprise.
Many of those surprises came from the restaurant world, where I watched as chefs, owners and restaurant staff worked harder than ever to save their institutions and preserve their livelihoods, constantly pivoting and rolling with the many, many punches that the coronavirus pandemic lobbed their way.
There were the mask mandates, and the staff tasked with enforcing them when unruly customers refused to comply. The capacity restrictions and the ensuing social media backlash whenever a restaurant looked too busy. The labor shortages, the supply chain lags, the exponential food price hikes. And of course, the many restaurant employees that would inevitably contract COVID-19, sometimes prompting a days-long shutdown of the business.
Many Florida restaurants fared considerably better than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. But the past 18 months haven’t been easy, either.
All of this contributed to our decision not to publish a traditional top restaurants list in 2021. Judging or critiquing restaurants at such a tumultuous time didn’t just feel wrong, it was impossible: I wasn’t dining out regularly until a few months ago, when — fully vaccinated and amid dwindling COVID-19 cases in the state — I finally felt comfortable sitting in a packed dining room.
This year, we’ve decided to take a different approach again.
Our rundown of Tampa Bay’s best new restaurants below and the accompanying lists are focused primarily on the restaurants that opened in 2020 and 2021. Call them pandemic success stories, if you will, but the following 10 spots opened during an incredibly uncertain time and still managed to hit it out of the park.
As I write this, the omicron variant is causing record numbers of coronavirus cases in the state. Who knows what the next year will bring.
With safety still top of mind, we’ve included details on outdoor seating and takeout options for each restaurant listed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masking in indoor public settings in areas with high community transmission, though masks are not currently required in Florida restaurants.
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In the meantime, let’s enjoy our wonderful restaurants, safely, for as long as we can.
Check out the other stories in our 2022 Top Restaurants series:
1. Wild Child
What makes Wild Child Tampa Bay’s best new restaurant?
Maybe it’s because, without any inkling of what the future held, owners Matt Kaye and Rob Reinsmith turned their original plans upside down and opened a restaurant at the height of the pandemic.
Maybe it’s the brilliance of running a mostly outdoor eatery in Florida, which — even in the dead of summer — emulates an urban tropical oasis; a sidewalk and picnic table party that never feels cramped.
Maybe it’s that the owners have managed to tap into the culinary zeitgeist and create a restaurant that feels so perfectly of this moment.
Whatever it is, Wild Child hit the ground running when it opened in August 2020 and hasn’t stopped.
You could come here just for the cocktails, an excellent tropical-leaning selection that’s always evolving. One constant: the Mezcalita, a spicy, smoky margarita that gets a kick from jalapeno and a dash of sweetness from agave and pineapple.
You could come for the tropical, eye-catching decor and people-watching and marvel at how the owners managed to create a restaurant with a color scheme and aesthetic that, while attractive to the Instagram influencer set, isn’t made or designed with them exclusively in mind.
Whatever you do, definitely come for the excellent food featured on Reinsmith’s wildly creative menu, where Latin and Caribbean influences mingle within a distinctly Floridian theme.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve popped by on several occasions, always curious what the ‘burg’s buzziest restaurant will come up with next. A roasted half chicken served with yuzu salsa verde and fries on one visit might be reimagined as a Peruvian grilled chicken served alongside purple potatoes on the next. A seasonal burrata salad might feature fresh peaches one day and juicy heirloom tomatoes and cherries on another. There’s always something in flux, and it’s almost always great.
But while Reinsmith shakes things up seasonally, there are a few mainstays on the menu that have earned their keep: jerk-seasoned octopus plated with lemon jam, fennel and mint; chorizo-stuffed dates, wrapped in crispy slices of bacon and nestled in a pool of smoky tomato and piquillo pepper sauce; and a dreamy tuna tostada, featuring the perfect marriage of bright, smoky, crunchy and creamy elements. It’s the salsa macha — a dark and smoky medley of peppers and peanuts — that really steals the show.
Outdoor seating and takeout available.
Best dishes: Tuna tostada, jerk octopus.
2710 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-954-7425. wildchildstpete.com.
Chef Eric Fralick’s multicourse meal at Koya starts by featuring the top of the tuna, the meat right beneath the fin and one of the leanest parts of the fish. This isn’t just any old tuna: This is the coveted (and pricy) bluefin tuna from Kagoshima — sold at auction and flown in straight from Japan’s famed Toyosu Market.
Course four features kama toro — the back cheek or collar of the fish — and the fattiest, silkiest and arguably most delicious part. It’s served as a tartare, on a bed of rice and with a healthy drizzle of white soy, lacto-fermented ginger and a grating of fresh wasabi root.
It’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. And it’s just one of nine courses at the Tampa restaurant, where you’ll enjoy not just a high-octane meal — you’ll spend an evening at the theater and get an education, too.
There are also sake pairings — Fralick’s wife, Adriana, pours from a short but impressive list of the Japanese fermented rice spirit, explaining in detail the subtle nuances and flavor profiles of each — and friendly banter with neighboring diners. And a price tag of $275, before pairings and tipping.
Opening an upscale, tasting menu-only restaurant at the height of the pandemic was a gamble. But Tampa diners have been more than game: The restaurant has been booked solid since it opened.
The menu gets a full overhaul every season but also undergoes small tweaks week to week and sometimes day to day, depending on what Fralick is able to source.
A recent winter menu featured kurama ebi, sweet and bouncy Japanese tiger prawns served under a light and airy yuzu-laced sabayon. There was also Faroe Island salmon, served directly out of a smoking cloak with a zingy ramp salsa. One of the showstoppers came close to the end, when a melt-in-your-mouth marbled square of dry-aged Wagyu (A5 BMS 12, from Kagoshima) appeared. The meat was breaded and served katsu-style on a miniature sandwich with an accompanying Parmesan veloute topped with shaved white truffles, for dunking.
Though the restaurant has attracted its fair share of regulars, with such a hefty price tag attached, dining here feels like more of an occasion — an excuse to celebrate something big.
Because a night out at Koya is something very special indeed.
Special takeout menu available certain nights.
Best dishes: Kama toro, wagyu katsu sandwich.
807 W Platt St., Tampa. 813-284-7423. noblericeco.com/koya.
3. Sea Worthy Fish + Bar
Hope Montgomery and Jason Ruhe opened their coastal-inspired restaurant in Tierra Verde a few weeks before the statewide shutdown. But despite the temporary setback, their seafaring spot off the Pinellas Bayway is sailing along smoothly.
The restaurant has been pitched as the coastal sidekick to their lauded downtown St. Petersburg restaurant Brick & Mortar. But Sea Worthy shouldn’t be considered a sidekick to anything. It’s a knockout all on its own.
In a nod to the Gulf Coast, and inspired by the couple’s love for the open water, the menu highlights local and regional delights from the sea, reflected in the restaurant’s cozy nautical-themed dining room.
Count on a rotating selection of daily specials — whatever is striking Ruhe’s fancy that night — as the dishes not to miss. On one evening, that might include a plate of Korean barbecue-inspired short ribs. On another, a snappy fresh ceviche.
Homemade pasta — on some nights a bucatini, and on others cavatelli — is often served alongside seared scallops in a creamy carbonara sauce. If this is on the menu, do not pass it up. Other standouts include a whole fried catch of the day, which arrives plated atop coconut rice and a refreshing green papaya slaw.
If you can, try to snag a seat on the outdoor deck, a second-floor perch that looks out toward the Gulf of Mexico. Time it just right and you’ll catch a sunset, and a meal, you won’t soon forget.
Outside seating and takeout available.
Best dishes: Scallop carbonara, whole fried catch of the day.
1110 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde. 727-623-0468.
Lingr might be Tampa Bay’s most ambitious restaurant opening of 2021 — a curious and creative concept that, in the wrong hands, might not have worked. But with chef Jeffrey Jew at the helm, things are going just fine.
The theme here is Norwegian and Cantonese — more broadly, a Nordic-inspired restaurant with Asian influence. It’s an homage to chef and owner Jew’s background and upbringing (his mother is Norwegian and his father is Chinese) peppered with some of the culinary chops and techniques he’s honed throughout his career.
Despite appearances, Lingr isn’t really a fusion restaurant. Unlike so many other globe-trotting spots that borrow from a hodgepodge of cuisines, this one has a pretty strict roadmap. Some dishes skew more Scandinavian while others feature a heavier hand with Chinese influence. But the genius here is that the ingredients emblematic of both cuisines — star anise, fennel, cardamon, ginger — work remarkably well together.
The dishes that keep me coming back: puffy rounds of Sami bread, topped with smoked lion’s mane mushrooms, brunost cheese and chili oil; mapo ho fun noodles, swathed in a fiery sauce heavy with Sichuan peppercorns; and wedges of spiced parsnip cake layered with a sweet mandarin cream.
Outside seating available.
Best dishes: Hamachi crudo, smoked lion’s mane Sami bread, mapo ho fun.
400 Sixth St. S, St. Petersburg. 727-471-6120. lingrrestaurant.com.
When Willa’s opened back in March, it was originally pitched as the perfect neighborhood restaurant. I live nowhere near Tampa’s North Hyde Park, and yet I couldn’t agree more.
The bistro, though not exactly casual or cheap, is a welcome addition to Tampa’s current dining landscape, where everything seems to fall increasingly into two camps: upscale and fine-dining or fast-casual and grab-and-go.
Willa’s straddles the space in between with an approachable menu of New American dishes, classic cocktails and a welcoming “pop-in-whenever-for-a-snack-or-tipple” kind of atmosphere.
The kitchen is helmed by Gabriel Lopez (formerly a sous chef at Mise en Place) and the backbone of the operation is the rotisserie-roasted chicken, Amish-raised birds roasted until crispy and impossibly flavorful, served with a zingy salsa verde.
A perfect dinner here might start with a bowl of chili-laced Castelvetrano olives, paper-thin slices of jambon de Paris and an aperitif or two. (The bar menu features a sizable vermouth collection.) Diners would then be wise to move on to the creamy tahini wedge salad and maybe a slice of the whipped ricotta and hazelnut toast. Then, a few pieces of the juicy roasted chicken and a side of schmaltz-roasted potatoes, or the crispy panko-fried pork schnitzel, served along a pile of bright, citrusy greens.
Dessert, if there’s room, is sweet and simple: a slice of carrot cake or several spoonfuls of a velvety chocolate pot de creme.
Outside seating and takeout available.
Best dishes: Roasted chicken, pork schnitzel, tahini Caesar salad.
1700 W Fig St., Tampa. 813-519-4552. willastampa.com.
6. Patti’s Kitchen
Since opening in July 2020, this Pinellas Park gem hasn’t skipped a beat. The treat here is the Bangkok-style street noodle dishes — steamy, spicy soups and brothless specialties topped with grilled meats and seasonal vegetables.
The restaurant’s chef and owner hails from Bangkok and designed the restaurant’s menu as an homage to the street vendors and noodle dishes hawked all over Thailand’s capital city.
Soup lovers and spice fiends will find much to love, from the spot’s signature boat noodles (tiew nam tok), heavy with the flavors of cinnamon, cloves and star anise, to the bright and fiery tom yum soup, dotted with crunchy peanuts and hunks of seasoned pork. Though noodle soups are still the highlight, the kitchen has been experimenting with new specials, and it’s always fun to see what they’ve got in store.
The excellent Thai curry puffs are always a good bet — buttery, flaky pastries filled with a spiced potato and chicken mixture and served with a bright and crunchy cucumber salad.
Best dishes: Thai curry puffs, boat noodles.
6527 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park. 727-289-4153.
7. Sauvignon Wine Locker & American Trattoria
Chris Ciarcia’s new downtown St. Petersburg restaurant Sauvignon has been perpetually packed since opening in early 2021.
With the (temporary) loss of wine-and-cheese staple Annata on Beach Drive NE, the restaurant — with its heavy focus on decadent charcuterie boards and fine wines — feels right at home. Ciarcia, a level two sommelier, spent several years managing Annata, and his wine expertise is as much a draw at Sauvignon as anything else. The restaurant has attracted a strong following of local oenophiles and curious imbibers looking to expand their palates.
Though the wonderful charcuterie boards are a tempting way to pass the evening, the rest of the menu is equally exciting. A creamy burrata gets paired with a tomato confit that tastes like it’s been sweetened by the sun. The homemade pasta collection features a pappardelle swaddled in a thick and flavorful lamb sugo, studded with oyster mushrooms and caramelized tropea onions.
Sauvignon’s location is pretty clutch, too: Tucked between a string of bars in the busy — and boozy — 200 block of Central Avenue, the best seats in the house are outside on the second-floor patio, overlooking the action.
Outdoor balcony seating available.
Best dishes: PEI Mussels, pappardelle with lamb sugo.
241 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-827-7896. sauvignonstpete.com.
8. The Urban Stillhouse
There’s little arguing that The Urban Stillhouse is one of Tampa Bay’s most beautiful new restaurants. Designed with distilleries in Kentucky and Scotland in mind, the yawning bi-level space is outfitted with plenty of dark wood, leather, heavy metal and copper accents, and features a modern industrial aesthetic that feels both cosmopolitan and cozy at the same time.
It’s fitting that executive chef Kenny Tufo’s creative New American menu also consistently knocks it out of the park with crowd-pleasers like chicken liver crostini topped with bourbon, cranberry and rosemary compote; pappardelle swaddled in a lemon mascarpone sauce with lobster and peas; and the excellent grilled octopus, where olive oil-slicked tentacles get grilled over barrel staves and served atop fresh greens alongside a flavorful romesco sauce.
Given that the owners also own Horse Soldier bourbon and the American Freedom Distillery, drinking here is half the fun. The Horse Soldier flights are a good place to start, but for brown liquor connoisseurs, the private tastings are a must.
Some outdoor seating available.
Best dishes: Grilled octopus, chicken liver crostini.
2232 Fifth Ave. S, St Petersburg. 727-440-8040. theurbanstillhouse.com.
9. Kuba Cocina
Many will remember Felicia Lacalle from her time at Hemingway’s, the modern Cuban restaurant inside the Heights Public Market at Tampa’s Armature Works.
Earlier this year, Lacalle’s cooking found a new home in St. Pete Beach — a takeout concept she calls Kuba Cocina (but also Kuba en la Playa, a nod to its proximity to the beach). The spot features several holdovers from her previous restaurant as well as a few additional creations. There’s also really good sangria to-go.
Though there is ample seating outside, the all-day menu is designed with the grab-and-go beachgoer in mind and features handhelds like lobster empanadas, sandwiches and other snacks to-go.
Crispy, bronzed chicharrones are like pork candy, served with a squeeze of fresh lime and a creamy cilantro and garlic aioli for dunking. Lacalle’s specialty, the Kuban fried rice, is a nod to the Chinese Cuban mashup found at restaurants like Tampa’s Arco Iris Cafe. The dish is a showstopper, rich with the flavors of shredded roasted pork and chorizo, speckled with tiny shrimp, chunks of ham, green onions and peas and topped with sweet plantains.
And the massive El Rey Kubano, Lacalle’s take on the Tampa Cuban sandwich, is hands-down one of the best around.
Maybe it’s the gorgeous mural outside the restaurant, or the way the sun hits the shaded patio tables at sunset, or the punch packed by the fruity sangrias that resemble adult-sized Capri Sun pouches — something here just clicks.
Outdoor seating and takeout only.
Best dishes: Kuban fried rice, El Rey Kubano, passion fruit sangria.
7525 Blind Pass Road, St. Pete Beach. 813-255-1241. kubacocina.com.
10. Flor Fina
When Flor Fina first opened inside the splashy new Hotel Haya in Ybor City, the debut was coupled with some pretty big news: Douglas Rodriguez, the tenured Miami chef and godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine, would be running the spot’s culinary operations.
But a lot can happen in a year. Rodriguez has since left the building.
Chef switch-ups this early in the game aren’t usually a harbinger of good things to come, but in this case, things aren’t just looking up — they’re better than ever.
A few months ago, chef Nathan Hardin (formerly of Armature Works’ Steelbach and other projects) took over as executive chef for both Flor Fina and the hotel’s boutique breakfast and lunch spot, Cafe Quiquiriqui. While the overarching concept of upscale Latin cuisine has largely stayed the same, the menu feels fine-tuned and focused now, with an emphasis on Cuban, Italian and Spanish influences emblematic of Ybor’s multicultural roots.
There are plenty of holdouts from Rodriguez’s tenure: a quartet of ceviches, each featuring a different fish and accoutrement (the salmon with the leche de tigre is a winner), and the massive 32-ounce tomahawk ribeye, served family-style with chimichurri.
I’m partial to Hardin’s new additions, which include a play on chorizo meatballs served atop chewy hunks of focaccia, wrapped in a spicy oregano-flecked tomato sauce and tucked beneath a snowy blanket of manchego foam. Crispy-fried carrot falafel are served with a garlicky yogurt and a bundle of fresh herbs, and the Ybor brick chicken is a can’t-miss dish, crispy-skinned and flavorful, served on a bed of smoked squash risotto and salsa verde, and finished with a rosemary-tinged pan sauce.
Best dishes: Chorizo meatballs, Ybor brick chicken.
1412 E Seventh Ave., Tampa. 813-568-1200. hotelhaya.com.