The Tampa Bay food scene is vast and varied, and for those of us whose job involves visiting lots of restaurants, it can be a challenge to take even a small bite out of it. But some dishes stick with you. In no particular order, here are 10 I’m still thinking about as we head into 2024.
Hanger steak at Wild Child
I could list practically the whole Wild Child menu here, and it’d be accurate. The spot in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District continues to do no wrong, slinging delicious food and clever cocktails. It’s the place I bring people who are visiting from out of town. The menu here changes seasonally, and right now one of my favorite items is the Hanger Steak entree. Like most entrees at Wild Child, it’s quite large, and suitable for sharing with another person if you order one or two smaller plates. Pieces of grilled steak are served on top of a smooth parsnip puree, which reads like a more sophisticated mashed potato. You won’t miss the potatoes, though: Perfectly “thrice cooked” wedges are served alongside the steak in addition to charred broccolini for a nice bitter note. The plate is dressed with a deep brown demi glace (a sauce made from beef drippings and stock) and a bright, herby chimichurri.
2710 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-954-7425. wildchildstpete.com.
Cheesesteak at Violet Stone
The Violet Stone started as a pizza joint, a food truck-turned-inconspicuous storefront on St. Petersburg’s Ninth Avenue North. But the business that opened at the end of 2022 can’t stop innovating, adding sandwiches to their menu earlier this year and breakfast just this month. And while the “well-done” pizzas are solid (though not for everyone!), their sandwiches might be even better, specifically the Cheesesteak. Owners Daniel Fekete and Brittany Costello moved to St. Pete from Philadelphia, so they know their way around this kind of sandwich. Their version is simple, but exquisite. Sliced ribeye is cooked with American cheese and nestled between a homemade sesame roll, the melty cheese holding the meat together in a pile of fatty goodness. Easily one of my favorite bites of the year.
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2134 Ninth Ave. N., St. Petersburg. 727-202-8940. the-violet-stone.square.site.
Chopped salad at Lona
Admittedly, it feels weird to be recommending a salad at one of the area’s new high-profile Mexican restaurants. But it is the bite I loved most on my short visit to Lona. The restaurant, founded by chef Richard Sandoval in Fort Lauderdale, expanded to Tampa this year, opening in July at the Marriott Water Street in collaboration with chef Pablo Salas. I sat at the bar shortly after it opened, and ordered a cocktail, some guacamole and the Lona Chopped. I love a chopped salad, and this one hit the spot. Mixed greens are topped in an aesthetically pleasing fashion with very crispy crumbled bacon, roasted corn, chopped veggies and queso fresco. The sweetness of the corn balances out the acidity of the raw onions, and the fatty crunch of that bacon acts like a savory crouton with each bite. I could bathe in the cilantro ranch dressing.
505 Water St., Tampa. 813-204-6390.
The Reuben at Palm Avenue Deli
Any of the sandwiches at Palm Avenue Deli, which opened in July in downtown Sarasota, are a safe bet. But the Reuben ($22) I had for lunch one weekday was exquisite. It’s pretty traditional: Thick-sliced corned beef is piled on caraway rye bread along with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, dill pickles and Thousand Island dressing. But like everything at the Jewish deli that’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers a ton of to-go items, the quality is high. The sandwich pairs perfectly with their Matzo Ball Soup.
1297 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. 941-263-3742. palmavenuedeli.com.
Seasonal salad at Brick and Mortar
This is still one of the first places I think of when someone asks, “What’s your favorite restaurant in St. Petersburg?” From the beef tartare to the short rib noodles to the perfect burger, their staple menu items remain nourishing and expertly made. But the rest of the menu changes with the seasons, and it’s always fun to pop in and see what the kitchen is cooking at the moment. I stopped by and sat at the bar in November, ready for a glass of wine from the robust wine list and my ideal meal: a hearty salad and french fries. There was a seasonal salad on the specials menu, but when that didn’t catch my eye, the server mentioned another one that sounded better: hearty kale topped with roasted delicata squash, tomatoes, pecans, watermelon radish, goat cheese and pomegranate seeds. It was a lovely fall dish on its own, but the revelation was the schmear of squash puree on the side, which I swiped each bite of salad through. I was so busy enjoying it, I barely noticed when the side of truffle fries arrived.
539 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-822-6540.
Italian Stallion sandwich at Supernatural Food and Wine
It’s easy to drive right past Supernatural Food & Wine, a hole-in-the-wall cafe serving up some of the tastiest food in downtown Tampa. Don’t be deterred by the lack of parking options or the line of trash cans on the sidewalk: You must figure out a way to make it here. Everyone raves about the breakfast sandwich, and for very good reason, but my favorite order here this year was the Italian Stallion sandwich, which comes with lots of meats, provolone cheese and Italian peppers stacked on a sesame ciabatta roll. Sandwiches come with a side, and you should definitely opt for the potato salad, a vinegar-based version that’s frankly impossible to stop eating.
305 E. Polk St., Tampa. 813-202-3324. supernaturalfoodandwine.square.site.
The breakfast plate at Bandit
This is exactly what is sounds like, a plate full of breakfast food, and it’s glorious. The St. Petersburg cafe’s dish hits the spot any time of day, a simple plate that shows expert kitchen technique. Chefs Benjamin Pomales and Adrianna Sciller overhauled the menu a couple of months ago, adding things like Mortadella Toast and a Pimento Cheese Tart. But they kept several classics, including the breakfast plate. Softly scrambled eggs are topped with delicate chives, and served alongside thick-cut bacon, a hash brown that evokes McDonald’s in the best way, and a huge slice of their house-made sourdough bread smeared with seasonal jam. Pair it with a cappuccino and you can’t go wrong.
2662 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. banditstpete.com.
Beef short rib at Lolita’s
Lolita’s isn’t new, but its location in the Morean Center for Clay building in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District is — and it’s as lovely as ever. The restaurant from owners Alex and Kelly Rodriguez reopened in June after six years in a tiny, charming spot closer to Central Avenue. At the new location, a similarly intimate dining room offers a full menu, with Lolita’s signature build-your-own cheese and charcuterie boards plus hot plates including risotto, scallops and, my personal favorite, the Beef Short Rib. Fall-apart beef is served atop a creamy, bubbly Gorgonzola gnocchi. The wild mushroom gremolata and crispy shallots on top seal the deal. A close second to my favorite bite there this year is the ricotta dip in The Mezze trio, the smooth cheese topped with balsamic pearls that pop in your mouth for the perfect hit of acidity.
420 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg. 727-505-0503. lolitaswinemarket.com.
Ravani Cake at Allelo
My friends and I first ate this dessert on a magical girls night in September, and we still talk about it every time we go out to eat. One of them even tried to reverse-engineer it at home. A petite two-layer olive oil cake, it’s modeled after a Mediterranean sponge cake usually made with olive oil and yogurt. Soaked in a sweet syrup and slathered with a citrusy cream, Allelo’s Ravani Cake is light but decadent, the kind of thing you can’t stop eating even if you’re full from a typically excellent meal at this Beach Drive spot. The chopped pistachios add a nice bit of crunch.
300 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. 727-851-9582. allelostpete.com.
Pimento biscuit from Spare Kitchen
Spare Kitchen is a tiny business run by Michael Calvino, who offers private chef services and also baked goods for local delivery or pickup in the Manatee-Sarasota area. He can also be found at the Lakewood Ranch Farmers Market, which happens every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Waterside Place. On a recent weekend, he was slinging buttermilk biscuits, which he makes fresh in a tiny oven at the market, and pork sausage patties, which he crafts from a family recipe. I was already full from my fair share of snacks when I smelled the biscuits wafting from the Spare Kitchen tent. There were plain, pimento cheese and rosemary garlic biscuits that day, and while I wanted all three, I opted for the pimento cheese one with a sausage patty sandwiched between it. He was out of the molasses apple butter spread, also homemade, otherwise I would have slathered some of that on, too. I ate the whole thing in about five minutes.
Order biscuits and find out when Spare Kitchen will be at local markets at spare-kitchen.com.