Food is my favorite thing, other than … hmm, I don’t know, stumbling upon an abundance of large bills in an old-timey sack, I guess. Otherwise, food. Eating it, cooking it, ordering it, pondering what to consume next while simultaneously shoveling. “Foodie” is a cringe bomb for unfortunate dating profiles, but I like to think I have a wide-ranging palate with space for everything from Popeye’s chicken to fussy dots of foam.
So it was with great delight that I opened Tampa Bay Times food critic Helen Freund’s exhaustive project this week, ready to nod in smug agreement. She’s been working day and night to compile Tampa Bay’s best new restaurants of 2022, as well as the 22 best dishes she ate all year.
Then, tragically, I remembered I am a simple suburban loser who orders the same burrito bowl every week (queso is extra). The pandemic pajama lifestyle has rendered me woefully pedestrian, impossibly behind.
Helen is my friend, and I had the pleasure of accompanying her on some of the meals mentioned in her pieces. Dining out with a food critic is so fun, more casual than you might think if your only exposure to the concept is “Ratatouille.” She does not wear that many turtlenecks, for instance.
But even with that humble brag, I found myself utterly unaware of so many entries on her lists. I became desperate to get to Sarasota’s Meliora, Tampa’s Dang Dude, St. Pete’s Roam. The delicious dishes read like a Pokémon anxiety attack. DOVER SOLE! SCALLOP CREAM! TOMAHAWK STEAK! GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL!
Do you feel the same? No one dines out as broadly as a food critic, so hitting every place is not a realistic standard. But dining destinations have increased in Tampa Bay, rife with condo towers, celebrity chefs and little men in monocles and spats. Who has the time, not to mention the spare mortgage payment, to pay these gourmet tabs?
I asked Helen for tips on breaking in to the bursting food scene when the inclination is to freeze and return to Olive Garden. Not that there’s anything wrong with Olive Garden. Big fan, here. Yes, I want cheese on top.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the restaurant scene?
Absolutely. The Tampa Bay area keeps growing, and so do our restaurant options. With the area’s projected population growth, I doubt our booming restaurant scene is slowing down anytime soon. It’s exciting, for sure, but it can feel extremely challenging to provide a list that encompasses as many restaurants as possible without forgetting anyone.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Of course, I still have to take a critic’s approach and be discerning when choosing which spots to highlight. Not every new restaurant is worth our time or cash. And I try to remind myself that, as much as I wish I could, it’s simply impossible to go everywhere and eat everything. When doing my research, I try to seek out areas I don’t know as well. I also try to make sure I am paying attention to underrepresented communities and smaller restaurants rather than simply focusing on the big name spots that, quite frankly, already get plenty of attention.
Do you think the pandemic changed the way people eat?
Some pandemic-era habits have been hard to shake, and how we approach dining is certainly one of them. Many people are still working remotely, meaning they’re more likely to choose a restaurant that’s close to home during the work week. In the past, we might have met up with co-workers or friends for dinner and drinks near the office, but now it’s more likely we’re settling for takeout. And hey, I get it! It’s a lot easier to convince yourself to put on pants and go check out a new restaurant if you’re already out of the house.
Staying close to home is easy, too, if you live in a densely populated area with tons of great dining options. Why leave? But I’d encourage folks to get out and explore a little more. There’s so much great food out there if you just start looking.
What advice do you have for someone who feels intimidated and selects Red Robin? Not that there’s anything wrong with Red Robin.
One of my new year’s resolutions is to cook one new dish a week. My job requires me to dine out constantly, so cooking exciting meals for myself is where I struggle. But I’d suggest a similar approach for those looking to expand their dining out options.
Start small and set a goal of trying one new restaurant a week, a month, or whatever your budget and schedule allow for. Pick a neighborhood you’ve always wanted to get to know better. Make a promise to yourself that you’ll explore a town or area outside of where you live once a month. And invite friends along so there’s some accountability. It’s also a great way to polish up those rusty pre-pandemic social skills, too.
Can I go to dinner with you again?
Get Stephanie’s newsletter
For weekly bonus content and a look inside columns by Stephanie Hayes, sign up for the free Stephinitely newsletter.