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  1. Best Restaurants

This year’s top restaurants list is our biggest yet

Food critic Laura Reiley’s best restaurant picks include close to 100 new and returning spots.

Forbes, Food & Wine, Thrillist and dozens of other publications seemed to wake up to one incontrovertible fact in 2018: Tampa Bay is an emerging dining destination. While the area’s craft beer scene continued to rise in national prominence, it was the year food halls made a dramatic debut and celebrity chefs like Fabio Viviani (Osteria), Art Smith (Splitsville) and Anne Kearney (the soon-to-open Oak & Ola) put down roots. The gold rush-like frenzy wasn’t all peachy: With so many new independent restaurants opening shop in downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg, restaurateurs found it hard to identify and maintain qualified staff. Food costs and wages rose slightly, but with increased competition for diners’ dollars, menu prices stayed fairly flat.

A line leads to Flock and Stock at Sparkman Wharf. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]

For better or worse, “flux” was the buzzword. A slew of notable restaurateurs embarked on new projects, with even more fresh ventures slated in upcoming months from Tampa Bay folks like Chris Ponte, Jeannie Pierola, Marty Blitz and Maryann Ferenc, and Ted Dorsey. Greg Baker announced his retirement at our repeatedly James Beard-nominated Refinery, and Jeffrey Hileman departed FarmTable Cucina and Locale Market. Fly Bar closed in downtown Tampa with the aim of reopening in the Channel District, while cult faves like St. Petersburg’s Nitally’s closed shop, moved and then announced a second location.

Flamin' Mac-A-Phoni, topped with Flamin' Hot Cheetos, at Dr. BBQ. The restaurant opened this year in downtown St. Petersburg. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

So what were our biggest food trends of the past 12 months? Bowls were everywhere (acai, poke, noodles and more); menus sprouted notations for “vegan,” “vegetarian” and “gluten-free” more routinely; plastic drinking straws and nonrecyclable to-go setups started to wane. Instagram prompted a fad for goth-black charcoal-activated foods (health experts are skeptical about the effects) and small plates, “handhelds” and “interactive” foods garnered enthusiasm.

Grain and Berry in Palm Harbor specializes in healthy bowls with bases like acai berries and pitaya topped with other fruit and toppings. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

One heartening local development was an uptick in Tampa Bay chefs pulling together for fundraisers, special charity cookoffs and guest-chef series. Always a community-minded lot, local restaurateurs raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for notable causes.

In 2019, we are poised for dozens more newcomers and concept changes. That includes an authentic Jewish deli when Cass Street Deli opens in downtown Tampa, an ambitious whole-animal butchery with the Boozy Pig in Tampa, and another location for Datz, this one in St. Petersburg.

The past few years, I’ve done an annual roundup of the 50 best restaurants. I spend all year dining out, tucking away my thoughts on which restaurants represent the best of their cuisine, price point and ambition level, bearing in mind the enormous geographic breadth of our readership. With such an influx of worthy new places, 50 felt insufficient this time around. What follows is Tampa Bay’s top 100ish, grouped by easy-to-use superlatives. As with every year, let me know what I omitted, what I got wrong and what I nailed.

Price key:

Inexpensive (Most dishes under $15)

Moderate (Most entrees under $25)

Expensive (Most entrees more than $25)

Read the list.

This series is edited by Michelle Stark, food and lifestyle editor.

Web production by Gabrielle Calise and Michelle Stark.