Remember when we were all obsessed with the French paradox, galled by the Gallic ability to eat butter and cream and foie gras and still maintain sveltehood? I’m throwing down a new theory: It’s because they eat said butter and foie in the context of romantic tete a tetes, the libido essentially kick-starting the metabolism. Eh, I could be wrong, but French food is undeniably the most romantic - the towering pouf of a Grand Marnier souffle, slithery escargots puddled with garlic-kissed butter, the plushness of slow-simmered coq au vin.
Dominique Christini has been bringing his version of French classics to Largo since 1986. It’s the kind of dining room where you can hear yourself talk, there’s space between tables, snowy white tablecloths, chateaubriand with sauce bearnaise and a cheese course with luscious offerings like Mimolette, a deep orange cheese that was illegal in the United States for a while. Christini regularly teaches intimate French cooking classes and puts on edifying special wine dinners. cafelargorestaurant.com
Address: 12551 Indian Rocks Road, Largo
Phone: (727) 596-6282
This is no place for marital advice. Or is it? People get so fixated on getting married that they fail to really ponder being married. Cafe Ponte can help with that. Google “Cafe Ponte” and the first thing that comes up is “Cafe Ponte: Wedding Catering Tampa.” It’s a big piece of Chris Ponte’s pie, surely. But once the canapes and his-and-hers cocktails have been dispatched, then what? Have a date night once in a while, lean in close, take the time. Cafe Ponte is a good place to do it, the service staff always professional and solicitous, the food consistent and luxurious. Ponte has other projects - he’s a partner at On Swann in Tampa and will soon open a family-friendly Italian restaurant called Olivia in the South Tampa Carmel Cafe space - but this is his flagship, for 17 years one of the area’s reliable places for business lunches and amorous assignations fueled by wild mushroom bisque, classic steak tartare and short ribs with Moroccan carrot puree and sesame dates. Bargain hunters swear by the four-course prix-fixe dinner for $36 before 6:30 p.m., whereas high rollers endorse the pull-out-all-the-stops $95 six-courser. cafeponte.com
Address: 13505 Icot Blvd., No. 214, Clearwater
Phone: (727) 538-5768
CW’s Gin Joint
Do you own spats? Or a flapper dress? Do you like movies about Al Capone or bootlegging? If you answered “yes” (or even “no”), I’ve got a restaurant for you. Carolyn Wilson opened this vivacious paean to the Roaring Twenties near the end of 2017 down the block from the Tampa Theatre and adjacent to her special event space called the Vault. She had the good sense to hire excellent people, famed mixologist Dean Hurst coming on board to design a gin-centric Prohibition-era cocktail list, French chef and instructor Gui Alinat working with Cody Tiner to execute a nostalgic but luxuriously appropriate menu.
It’s a date-night place, dozens of twinkly chandeliers overhead rendering your sweetie’s eyes mysterious, live chanteuse crooning in the corner, gleaming domed dessert cart making you feel like a giddy kid (flaming bananas foster! floating islands!). Go pate and rillettes, then raw oysters and braised mussels and caviar blini - a whole meal of finger food makes everyone a little greasy but downright concupiscent. cwginjoint.com
Address: 633 N Franklin St., Tampa
Phone: (813) 816-1446
They call me. They ask: What’s a great restaurant out at the beaches? There are some good ones, sure. But an independent, smart, sensibly scaled restaurant that doesn’t rely overmuch on the Fryolator - that had been a tall order until Grace burst onto the scene in 2017. Lisa Masterson and Marlin Kaplan moved from Cleveland to Tierra Verde and decided they had one more restaurant in them, joining two smaller spaces and kitting them out with a classy blue-lit, mirror-backed bar and a fairly neutral dining room with pops of lapis lazuli water glasses.
It’s a pretty space (my only caveat that it can get loud when full) with a personal and breezy approach to hip New American cuisine that always keeps vegetarians and vegans accommodated. The menu has stayed fairly steady since opening. Some of my favorite dishes include the Middle Eastern-inflected heirloom tomato salad with pistachios and orange blossom water, the lemon- and herb-stuffed chicken and, the height of luxury, the lobster cocktail. gracestpete.com
Address: 120 Eighth Ave., St. Pete Beach
Phone: (727) 317-4770
Cricket Plunkett and Jason Borajkiewicz do things their own way. They opened a teeny restaurant far from the Restaurant Row of downtown Dunedin. They did their own kind of food - precise, architectural, but still very fresh and veggie-forward. They opted for no reservations and no phone and eventually they settled on just five nights a week, Monday to Friday. That’s right, they aren’t open to the public on Saturday nights. I’ve stewed about them since they opened in 2017. Would enough people find their way there? With only 18 seats and no lunch service, can they make enough to survive? Have a little faith, Reiley, they’ve got this. They can’t accommodate big parties and they’re not keen on children under 5. What they excel at is preparing incredibly ambitious food in a microscopic open kitchen. (Pro tip: The bar is the place to be if you like ringside.) They have an eye to things that marry sweet and savory (lots of savory dessert elements), every hyper-composed plate a juxtaposition of color and texture without being fussy. Right now it’s five starters, three mains, three desserts. The menu can trot close to Italy (risotto with foie gras or linguini with black truffle), but fish presentations have a Scandinavian drama and purity. Despite a haiku-short daily wine and beer list, they host frequent wine dinners and reserve Saturday nights for private parties. restorativerestaurant.com
Address: 420 Patricia Ave., Dunedin