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  1. Food

The un-review: Why we review some restaurants and not others

Reviewing restaurants is like dating. Hope springs eternal each time, but the truth is you've got to kiss (or eat?) a lot of frogs to find Prince Charming Bistro. Over the years I've maintained a single Word doc that starts with Brasa Grill, a Brazilian restaurant on Waters Avenue in Tampa, long defunct. The date next to it is March 1, 2007. This low-tech system is a running tally of everything I've reviewed for the Times, the bottom devoted to those restaurants I've visited but decided not to review.

The outtakes are an increasingly long list.

I opt not to review about one in five places I visit. Sometimes that's my choice because it's a shaky mom-and-pop that is struggling and doesn't need any snarky scrutiny from me to push it over the edge into extinction. Diners are mostly already blissfully unaware of its existence and let it stay that way. A high-profile, big-budget, ambitious newcomer that is seriously wobbly? Bring it on; it's a service to tell readers about its shortcomings.

Sometimes a restaurant is doing lots of things right but has one fatal flaw, something that, as hard as I try, I just can't overlook — seriously, sounds like dating, right? Other times a restaurant fails to bring anything new to the table, seems derivative or duplicates exactly what's down the block. Did they do any market research?

Sometimes a restaurant is retro, and not in a good way, or creepy, also not in a good way, or dirty, or unwholesome-seeming. (I get food poisoning roughly four times a year. Really.)

Maybe it's because I've felt like a cheerleader lately (the Mill, Souzou, Bartaco, Stillwaters Tavern — that's a lot of three-stars doled out this summer), or maybe I'm just grumpy after all this rain, but it seems like a good time to do some un-reviews. Here are some places I've visited recently and not reviewed, and here's why.

The fatal flaw

I started hearing about a fabulous new French bakery at the beginning of July. Opened by a French couple, it is called So Gourmet (the name is one strike: the word "gourmet," like "yuppie," lost its meaning around 1985) and was said to be a straight-up bakery during the day and a wine bar/small plates restaurant in the evening.

Sure enough, it features gorgeous croissants, napoleons, eclairs, pretty fruit tarts and tubs of luscious not-too-sweet chocolate mousse. But at dinner the service was so brusque as to verge on mean. With about four tables seated, the two women manning the dining room one evening were so flustered and aggravated by every request that we sat squirming like reprimanded school kids. I'd really love a glass of water, but do I chance it?

New restaurateurs need to explain their concept and guide first-time customers through the process and the menu. When we arrived, we stood like dolts, unsure what to do in the long absence of any employee in the dining room. The co-owner appeared, only to give us a squinty-eyed gesture to sit down. Long lags between dishes, almost no check-backs, an imperious tone when explaining a menu item — these are the kinds of things that make for a short-lived restaurant in South Tampa, even when the chocolate croissants are dreamy. (3301 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 835-8045)

The redundant

Vue, a gargantuan restaurant on the first floor of One Progress Plaza with the nightclub Vue 19 pulsing 19 floors above, closed amid litigation, accusations and turmoil last August. The sparsely patronized sushi bar reopened under new ownership in March as Patanegra, a Spanish tapas bar. It is two short blocks from the long-established Ceviche, with a very similar menu of hot and cold tapas and a painfully identical lineup for Tapas Tuesday.

On a recent Tuesday I recognized two things: 1) There is a lot of competition these days downtown for discounted sangria, and 2) A cavernous, open-kitchen restaurant designed for sushi doesn't have the hood system necessary to corral grease smells in a frying-intensive environment. After dinner in the nearly empty dining room my clothes reeked of fry oil. Not a deal-breaker if the croquetas, fried calamari and patatas bravas are memorable, but these weren't. It's a pretty restaurant, and dishes like albondigas and beverages like the coquito (a Puerto Rican egg nog-ish cocktail with rum and coconut milk) are worthwhile, with pleasant, if sometimes too loud, live music on the patio. But are these things enough in this densely competitive environment? (200 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 201-9664)

The creepy

When your eyes adjust, you see the smiling face of Carol Burnett. She must have eaten at this 40-year-old Gulfport original at some point. But then what explains the Virgin Mary sculptures everywhere, or the banks of all-seeing glass-eyed teddy bears? There are lacy doilies and murals and fake flowers and turgid oil paintings. La Cote Basque Winehouse has a "nothing succeeds like excess" decorating credo. (Elaborate menorah? Check. Dangling grape clusters near the pope effigy? Got it.)

With a menu that scoots among French, German and Austrian, it may be one of the Tampa Bay area's very last Continental restaurants, a term that used to be synonymous with "fancy" and "date night."

These days it has the hush of a library or a church nave, its wine list an oddly short hodgepodge for something that bills itself as a wine house. There is nothing contemporary about this place, its menu a compendium of cutlets (veal scallopini, chicken paillard) sauteed in buttery sauces glammed up with marsala, sherry or brandy. But here's why I decided not to review it after a recent so-so meal: It has its devotees, people who reliably print out the two-for-one coupons from the restaurant's website. For the rest of us, it's an oddity on the main drag in Gulfport, and every few years we peer into its inky dark recesses and wonder. (3104 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 321-6888)

The 'why bother'

Occasionally there's a new restaurant where I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during menu planning. For the new Caddy's on Central, it must have gone like this: "What are the other restaurants on this block doing?" "Burgers, wings and mac and cheese." "Okay, let's do that then." "How will ours be different?" "We'll call it signature mac and cheese." SFMB Treasure Island Properties (the Kitchen in St. Pete, MacDinton's in Tampa, Yard of Ale in Tarpon Springs) bought the fabled Treasure Island beach bar in April. They also decided to transform the struggling Central Avenue Sports Bar, what used to be the Garden, into a sister restaurant.

The look of the outdoor space is more appealing now, the patio wall closest to the street busted out for maximum passers-by watching. There's live music nightly (philosophical question: Is a guy with a sax singing to prerecorded stuff live music or karaoke-plus?) and happy hour specials like $3 well drinks and Buds. But the menu literally brings nothing new to the table. It's lackluster mahi or pulled pork sandwiches, smoked-then-grilled wings that are utterly forgettable and a big goobly brownie sundae (seriously, I'm guessing 1,800 calories) that is precisely the big goobly brownie sundae I've had at a dozen other places. Add in some marginally trained servers and you wonder what seasoned restaurant folks could be thinking with this one. (217 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 575-7939)

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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