From Bern’s to El Cap, these spots helped shape Tampa Bay’s dining scene.
Published Jan. 30, 2020|Updated Feb. 2, 2020
When I moved to the Tampa Bay area about six months ago, I posed some questions to Tampa Bay Times readers: What makes Tampa Bay dining unique? What are the dishes that define the region?
Some people said there wasn’t such a thing as a quintessential Tampa Bay dish. Others referenced newer restaurants they loved or current dining trends they didn’t. But there was little to no mention of the places that came before — the restaurants that paved the way for the ones we enjoy today.
What I’ve learned so far during my time as Times food critic is that this area’s contemporary dining scene is very new. The landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade: Fine dining restaurants have made way for trendy food halls and fast-casual concepts, while an explosion of immigrant-fueled cuisine continues to influence creative tasting menus and new restaurants. There’s a lot to unpack here.
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But as a newcomer to the area, and as a journalist always looking to put the present into historical context, I needed more. I wanted a way to understand the restaurants of today by learning about the relics and landmark eateries of the past. So I asked a different question: What are Tampa Bay’s most iconic restaurants, and why?
Suddenly, the emails flooded in. Now, it seemed that everyone had an opinion, from where to get the best Cuban or grouper sandwiches to the most time-tested spot to celebrate an anniversary (for more on this, we’ve compiled a story with reader reactions, here). What follows is our list of Tampa Bay’s most iconic restaurants, a collection compiled by poring over hundreds of reader recommendations, our newsroom’s own suggestions and lots of meals I’ve eaten around Tampa Bay.
What makes a restaurant iconic? I asked myself this question plenty of times as I worked on this list. Longevity certainly was a big factor — the restaurants here have all been open for at least a decade, and most have been around for much longer than that. But an iconic restaurant is also one that has made an impact on our community, one that has informed the current dining scene.
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Narrowing this list to 25 places wasn’t easy. Some long-running stalwarts didn’t make the cut because they’ve fallen off the map for contemporary diners. If a place has been around forever but nobody really eats there anymore, it was hard for me to justify its relevance.
To keep it as geographically and economically diverse as possible, we tried to cast a wide net. In the process, we had to shave off a few spots to make room for others. For instance, though tiny in comparison to cities like Tampa or St. Petersburg, Dunedin has a huge culinary footprint — but we chose to narrow it down to just one contender from the city, to make room for other spots on the list.
Ten years from now, this list might look very different. It might include restaurants that helped define the current culinary landscape in Tampa, like Edison: Food & Drink Lab and Rooster & the Till, or St. Petersburg’s Il Ritorno and Brick & Mortar. And it will probably highlight fast-casual concepts like Fresh Kitchen and contemporary comfort food hub Datz, as well as food halls like Armature Works, the Hall on Franklin and Sparkman Wharf.
Like this list, it would be a reflection of who we are today, and how and where we choose to dine.
Bern’s Steak House
There are plenty of ways to make a night of it at this classic Tampa steakhouse. You could start with a glass of bubbly while savoring the complimentary crackers that arrive right around the same time, or go for the house-made potato chips with black truffle creme fraiche. If you opt for dinner, things really start rolling: French onion soup, served under a melted cap of cheese; a garlicky and anchovy-rich Caesar salad prepared tableside; steak tartare flavored with harissa, topped with quail eggs and served with rye toast. And then here come the steaks, all subjected to various lengths of aging in the restaurant’s temperature-controlled meat locker: Chateaubriand, served with bearnaise sauce; filet mignon with sauce au poivre; strip sirloin with a truffled herb butter — the list goes on and on. Ask your server for a little bit of history, and they’ll likely tell you all about Bern Laxer’s vision when he first opened the landmark South Tampa restaurant in 1956, the beginnings of what is now one of the largest wine collections at any restaurant in the world. You could marvel at the encyclopedic wine list, or better yet, ask senior sommelier Brad Dixon or wine director Eric Renaud for a tour of the wine cellar. If you’re lucky, you might get to sample something along the way, an aged Madeira, maybe, or a nip of Sauternes. While you’re in tour mode, why not get a glimpse of the action in the kitchen, where chef de cuisine Habteab Hamde and his crew crank out plate after plate at what feels like lighting speed? End the night by taking a walk up the stairs to the fabled Harry Waugh Dessert Room, where a scoop (or two) of the rich macadamia nut ice cream will have your sweet tooth singing for days. You could also scrap all of the above, belly up to the bar for the expedited Bern’s experience, and order an off-the-menu special: the steak sandwich. However you choose to spend an evening here, it becomes clear that dining at Bern’s isn’t just about the steak. It’s about the experience and exquisite service, the feeling that you couldn’t possibly be having a night like this at any other restaurant anywhere else.
1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-2421; bernssteakhouse.com
Don’t skip: potato chips with creme fraiche, steak tartare, macadamia nut ice cream
Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber
Consider the relish tray. Starting your meal with a selection of applesauce, cottage cheese and corn relish might seem odd (and it’s certainly a sight for those who haven’t dined here before), but for regulars at this Clearwater Beach mainstay, the appearance of the footed silver tray is a time-honored tradition. Robert Heilman Sr. and Eva Nelle Heilman opened the restaurant on Mandalay Avenue in 1948. (A previous incarnation was started in Lorain, Ohio, in the 1920s.) The restaurant was destroyed in a fire in 1959 but quickly rebuilt, and the space still oozes the elegance and glamour of a bygone era. The menu falls in line with the theme. Where else are you going to find a Harvey Wallbanger and Clams Casino on the menu? Dinners start with salad and a choice of vegetable, fries or baked potato. Prime steaks are dry-aged and come with classic accoutrements ranging from a buttery bearnaise sauce to a light yet sultry demi-glace. Fat, golden crab cakes are plump with lump blue crab, and jumbo gulf shrimp are tossed into a hearty pasta primavera and served Rockefeller-style: baked with spinach and topped with a creamy Mornay sauce. There are a few areas in which you can dine, including the Mad Men-esque main dining room outfitted with low ceilings and an intimate atmosphere. If that’s not enough to set the mood, the piano player holding court in the corner of the room certainly helps, as does the Beachcomber Classic martini, which arrives with a sidecar of sorts — a miniature carafe with the remaining cocktail held in a tiny glass globe filled with ice. It’s plenty to keep the evening going, as this place has for decades.
447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach; (727) 442-4144; heilmansbeachcomber.com
Don’t skip: Beachcomber Classic martini, crab cakes, relish tray
Chris Ponte has been very busy lately. Olivia, his highly anticipated Italian newcomer, recently opened in South Tampa, and the celebrated local chef has been diligently prepping for his newest concept, a restaurant in the massive, still-to-open Midtown Tampa development. And let us not forget Hyde Park’s perpetually packed On Swann, which seems as bustling and buzzy as ever. Meanwhile, Ponte’s eponymous Clearwater flagship continues to sail along smoothly, just as it has for the past 17 years. The long bar that zigzags through the center of Cafe Ponte is packed nightly, with guests stopping by for both the Italian espresso martinis and the long-running early bird prix-fixe menu, which at $36 a pop still feels like one of the best deals in town. Dinners can (and should) start with the velvety wild mushroom soup, topped with a frothy truffle cream and chives. From there on out, it’s a seasonally evolving selection of the refined New American cuisine heavy with European influence that Ponte and the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Jason Lutzkhas, have made their calling card. There’s the thick, double-cut pork chop, which arrives plated atop a creamy apple and bacon cheddar polenta and an earthy hazelnut butter, and the half chicken, roasted in a cast iron skillet and served with charred lemon and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Even the dessert menu nails the classics with contemporary touches, like the burnt orange-tinged creme brulee, flavored ever so subtly with cardamom and honey, served with a crisp and sugary almond tuile.
13505 Icot Blvd., Suite 214, Clearwater; (727) 538-5768
Don’t skip: mushroom soup, pork chop, creme brulee
In 1992, proprietors Javier and Tina Avila started hosting Dia de los Muertos celebrations, an homage to the Mexican holiday that features altars decorated with incense, sugar skulls and photographs, and a giant puppet procession that traverses downtown Dunedin. (The parade was canceled in 2019 due to rising costs, but they hope to seek sponsors to resume the tradition this year.) At their Main Street restaurant Casa Tina, the Day of the Dead decor is up year-round. Dining here is like stepping into a multisensory Oaxacan wonderland, outfitted with colorful artwork, dangling star lanterns and the occasional aerial performance artist. The restaurant is among a group of trailblazers in the downtown Dunedin dining scene, including nearby Black Pearl and the waterfront spot Bon Appetit. Casa Tina is the Avilas’ flagship operation; they also own the neighboring restaurant Pan y Vino, a brick oven-fired pizza concept. The couple have been heralded as community leaders, hosting fundraisers for various causes throughout the years, including community schools and charitable organizations. Casa Tina isn’t the spot for a cheapie taco deal. (The restaurant recently upped its prices, and you should know that just the first round of chips is on the house.) Here you’ll find big plates of regional Mexican dishes, many of which were inspired by Javier Avila’s background and the couple’s frequent trips back to Mexico. In the pescado a la Veracruzana, fresh, flaky grouper (or whatever the day’s local catch is) arrives grilled and topped with a bright and juicy sauce of tomatoes, onions, capers and olives. Roasted chiles rellenos are charred and stuffed with melting cheese, while the showstopper plate of chiles en nogada features a traditional dish from the Puebla region in Mexico and comes draped under a creamy brandy walnut sauce and a shower of pomegranate seeds.
365 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 734-9226; casatinas.com
Don’t skip: aerialist shows, pescado a la Veracruzana, chiles en nogada
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There are a lot of things that point to this south St. Petersburg spot’s British influence, not the least of which is the high tea service, a proper English setup in the restaurant’s back dining room. Outfitted with kitschy bric-a-brac, it’s easy to forget where you are amid the tea sets and intricate chinaware, replicas of London telephone booths and photographs of the Queen. But outside on the shaded patio, where a collection of green picnic tables sits surrounded by a lush canopy of tropical plants, you couldn’t be anywhere but Florida. Pink bathtubs double as flower beds, a wooden walkway stretches over a koi pond and a singer belts out cover songs from beneath the fronds of a thatched tiki hut. Owner Helen Lund bought the restaurant in 1951, but the building got its start back in the 1920s, when it was a general store with a gas pump. Lund’s son, Everett, took over the restaurant with his wife, the English-born Jillian Lund Frers, in 1983 and the place is now run and staffed by a collection of family members. The Chattaway cheeseburger is messy and delicious — a fairly straightforward rendition of the American classic, and great when paired with a side of greasy, crispy battered onion rings. Fish and chips are made with cod, while local grouper is served fried, blackened or grilled with a wedge of lemon and tartar sauce. Get the plump shrimp, battered and fried and served alongside fries, with the Cajun seasoning. The Chattaway is a great spot at which to wind down any time of day, but once the sun sets and the dangling pendant lights lend the outdoor oasis a rosy glow, it’s hard not to be wooed by the ramshackle charm.
358 22nd Ave. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-1594; thechattaway.com
Don’t skip: high tea, Chattaburger, shrimp basket
The Columbia Restaurant
What started as a 60-seat cafe in a corner building peddling coffee and Cuban sandwiches to Tampa’s cigar factory workers now occupies an entire city block in historic Ybor City. It’s impossible to dine at Florida’s oldest continuously operated restaurant, founded in 1905 and run by fourth-generation owner Richard Gonzmart, and not feel steeped in the city’s Spanish and Cuban history. A beautiful mosaic of hand-painted Spanish tiles decorates both the building’s outside facade and inside, where a labyrinth of 15 stately dining rooms are each decorated in unique fashion. The menu is a static collection of time-tested dishes, some that live up to their original inspiration better than others. You can’t go wrong with the Cuban sandwich, a hearty combination of flavors packed with Genoa salami, mojo-marinated roast pork, Swiss cheese, ham, pickles and mustard. Prepared tableside, the famed 1905 Salad provides a punchy entrance to a meal, thin strips of baked ham and Swiss cheese tossed with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, briny olives and grated Romano cheese, all dressed in an oily, tangy dressing. The flamenco shows (held every night except Sunday) are a captivating form of entertainment, a cacophony of clacking heels and castanets punctuating the choreographed colorful swishes of fans and skirts. If you’re solo, or simply waiting for your party to arrive, I’d suggest grabbing a seat at the bar and soaking in some of the action. It’s a great place to people-watch (the place is always busy) while whetting your palate with one of the bar menu’s customized twists on the classics, including the 1905 Martini, made with Tito’s vodka and olives stuffed with creamy Spanish Cabrales blue cheese.
2117 E Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 248-4961; columbiarestaurant.com
Don’t skip: 1905 Salad, Cuban sandwich, flamenco shows
Everybody just looks better at Donatello. Maybe it’s the soft pink lighting, or the cavernous, clubby dining room. Maybe it’s the sound of Italian-American big-band crooners pumping softly through the speakers, or the red roses perched on every tabletop. Romance is definitely in the air. Guido Tiozzo and Caesare Tini opened the Dale Mabry Highway restaurant in 1984, and for the past 35 years, it has maintained its reputation as one of the city’s enduring bastions of classic Italian cuisine. Tiozzo passed away in 2019, and his son, Gino, now runs the business — a smooth-sailing ship that delivers exactly what you’d expect of this kind of restaurant, from valet service at the door to tableside Caesar salads and long-stemmed roses awaiting the restaurant’s female patrons as they leave. The menu has settled comfortably on a regional Italian theme and plucks inspiration from all over the country. Bruschetta topped with a tomato medley, punchy with garlic and basil, is a nice way to start the meal, as is the fantastic Caesar salad, slick with anchovies and Parmesan. Pastas, most of which are made in-house, are simple and straightforward, and include the tortellini Aurora, a creamy sausage-filled tortellini with ham and peas, and an excellent linguine draped in a velvety pesto sauce. In a rare example of a chef bending to diners’ whims, guests can ask for pastas prepared with any number of ingredients. For those who can’t decide between two versions on the menu, the kitchen will plate up both on the same dish. The bartenders make a mean Manhattan, and the voluminous wine list includes some harder-to-find Italian wines by the glass — a nice option if the entire bottle of Brunello di Montalcino isn’t in your budget. Prices aren’t cheap, but when you’re staring down what looks like half a Maine lobster on a bed of homemade linguine, the $39.95 price tag makes a little more sense.
232 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 875-6660; donatellotampa.com
Don’t skip: bruschetta, Caesar salad, linguine with pesto
People rave about the burger at El Cap, and for good reason: It’s a really good burger. This is a monster of a patty — thick and juicy with a solid sear from the flattop — sandwiched between two buns smeared with mayonnaise and topped with melted cheese, beefy tomato slices, onions, lettuce and pickle spears. They don’t call this the “world champ” for nothing. The Fourth Street restaurant, a pillar in St. Petersburg’s community since 1964, has remained one of the ‘burg’s most reliable spots to catch the game over a burger and beer. The clientele is a healthy mix of young and old — longtime regulars bellying up to the bar, college kids taking a break from studying or gearing up for the night ahead, families stopping in before or after a Rays game. Not much has changed over the years, though 2019 marked the death of the bar’s longtime owner, Mary Jean Bonfili. She and her husband Frank took over El Cap 40 years ago from his parents, who bought the bar in 1963. Nostalgia is a big part of the spot’s charm: Faded newspaper clippings, horse racing photos, antique lamps and baseball memorabilia hang throughout the restaurant. There are no separate checks, and no free refills on soda. Beyond the burger — which really is this spot’s tour de force — sides like the thick-cut onion rings and tater tots, both fried to a crispy golden brown, are good snacking fodder. Corn dog bites are exactly what they sound like, great for soaking up a beer or two, and weekly specials, including the popular chicken salad sandwich served on Mondays, offer a slight change of pace from the usual bar food staples.
3500 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 521-1314
Don’t skip: cheeseburger, onion rings, chicken salad sandwich
Frenchy’s Original Cafe
If there’s one dish in Tampa Bay that sparks debate the way the Cuban sandwich does, it’s got to be the grouper sandwich. In Clearwater Beach, all signs point to Frenchy’s, although which location is up to you. Thick, meaty grouper fillets are the heart of the operation at any of Frenchy’s five spots, served on an onion roll dressed with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and tartar sauce. It’s a matter of personal choice whether you want your fish golden-fried in a thick and crunchy crust, lightly seasoned and grilled, or coated in Cajun seasoning for an extra kick. Owner Michael “Frenchy” Preston opened the original location on Baymont Street in 1981, and the casual seafood shack quickly became a Clearwater Beach staple. Over the years, the company launched its own fishing operation, and four more locations followed: Frenchy’s Saltwater Cafe, Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, Frenchy’s South Beach Cafe and Frenchy’s Outpost Bar & Grill. All of them tout that same Key West feel, with brightly colored beach decor and an almost exclusively flip-flop-wearing crowd. But there’s a certain nostalgia to the original cafe, a small building with a narrow side patio outside and walls adorned with photos from back in the day. Dishes will vary from location to location, but the streamlined list at the original features a collection of longtime standbys. The creamy she crab soup is a thick and viscous medley plump with crab morsels, similar in flavor and consistency to a West Coast chowder. Meaty grouper cheeks are battered and deep-fried on a stick, served with lemon wedges and tartar sauce. And if stone crabs are in season, there’s really no better way to wind down from a day on the beach than with a pound of cold claws and honey mustard sauce, or hot, with butter, if that’s your thing.
41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach; (727) 446-3607
Don’t skip: grouper sandwich, grouper cheeks, she crab soup
Harvey’s 4th Street Grill
There’s so much going on at Harvey’s 4th Street Grill that it’s kind of difficult to figure out where to look. Do you sit at the bar and stare at the bass holding a golf ball in his mouth beneath a garland of red hot chile pepper lanterns? Or at the taxidermied alligator? What about the boar with a badminton racket, or the suspender-wearing moose decorated with Mardi Gras beads? If it feels like the innards of this joint were salvaged from around St. Petersburg, that’s not entirely wrong. Owner Dan Harvey Jr. opened the north St. Pete restaurant in 1984, plucking items along the way from historic local hotels — the Vinoy, the now-closed Albemarle and Soreno — to add to the mishmash of decorations, which includes doors from the historic Sunshine School in St. Pete Beach. Considering all this, it’s in a curiously nondescript location, tucked in a strip mall next to a pet hospital off Fourth Street. A neighborhood institution, Harvey’s has served as a gathering point for St. Petersburg residents — and often, politicians — for the past 35 years. People swear by the fresh grouper sandwiches and the scallops, the latter of which can be ordered broiled, fried or sauteed in a buttery sauce with mild Cajun seasoning, served with tartar sauce and lemon. Advertised as “West Coast Florida-style” food, it’s a menu where you’ll safely find a collection of classic American fare, like burgers and steaks, salads and sandwiches. Though technically a restaurant and a bar, Harvey’s can sometimes feel more like a bar and a restaurant, meaning the crowd gets friendly and lively, the bar snacks feel appropriate for soaking up one too many cocktails (I’m partial to the cheesy broccoli bites served with horseradish dipping sauce) and the drinks are oh-so-cheap. I ordered a martini here recently — not top shelf, but not bottom of the barrel well either — and it was $6. That’s enough of a reason for me to come back.
3121 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 821-6516; harveys4thstreet.com
Don’t skip: broccoli bites, grouper sandwich, scallops
The Jerk Hut
Some of us are introduced to the wonders of jerk chicken later in life. For Andrew Ashmeade, it was more of a lifelong calling. The Jamaican-born chef brought his signature jerk-style chicken to Tampa Bay diners in 1991, when the 22-year-old started cooking out of a small kitchen in the back of a heavy metal bar on Fletcher Avenue in Tampa. He opened his first location of the Jerk Hut in 1993 on Nebraska Avenue and moved the flagship several times before settling at its current home on Fowler Avenue. He’s also expanded with several offshoots — in downtown Tampa, Seminole Heights and South Tampa. The namesake chicken boasts a smoky, spicy and almost fruity heat. Served with Ashmeade’s signature tomato-based sweet red sauce, it’s a solid — and delicious — primer on Jamaica’s most well-known dish. At lunchtime, or what effectively doubles as a weekend brunch, the buffet offers the best deal to sample the menu’s Caribbean- and West Indian-inspired dishes: yellow curry goat with smothered cabbage and rice and peas; brown stew chicken and oxtail, delivered in a deep brown sauce; sweet plantains; and spicy beef patties. For a large appetite, the escovitch snapper features a pan-fried red snapper topped with a colorful medley of sauteed onions, red peppers and carrots under a bright vinaigrette. You’ll see most folks clutching Red Stripes and rum punches here, but a list of imported nonalcoholic drinks includes the cream soda-esque Kola Champagne and the Trinidadian Sol Banana, along with tropical juices and sorrel, the ubiquitous bright crimson drink made from dried hibiscus leaves.
1241 E Fowler Ave., Tampa; (813) 977-5777; jerkhut.com
Don’t skip: lunch buffet, jerk chicken, oxtail
The restaurant on busy W Columbus Drive has been a Tampa mainstay in some shape or form since 1972, when the Capdevila family opened their original grocery store across the street. These days, the 14,000-square-foot complex (you can’t miss the light pink two-story building) includes a sit-down restaurant, banquet hall and more casual, come-as-you-are cafeteria. Prices across the board are very affordable, and the menu is a timeless collection of the Cuban- and Spanish-tinged dishes that highlight Tampa Bay’s culinary repertoire: ropa vieja, filete salteado, tostones, frijoles negros and arroz con leche. The restaurant also offers a window into the life of local diners. Sit at the horseshoe-shaped counter that snakes through the restaurant’s cafeteria and soak it all in. Construction workers fresh off their shifts. Families with children. Couples on dates. A group of 20-somethings heading into the night (or winding down). Thursdays through Saturdays, the cafeteria stays open 24 hours, and at 2 a.m., you can’t beat the people-watching. In 2002, the late chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain stopped by La Teresita for a snack while he was in town promoting a book. He sat at the counter and ordered roast pork with yellow rice and a side of plantains. To drink, he got a mamey batido. Glancing at the menu, Bourdain told a then-St. Petersburg Times reporter: “I don’t care if I never see another slab of seared foie gras. I really want this.” I couldn’t agree more.
3248 W Columbus Drive, Tampa; (813) 879-9704; lateresitarestaurant.com
Don’t skip: a seat at the cafeteria counter, roast pork with yellow rice
Lorene’s Fish House
Thirty years ago, people knew Lorene Office from the barbecue truck she worked on around town, popping up outside garage lots in Pinellas Park and in front of Tampa nightclubs. In 1994, she opened Lorene’s Fish House, a small cubby of a restaurant on a burgeoning strip of 22nd Street S in St. Petersburg. Things looked a lot different then, Office said. There were homes across the street that eventually were bulldozed, and a hurricane — she can’t remember which one — that ravaged part of the neighborhood. She went through bankruptcy, had to get a job on the side to keep the restaurant open. But 25 years later, her customers are still here, lining up on weekdays around noon for her garlic chicken wings; Big Boy hamburger; mussel and shrimp boils full of corn, sausage and potatoes; and fried pork chop dinners served with sides like mac and cheese, smothered cabbage and collard greens. Regulars swear by the fried grouper sandwich, though Office herself prefers the tilapia, battered in a light cornmeal crust. For years, she sold boiled blue crabs, but a shoulder injury forced her to stop. It hasn’t curbed much else: Office, 69, is still here every day, frying fish and making sandwiches while her niece and great-niece work the registers. Next year, her son will help take over the business. And maybe then, Office said, she’ll retire.
929 22nd St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 321-7297
Don’t skip: fish sandwich, pork chop dinner
Lunch on Limoges
“Just a second, sweetie, there’s a menu around here somewhere,” a waitress said to me while glancing around the busy dining room. In the corner, a table full of ladies celebrating a birthday lunch had decided on their order. Within seconds, a chalkboard easel with the day’s dishes was carted over to me, 15 or so items scribbled down: California chopped salad, poached salmon, Low Country shrimp, Mediterranean eggplant, pork schnitzel. This is what it’s like at Lunch on Limoges, a quaint lunchroom inside a clothing store and novelty gift shop in Dade City. The Williams family has been in this location since 1908, initially as a dry goods store and later as Williams Fashion Center; in 1981, Phil Williams and chef Skip Mize’s restaurant opened inside the fashion center. Meals here start with a basket of miniature muffins, and while wine and beer are served, everyone in the know goes for the raspberry iced tea — a sweet and just barely tart elixir that’s steeped for two days. Though the menu changes daily, a somewhat reliable roster of rotating favorites can be expected: creamy tarragon chicken salad, served on its own or sandwiched between two layers of a croissant; and the pecan flour-crusted grouper, tucked under a crumble of crunchy pecans and served alongside two sides, like snappy green beans and eggplant casserole. A day trip to this north Pasco County city is the way to go. Stroll along the historic main street, pop into the antique shops and end up at Lunch on Limoges. Don’t leave before trying the coconut layer cake, drizzled with lemon curd and tucked beneath a fluffy layer of coconut frosting.
14139 Seventh St., Dade City; (352) 567-5685; lunchonlimoges.com
Don’t skip: pecan-crusted grouper, chicken salad, coconut cake
Mise en Place
What does it take to sustain a contemporary fine dining restaurant for 33 years? Mise en Place proprietors Maryann Ferenc and chef Marty Blitz seem to have found the answer. The duo opened their Tampa restaurant in 1986 and moved to the current location on W Kennedy Boulevard in 1993. The place has always been chef-driven, the menu and impressive wine selection evolving throughout the years while retaining some of the long-running guest favorites. (The chicken liver mousse pate is still on the menu, as is the rack of lamb.) Dishes can wow with something as simple as a bowl of olives, warmed slowly and scented with citrus zest, fennel and the kick of Calabrian chiles. There’s also the excellent Pat LaFrieda burger, smothered with bacon-laced shallot marmalade and truffled tomato aioli — one of the best burgers I’ve come across in recent memory. Ferenc and Blitz have paid attention to the shifting demographics of the downtown neighborhood and to the changing fabric of Tampa Bay’s multifaceted food scene. The restaurant’s physical space has undergone a significant renovation — not a total gutting, more like a facelift. Gone are the sultry, dark chocolate tones and heavy wall columns. In their place, white and gray accents and clear glass partitions imbue a modern and bright dining room. Also new is the Grace & Marty “shopping lounge” at the restaurant’s entrance, where guests can sip while browsing through a collection of interior designer Grace Borgeson finds and a selection of Blitz’s spice line and favorite cooking tools. Mise en Place offers a convincing argument for white tablecloths at a time when diners are being bombarded with fast-casual options. Dining here has always been an excuse to treat yourself, but it’s also a reminder that this sort of timeless elegance can feel effortless when done right. That attention to detail doesn’t have to come in the form of stuffy service or self-important stemware. That little details, like the subtle lighting shifts as day winds into evening and a perfectly made Manhattan, can sometimes make all the difference.
422 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 254-5373; miseonline.com
Don’t skip: Mise Manhattan, Pat LaFrieda burger, Get Blitzed tasting menu
A sign advertising hot cakes and coffee for $2.75 on Wednesdays hangs above the long diner-style countertop, where old friends sidle up to swivel stools, nod and say hello. Most employees have worked here at Munch’s for decades; many of them refer to diners as “sweetie.” Dean and Clariece Munch opened their sundries store and post office in 1952, selling sandwiches out of the back of their car. Today, their son Larry runs this restaurant, a St. Petersburg mainstay with an undeniable time warp effect. Black-and-white class photos from Lakewood Elementary School hang on the wall, weathered copies of Coastal Angler are splayed out on the Formica tables, and there’s a constant stream of coffee in your cup. On Mondays, $2.75 will still get you an order of French toast with coffee. Tuesdays and Saturdays are still reserved for the spot’s legendary fried chicken. A milkshake with everything is always the way to go. And there’s no forgetting that some years ago, a spiky-haired reality television raconteur stopped by: The Guy Fieri posters and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives map are a solid reminder of the time the gregarious food personality gave his stamp of approval. Did it change everything for the restaurant? Yes and no. The day after the show first aired, a line snaked out the door and around the block. Two weeks later, things went back to normal — the way they’ve always been around here.
3920 Sixth St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-5972; munchburger.com
Don’t skip: fried chicken, milkshakes
“Opa!” Every five or 10 minutes you’ll hear this shouted throughout the dining room, a jubilant declaration that someone, somewhere, has ordered the saganaki. And really, one should never dine here and not order this theatrical dish, a Greek classic featuring blazing-hot skillets of fried kefalograviera cheese. A dash of ouzo, a flash in the pan and flames that jump to the sky. Then, a squeeze of lemon is all it needs, the edges fried to a crisp blond, the center soft and almost gooey from the heat. That, and so many other dishes, makes this Sponge Docks icon a worthy reason to visit Tarpon Springs. Andreas and Renee Salivaras opened their restaurant in 1993, and the place still has a distinctly family-run feel. (Renee died in 2010.) Their son Dimitri runs Dimitri’s on the Water, directly across the street. Divided into two narrow dining rooms, the spot gets packed on weekends, when a mix of local families and tourists crams the tables, digging into large bowls of salty taramasalata dip (fish roe spread) and garlicky tzatziki, gyro platters and beef and eggplant moussaka, lamb shanks baked in a fruity tomato sauce and crispy pieces of charbroiled calamari served underneath an olive oil and lemon slick. It’s hard to choose just one iconic place along the historic Sponge Docks, but you’re never going to go wrong here.
628 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; (727) 934-4306
Don’t skip: saganaki, lamb youvetsi, charbroiled calamari
A boisterous buffet-style Sunday brunch (Charcuterie boards! A caviar bar! Bottomless mimosas!) is the go-to affair here, but chef de cuisine Adrihel Rosario’s finessed hand with seafood is what keeps diners coming back. At dinner, two hockey puck-sized crab cakes arrive golden and flaky, served with a sriracha aioli that gets a smoky citrus kick from charred lemons. A pan-roasted grouper flakes away effortlessly and comes nestled on a bed of creamy goat cheese risotto, spinach and oven-roasted tomatoes that are sweet and tangy. If it’s the restaurant’s namesake you’re after, take your pick of classic oysters Rockefeller or served raw on the half-shell, with lemon, fresh horseradish and a mignonette. The sleeper hit is the chargrilled version, sometimes served with a spicy chili or shrimp butter and topped with puffed quinoa for crunch. Oystercatchers is a classy joint, and it’s wise to be prepared for a little sticker shock — this kind of finesse doesn’t come cheap. This is a restaurant that has mastered the art of good lighting, even if you don’t make it in time to catch the spectacular sunset. There is no better way to while away a lazy Sunday morning than on the outdoor patio. And if the elements aren’t agreeing, no sweat: A wall of windows overlooking Old Tampa Bay means there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa; (813) 207-6815
Don’t skip: Sunday brunch, pan-roasted grouper
Maybe it’s the bright fuchsia bougainvillea creeping up the canary yellow walls, or the candelabras covered in dripping wax. Maybe it’s the large chandelier and hanging pendant lights swaying from the rafters of the outdoor dining room, or all that rustic charm. Maybe it’s just the wine. Whatever it is, Pia’s in Gulfport knows how to turn up the romance factor big time. Husband-and-wife team Pia and Tom Goff opened this Italian restaurant in 2005 and quickly gained acclaim with critics and locals alike. The spot oozes all the hallmark characteristics of a cozy neighborhood trattoria, with a menu featuring classic pastas like capellini pomodoro and buttery shrimp scampi over homemade linguine and a short list of entrees, like the parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant Parmesan) and a dish of golden-fried scallops with blue crab ravioli and brown butter sauce flavored with sage and mushrooms. Perhaps a nod to their Gulfport neighbors’ dietary whims, Pia’s also has plenty of vegan dishes and gluten-free pastas on the evolving menu. A nice way to spend an evening here is with an antipasti misto board, a smorgasbord of snacks including thick ribbons of prosciutto di Parma, marinated and grilled veggies, spicy sopressata, mozzarella and a bracingly fresh and garlic-forward bruschetta, served over grilled triangles of crusty bread. Pair that with a bottle of wine and a seat outside in the garden patio on a warm fall evening and try not to be swayed by the romance thickening the air, I dare you.
3054 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 327-2190; piastrattoria.com
Don’t skip: outdoor garden patio, antipasti misto, sauteed calamari
Regulars at Red Mesa know the deal with the sangria. Red, white or “Margarita,” or take your pick from one of the specialty blends. (Blueberry pomegranate, anyone?) It’s one of the many signature charms of the long-running restaurant, which owners Peter and Shawn Veytia opened in 1995 and have since expanded with more casual offshoots Red Mesa Cantina in 2009 and Red Mesa Mercado in 2014. At the original spot on St. Petersburg’s busy Fourth Street, you’ll find a polished and warm atmosphere to accompany chef Chris Fernandez’s creative takes on regional Mexican, Central American and Southwestern cuisines. There’s the cedar planked salmon with chili aioli and cilantro rice, duck enchiladas tucked under a raspberry chipotle cream sauce, fried plantains and yucca fries. If the Edge District’s Mercado location is where you head on a sunny weekend afternoon or for a quick lunch break, and the buzzy downtown Cantina is where you go with a group of friends to turn it up, the original Red Mesa is the place to find yourself when you’re looking for loud, colorful presentations and classic Mexican dishes. After more than two decades in business, this original location has finally gotten its hands on a liquor license, which means the option of brandy in those famed sangrias, but more importantly, because this is a Mexican restaurant, margaritas. I’m partial to the Hot Carlos, a spicy blend of Hornitos Reposado tequila, muddled jalapeno peppers, lime juice and agave.
4912 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 527-8728; redmesarestaurant.com
Don’t skip: blue crab guacamole, cedar planked salmon, Hot Carlos margarita
Salt Rock Grill
Frank Chivas and the late legendary chef Tom Pritchard opened this Indian Shores restaurant in 1997. While the Baystar Restaurant Group has gone on to open multiple other restaurants, this still feels like the anchor of the operation. Upon entering, on your right, there’s an exposed grill — a hearth where dry-aged prime steaks smolder over an oak and citrus wood fire. Nearby, a glistening tower of ice displays red snapper, oysters, lobster tails and Alaskan king crab legs. A cadre of chefs moves swiftly from station to station, looking hot and busy. Because this place is always busy. The dock-to-restaurant line here is literal: Chivas has several fishing boats running daily trips, easy to spot if you sit on the outside patio and watch them back up to the deck overlooking the Intracoastal waterway. The early bird “Supper Club” menu ($16; be seated before or by 5:30 p.m.) includes sourdough bread with herbed dipping oil, a salad and a dessert, plus a choice of several entrees, including the popular coconut-crusted shrimp. Though the menu and handsome decor are perhaps a bit dated, it’s a classic that consistently fires on all cylinders. Fresh seafood dishes and those aged prime steaks anchor the collection of dishes, rounded out with sides like the over-the-top cheesy cauliflower and Vermont cheddar gratin, and the sweet and salty Brussels sprouts medley. They might not be local, but the Alaskan king crabs are the house bestseller, and the option to “surf” or “oscar” it up is always there, so feel free to add a lobster tail or king crab legs with hollandaise sauce to that massive tomahawk steak if the mood strikes.
19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores; (727) 593-7625; saltrockgrill.com
Don’t skip: a seat on the outside deck, Alaskan king crab legs
Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish
For nearly 70 years, the smell of smoked fish, suntan oil and saltwater has been synonymous with this Pasadena Avenue mainstay. The mostly outdoor spot sports a sun-kissed crowd: weekend beach trippers, families with kids in tow, snowbirds from out of town and longtime regulars, many of whom have been frequenting the restaurant for several decades. Ted Peters opened it in 1951 with his half brother Elry Lathrop, and the business has stayed in the family for five generations. Peters’ nephew, Mike Lathrop, now runs the joint with Jay Cook, Peters’ grandson. Everyone comes for the smoked fish, sure — mahi, salmon, mackerel and mullet, all smoked over smoldering Florida red oak. But they’re also here for the German-style potato salad, vinegary and studded with bacon; frosty mugs filled with light beer; and what some will argue is among the area’s best cheeseburgers, with oozing Velveeta cheese. Regulars swear by the smoked mahi spread, chunky with sweet relish and celery, served with saltine crackers. Those in the know will couple it with the restaurant’s burger — the Ted Peters version of surf and turf. This is a cash-only place, but there’s an ATM tucked inside the neighboring smokehouse. You may be tempted to bring along your own catch one day — for an additional charge, the folks here will happily smoke it for you.
1350 Pasadena Ave. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 381-7931; tedpetersfish.com
Don’t skip: smoked salmon and mullet, fish spread
Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple
Here’s a different way to do Sunday brunch. It starts with a drive out to Wat Tampa, the Thai Buddhist temple and cultural center on the banks of the Palm River. Large, ornate gold and green dragons perch in the nearby garden, and a collection of orchid vendors huddles under tents on the sidelines. The scent of lemongrass, ginger and star anise waft through the air, beckoning with portend. There are so many reasons to visit, but the weekly Sunday morning food market, which has been taking place since the 1990s, is the big event. From 8:30 a.m. till 1 p.m., vendors and volunteers set up shop on an elevated covered deck, which snakes around the main building and offers guests a cornucopia of Thai delights. On any given Sunday, the smorgasbord will include fresh spring rolls and papaya salads, chargrilled pork and chicken satay, large containers of pad Thai and plates of red and green curries. The market is a cash-only situation, and during peak hours (around 11 a.m.) the lines can get very long. But it’s all worth it when the bowls of brothy pork and beef noodle soup arrive, teeming with the flavors of galangal root and star anise. Doctor up the bowls to your liking with chili flakes, fish sauce, sliced and pickled jalapenos and sweet red chili paste. For dessert, there are crispy-fried bananas and taro root, plus sweet sticky rice drizzled with coconut milk and served alongside fresh hunks of mango. Before you hit the road, grab an iced tea — sweet, strong and creamy with condensed milk — and a bag of deep-fried shrimp chips, in case you get hungry on the way home.
5306 Palm River Road, Tampa; (813) 621-1669; wattampainenglish.com
Don’t skip: beef noodle soup, papaya salad
West Tampa Sandwich Shop
When you move someplace new as a food critic, people aren’t shy about telling you where to eat. In Tampa Bay, folks don’t hold back when it comes to their opinion on the area’s best spots for a Cuban sandwich. Now, I know these are fighting words, but I received more recommendations for West Tampa Sandwich Shop’s take on the classic than for any other restaurant — by a landslide. As a newcomer, I’m far from an expert in this field. But I will say that the Cuban here has become one of my favorites. I go the route President Barack Obama took when he stopped by in 2012 and got the honey-drizzled version. It’s sticky — and pretty messy if you keep the mayonnaise in there — but something about the way the syrupy sweetness of the honey mingles with the salty pork and ham bits just makes my day. Of course, it’s about so much more than sandwiches here. Breakfasts come served with Cuban toast and cafe con leche, while larger lunch plates — like the masa de puerco (fried pork chunks served with a side of tangy mojo) and soupy shredded beef dish ropa vieja — come with two sides, which range from sweet plantains to crispy-fried tostones and golden yucca spears. Most of all, the tiny shop off Armenia Avenue oozes charisma in the way that only a business with such a strong sense of place and community can. Faded and framed pictures of politicians hang on the wall, counter service is friendly but curt, and there’s a constant flow of clientele, from office groups grabbing a quick business lunch, to construction workers popping in for foil-wrapped Cubans to-go, to regulars catching up over bowls of garbanzo bean soup.
3904 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 873-7104; westtampasandwichshoprestaurant.com
Don’t skip: honey Cuban, breakfast sandwich, masa de puerco
Owners John Zhao and Tommy Tang run popular Chinese restaurant group Yummy House, which kicked off in 2008 with the original Tampa location on Waters Avenue and has gone on to include a Hillsborough Avenue spot and the slightly more contemporary offshoot South China Bistro on Dale Mabry Highway. There are also outposts in Sarasota, Gainesville, Ocala and Orlando. Don’t miss the lunchtime dim sum service, when servers wander the expansive dining room with cart after cart toppling with goodies. If you get here in time, it’s a great selection: fluffy char siu bao (steamed barbecued pork buns), creamy fried turnip cakes dotted with shrimp, rice porridge topped with preserved eggs and shredded pork, cheung fun rice rolls bathed in soy sauce, har gow (delicately pleated shrimp dumplings) and, for the sweet tooth, Hong Kong-style custard egg tarts and sesame balls filled with a sweet red bean paste. The list goes on and on — even the elusive soup dumpling makes an appearance here. Make a reservation for weekend lunches, in particular on holidays, as the place often gets packed with a line snaking out the door. Note that the dim sum menu isn’t the best for vegetarians, but the regular menu is available any time of day and includes the Hong Kong-style Chinese specialties for which the restaurant has garnered accolades, from braised eggplant in garlic oyster sauce and snow pea tips with mushrooms and roasted garlic to creamy honey walnut shrimp and an impressive Peking-style roasted duck spread.
2620 E Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 237-3838; yummyhouseflorida.com
Don’t skip: dim sum lunch, honey walnut shrimp, snow pea tips with mushrooms