Its hard to make a really bad bagel even those frozen Lenders jobs can come through in a pinch. And its equally difficult to make a really good bagel, let alone a perfect one. But St. Pete Bagel Company comes deliciously close, turning out pumpernickel, poppy and cinnamon raisin delights that rival anything youd find in New York. Theyve got great coffee too, and their egg and cheese sandwich is the real deal (no microwaved circles here folks). But its the bagels that make this spot worth the trip. Baked daily on premises, they pass the ultimate test: You can eat em without butter or cream cheese and theyre still damn good. 5835 Memorial Highway, Tampa, 813-889-7710; 7043 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-522-3377.
The rustic Italian loaf here is a revelation, the rosemary focaccia decadent. The pizza is thin-crusted and eclectically topped with anything from carmelized onions to olive tapenade. Since moving into a new and bigger space on MacDill Avenue in South Tampa earlier this year, Pane Rustica and its owners, Kevin and Karyn Kruszewski, have transcended its status as a tiny boho bakery to become a spacious Tuscan wonder that also serves lunches, dinners and gelato. Bread is the star here, but the ever-changing selection of pastries including almond Danish, cherry streudel and chocolate chip croissants is nothing to turn your nose up at either. 3225 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-902-8828.
Youd think making cheap, good bacon and eggs wouldnt be that hard, but damned if it isnt in this town. Even though an aching head and fat-craving body would pretty much eat anything on a hungover Sunday morning, its still a pre-requisite that the food be edible and quick. Thats where Moms Place shines even if it looks packed when you arrive, youre still at a table within 15 minutes, service is quick and efficient, and the fantastic gyro meat omelet comes made to order. All for under $8. That can make your head feel better. 4816 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, 813-875-2670.
In a town full of places that serve good Cuban coffee with milk, the West Tampa Sandwich Shop stands out. Sure, the café con leche here is good the milk steamed just right, the espresso roast strong enough to stand up to it. But the regulars here take their dose of Latinized caffeine with a side of politics. Dunking your Cuban toast here over the years would have been accompanied by visits from John Kerry, Bob Graham, Tipper Gore, Jim Davis or any of myriad Democrats running for public office over the years who have made stopping at the West Tampa café a must-schedule event. Theres not much bipartisanship here: The shop lost its resident Republican, Fred Barksdale, who passed away this year. 3904 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa, 813-873-7104.
If your taste buds are honed to anything curry or red beans and rice cooked Yardie style, Publixs ethnic section just doesnt cut it. Caribbean Trade has a wide range of pepper sauces and seasonings, as well as fresh yams, breadfruit, okra, plantains and all the other essentials. Its also a perfect place to pick up a sixer of Red Stripe. 11502 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa, 813-971-2443, www.tradecaribbean.com.
No contest. Westshore Pizza now sports more than 50 locations from Orlando to Venice, and consistently offers a pie that can hang with the pricier gourmet options. Their crust is nominally thicker than the standard New York style, but still thin enough to please the crispy-crust crowd (ask em to leave it in the over an extra minute or two for you, theyll be glad to); their topping selection is plentiful; their sauce holds just the right tang; and their 18-inch extra-large takes a couple of hungry guys an entire football game to consume. Westshore may be a chain, but its our chain. It was founded in Tampa. There are a gazillion Westshore Pizza locations scattered throughout the Bay area. To find the one nearest you, go to www.westshorepizza.com.
Located in the industrial district between Waters and Hillsborough avenues on a stretch of road remarkably devoid of restaurants, the café draws an abundant lunch crowd from the surrounding warehouses and beyond, and serves cheap, hearty meals to a primarily blue collar crowd, from laborers and tradesman to UPS drivers and call center employees. On the other hand, youll find plenty of suits ordering the $5.50 lunch specials, which include a giant glass of ice tea sweetened or unsweetened. The ambiance is casually nautical, with a few stuffed fish adorning the walls and merry curtains decorated with sail boats and bordered in red gingham. The place has a damn good grouper sandwich, pleasant (and prompt) waitresses, a small selection of beers for folks looking to knock back a few before returning to the grind, and a sociable, always present owner whos been running the place for 12 years. Breakfast and lunch only, Mon.-Sat. 6002 Anderson Road, Tampa, 813-881-9126.
We thought she might fumble by moving to Hyde Park Village from her former location on E. Gandy Boulevard, but damned if she just kicked it up a few notches. B.T., understated and well-loved by the Tampa Bay food community, continues to astound us with her creativity and resilience year after year. Her daytime dishes scream freshness, introducing an otherwise uneducated and dull Tampa public to a whole new range of Asian cuisine. And the evening menu, consistently turning out quality creations, further makes us follow her around like shes Buddha. Hail to B.T. Were so glad youre here and thriving. 1633 W. Snow Ave., Tampa, 813-831-9254.
Ordinary crab Rangoon features a crab and cream cheese mixture thats folded into ready-made wonton wrappers (sometimes called skins) and then tossed into a vat of hot oil and deep-fried. At Hooks, the crab, cream cheese and broccoli blend is wrapped in rice paper and lightly fried, giving them the look of crispy spring rolls and the taste of heaven. A delicious prelude to a fine Asian meal. 1210 Martin Luther King Jr. St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-898-4665; 6305 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, 727-360-4140, www.hookssushi.com.
We just had to give a little love to this place for its kick-ass croutons. Say bye-bye to crunchy nuggets so hard they break your teeth, or so brittle they shatter upon contact with your fork. Ruby Tuesdays garlicky pumpernickel beauties are more addictive than crack, with a sumptuously chewy texture. Theyll add to the overall calorie count, but just lay off the cheese and it all evens out, right? Locations throughout the Bay area. Visit www.rubytuesday.com.