Best Of 2011

For a restaurant that serves a $5 hot dog, Alesia is a stunning place to eat, with clean lines and the kind of effortless, casual beauty you despair of ever accomplishing in your own house. Same with the hot dog, a massive link of sausage nestled in a toasty baguette, drizzled with rich sauce and covered in a gentle blanket of Gruyere cheese, with an impeccable tomato bisque on the side. Add in excellent pho, a killer banh mi and other Vietnamese treats, along with a smattering of French-inspired sandwiches, and you have a meal that will cost you well under $10 and taste better than most high-end restaurants, in a setting to match. 7204 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-345-9701, alesiarestaurant.com.

Food & Drink

Paciugo’s gelato is so good it would make Ben and Jerry cry for their mommies. The texture is smooth and light, more like the whipped cream you would normally douse your ice cream with than the frozen treat underneath. Paciugo will cram multiple varieties of gelato into one cup, and they overfill the brim like they’re paid per artery clogged. Sliding from your tongue to the back of your mouth, the flavors explode in a cold shower of sweet bliss that will have you wondering how anyone could eat simple ice cream again. Third Avenue & Beach Drive, St. Petersburg, paciugo.com.

There are many runners-up for this category: Lightning fans, Plant High School parents after their kids fail a test, and Ronda Storms when the sun shines on gay people. But the best bad attitude of all is when you innocently inquire, “Is this local produce?” at Garden of Eaton, a farmer’s market on South MacDill. Go ahead and try it yourself. Tell ’em Catherine sent you.

Bagels and schmear are dear, but who wants to bother getting out of the car to buy them? Lame. If you’re 76 and hankering for the o-shaped baked good, simply drive through the front of the building for service like the woman at St. Pete Bagel Company did back in April. Her foot “slipped” from the brake to the gas, she said, but honestly — the bagels there are so good they can cause people to do crazy things. Plus, St. Pete Bagel was featured on Groupon that very day, so there were bargains to be had, too. Luckily, despite the fact it was a Monday morning, no one was injured and the shop is back in business. Lesson learned? If there isn’t a drive-thru, just make one! 7043 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, 727-522-3377, stpetebagelco.com.

A self-described “dive bar” isn’t the kind of place you’d expect to find standard-bearers for transgender tolerance and gay marriage. But The Emerald is not just any dive bar — it’s a smoky, noisy, wood-paneled joint, yes, but it’s in downtown St. Pete and its motley clientele is a microcosm of what makes the city cool: hipsters, rockers, old drunks, young drunks, friendly people of all stripes, with all pretensions left at the door. And no one’s cooler than Judah and Levi: Married two years ago in Boston, they’re genial and expert bartenders with a gender-fuck sex appeal that transcends categories. 550 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-898-6054.

For a “beach bar” in the heart of Clearwater, look no further than the intersection of Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Keene Road. Invite a friend and enjoy a two-for-one margarita at the outdoor tiki bar and deck. Then try the Island Shrimp and Rice Bowl or grouper, mahi, catfish or tuna, filleted hourly. 1800 Gulf to Bay Boulevard, Clearwater, 727-446-7027, rumbaislandgrill.com.

Ever wondered why Buddha is always depicted as overweight? Our guess is he’s been bellying up to Wat’s terrific Sunday Morning Market, which offers a great selection of authentic Thai dishes (Phat Thai, chicken curry, guiteow, etc.) to believers and the just-hungry alike. The market takes place at Wat’s beautiful three-acre complex in the Palm River area of Tampa. Come for the God, but stay for the egg rolls. 5306 Palm River Road, Tampa, 813-621-1669, wattampainenglish.com.

When St. Pete’s legendary Pepin Restaurant announced it was closing after more than 35 years of service, residents were sad, even if the ’Burg’s younger denizens never really hipped to the oldster hangout. Enter Hooters, who bought the building and immediately went about renovating the exterior. Gone was the old flat façade, replaced by a new, more rounded profile. We’d love to crack on the finished product, but the fact is that the new Hooters looks great — even if there’s something artificial and prefab about it. 4125 Fourth St. N., St.Petersburg, Hooters.com.

This huge warehouse caters to Latin and Asian restaurant owners, yet is open to the public. You can find fresh bok choy, pork belly, duck and every type of rice and dried legume you can imagine, all at rock bottom prices. Many of the items are sold in small quantities so you are not required to purchase a five-gallon bucket of soy sauce, although they have it if you need it. 2621 E. Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, 813-234-8428, siwffarmersmarket.com.

It’s still early days at this nascent chain concept created by the Melting Pot crew in concert with local star chef Chris Ponte — with a second location opening in Carrollwood in October — but early returns are extremely promising. Largely, that’s due to simple things, like perfectly cooked patties and thoughtful burger construction. We’ll see if more outlets means less influence by Ponte, but in the meantime this is a chain we don’t feel guilty supporting. 9664 W. Linebaugh Ave., Tampa, 813-475-5921, burger21.com.