Dining Guide

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HILLSBOROUGH

Tampa

Carrollwood/Northwest Tampa

Kaisen Sushi, 12785 N. Dale Mabry, in Mission Bell Square (813-969-3848). This friendly, casual and tiny cafe offers exceptionally fresh, artfully prepared, delicious and value priced sushi. What more can you ask for? A must-try is the calamari, thick slices of succulent grilled squid served in a dark, smoky sauce. Sweet grilled eel and seared tuna are excellent, and ask if they have toro, the choice, fatty tuna. Bargain "no-sushi" dinners offer enormous portions of tempura and teriyaki. $$

Jasmine Thai Restaurant, 13248 N. Dale Mabry (813-968-1501). No doubt this is one of Tampa's best Thai eateries. The dominant Thai influence, Indian-Chinese, with an added emphasis on fresh herbs and spices such as cilantro, garlic, lemongrass, mint and chilies, make this a cuisine to savor; almost like no other. $$

La Maison Basque, 3621 W. Waters Ave., Tampa (813-932-1922). Chef Felix Piedra turned this strip shopping center storefront into a cozy dining room with an open kitchen, where he prepares the Spanish/French influenced cuisine of the Basque region. The menu has a European feel, with dishes like fresh chicken breast sauteed in brandy cream sauce, and imported wild rabbit cooked in Galician albarino wine, but surprising ways with seafood put this place on the map. Seafood paella, overflowing with lobster, grouper, clams, shrimp and squid is the house specialty, along with black grouper stuffed with squid and dressed with a cream sauce made of squid ink. $$

Vallarta Mexican Restaurant, 13731 N. Dale Mabry (813-264-7691). The Jimenez family puts plenty of tasty dishes on the table, all served with zesty homemade salsa and guacamole. Large portions of well-known favorites like chimichangas, quesadillas, burritos and taco salads make up most of the long menu, all made with better ingredients and fresher flavors than you'll find if you run for the border. Dinner platters will fill you up for under a tenner. Smaller lunch portions start at $3.50. $

Central/West Tampa

Donatello, 232 N. Dale Mabry (813-875-6660). Some of the area's best Northern Italian cuisine also exhibits some of the finest service in town. Favorites include capellini d'angelo, agnolotti with cream and Parmesan and an excellent prosciutto di Parma. Be sure to have at least one of the desserts: Neapolitan cake, chocolate-drenched profiteroles, tiramisu, or fresh fruit tarts. $$$

Jimbo's Pit Bar B-Q, 4103 W. Kennedy Blvd. (813-289-9724). Real down-home pit barbecue is gussied up with Jimbo's own secret seasonings and sauces and served in heapin' portions. Fill up on smoked pig ribs, chicken, sliced pork or beef and ham, along with homemade beans and cole slaw and always a hot slice of homemade apple pie. Dinner plates range from $6.95 to $9.95. $

La Teresita, 3248 W. Columbus Drive (813-879-4909). Eat at the counter at this authentic Cuban restaurant with complete meals for under $5. Some of the best black beans and rice in town. Check out the revamped Pinellas location at 7101 66th St. N., Pinellas Park (727-546-5785). $

Mambo's, 4423 N. Armenia Ave. (813-873-1995). This classic "fonda," or neighborhood cafe, is one of the best places to taste the home cooking of Puerto Rico. Step into the cafeteria-style serving line and choose from savory entrees like plantain fritters stuffed with seasoned, ground chicken or adobe-seasoned pork roasted with green bananas, as well as traditional treats like octopus salad. Flavors are fresh, portions are generous and prices are low. Dinners cost $4.99 to $8.95. $

New City Diner, 1002 N. Himes Ave. (813-877-2088). Like a blast from the past, hot cups of joe and heaping platters of food are served up in the bustling atmosphere of an old-fashioned stainless steel diner. But there's nothing old-fashioned about the menu. Look for Roger Lenzi's first-class, creative New American cuisine on a menu that changes daily, all at low-dough prices, with entrees priced between $5.95 to $14.95. Look for dishes like nouvelle meatloaf with wild mushrooms, Cajun-spiced pork roast Mediterranean grilled lamb. Diner food just doesn't get any better than this. $

Tampa — Davis Islands

Estela's Mexican Restaurant, 209 E. Davis Blvd. (813-251-0558). Enjoy traditional Mexican specialties while dining al fresco or inside this charming cantina. Excellent fresh salsa, smoky enchiladas and tasty margaritas are menu highlights. Great lunch specials and no less than 25 dinner combinations. Fresh fruit and carrot juices are squeezed to order. $

Pink Flamingo, 210 E. Davis Blvd. (813-251-2928). The Islanders know this is the place to go for breakfast or lunch. Wake up to a "Healthy Start," a big bowl of fresh, seasonal fruit tossed with low-fat strawberry and banana yogurt, topped with granola, and your choice of a jumbo muffin or bagel for $5.65. Your mouth will water for hot-off-the-grill sandwiches, like the Island Club, packed with turkey, ham and bacon, sliced avocado, tomatoes and melted Swiss cheese on pumpernickel bread with a light, creamy mustard sauce. Breakfasts range from $2.45 to $6.75., lunches from $4.75 to $6.45. $

Pipo's Latin Cafe, 238 E. Davis Blvd. (813-253-8100). At lunch, expect Pipo's traditional Cuban cafeteria-style food and service, with large servings, modest prices and the best mojo roast pork in the Bay area. The food goes upscale with an infusion of Latin, Caribbean and Old World influences. $$

Tate Brothers Pizza, 233 Davis Blvd., Suite A (813-251-2767). This casual eat-in/takeout pizza place is family-owned and operated. No Ragu and frozen bread dough here. Sauces, meatballs and crusts are homemade. Toppings are fresh and good quality, like first-rate cheeses, pepperoni and, God bless them, fresh garlic on the pizza! Yummy breadsticks, soft and dripping with butter. Calzones as big as the plate are a meal in themselves. $Downtown Tampa

Mise en Place, 442 W. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 250 (813-254-5373). Owners Marty and Marianne Blitz create a culinary happening in this smart brasserie-style eatery. Billed as a "Neo-American Bistro," Mise En Place is located just across from the University of Tampa. $$$

East Tampa

V.P.'s Country Barbecue and Catering, 7117 U.S. 301 N. and Sligh Ave. (813-626-1996). Vasko and Emilia Popov bring a bit of Bulgarian spice to old-fashioned American barbecue. Lamb, pork, beef and ribs are slow roasted, smoked and spiced with the chef's secret sauce. Picnic under palm-thatched shelters among wide-spreading oak trees or go inside and see the spotless barbecue kitchen. Whole, spit-roasted lambs are a catering specialty. $ 1/2

Tampa — Hyde Park

42nd Street Bistro, 516 S. Howard Ave. (813-253-0042). Plenty of food and action at this 1940s-style New York bistro. Not only do these ladies-in-the-know serve some of the best martinis and manhattans this side of the Bay, but gourmet pizzas, salads and entrees are innovative as well as downright delectable. Superb desserts; perfect for after the theater. $$$

Antipasto's, 2202 W. Platt St. (813-259-1168). The name says Italian, but your taste buds will tell you Dwight and Lauren Otis from Next City Grill are back to their old tricks, exciting us with fresh, unexpected twists. Eighteen starters include fantastic hot and cold soups, cold vegetable nibbles and small pizzas on flatbread. "Meals In A Bowl" pair homemade pastas with fresh sauces, veal, homemade meatballs and fresh vegetables. Good beer and wine list. Starters range from $3 to $7. Entrees range from $7 to $12. $$

Bacchus Sushi and Noodles, 720 S. Howard Ave. (813- 254-0004). Expect flash and fusion in both food and decor at this high-energy addition to the late-night dining scene. The menu has an Asian accent but offers American-friendly sushi, sashimi, tempura and noodle bowls, along with big steaks and pork cutlets. Most dishes come in small portions for one-from-column-A and two-from-column-B fun, but Bacchanalian appetites will appreciate the huge, whole snapper wok-sauteed, with crispy noodles, vegetables and a savory sauce. Prices range from $6 to $19. $$

Bella's, 1413 S. Howard Ave. (813-254-3355). After 11 years, this South Howard favorite still packs 'em in with tasty pasta and casual ambiance. Try the fine fettuccine Bolognese, or pasta il mare, shrimp and scallops with leeks and mushrooms in a roasted tomato cream sauce. Definitely save room for dessert! Dinner entrees from $6.75 to $12.95. $$

Bern's Steak House, 1208 S. Howard Ave. (813-251-2421). Famous for its wines and prime steaks, this restaurant is one of the most remarkable in the world. A perennial Wine Spectator award-winner, the new 212-page wine list weighs in at about 8 pounds with approximately 7,000 selections. There's a superb list of caviar from around the world, a selection of 1,800 dessert wines and spirits, an antiquarian bookstore and a huge selection of outrageous desserts in the upstairs dessert room. $$$

Blue Gardenia, 1809 W. Platt St. (813-250-1595). In both mood and food, the Blue Gardenia offers a perfect mix of subtle sophistication and casual fun as a husband-and-wife team of chefs serve up their own take on tasty. Pass an order of four slipper lobster Popsicles around the table while you study the menu, then feast on succulent duck breast bathed in a rosemary, orange and balsamic reduction and served with gingered sweet potatoes, or try the towering filet of yellow fin tuna served atop a Maine lobster Tater Tot. Save room for desserts like ginger chocolate ganache tart with whipped ginger chocolate cream, or simply linger with a fine aged port.

Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant, 2109 Bayshore Blvd. (813-250-0203), on the ground floor of the Royal Condominium. The owners of Le Bordeaux turn their attention to Spain, with authentic tapas and great sangria. Start a theater date with a few tapas and a glass of wine, and return later for dinner entrees, like wood-roasted baby lamb. Open after 5 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday. $$$

Evos, 609 S. Howard Ave. (813-258-EVOS). Who says fast food has to be bad for you? This is the scene for some of our favorite fast food, like crispy air fries, all-fruit smoothies and great tasting, healthy burgers and chili, so flavorful, you'll never believe they're low in fat and cholesterol. $

Gourmet Pizza Company, 610 S. Armenia Ave. (813-258-1999). The word "gourmet" gets tossed around far too casually. We think it should be reserved for places like The Gourmet Pizza Co. where quality, creativity and flavor really shine. The classic pie is great. That's a given. But give your taste buds a thrill with specialty pies like Thai chicken, with crisp veggies and spicy peanut sauce, or the steak gorgonzola, with sliced rib eye, caramelized red onions and fresh mushrooms sprinkled with tangy blue cheese. Green salads, pastas and stromboli-like cazollis round out the menu. Twelve-inch pies range from $10.70 to $12.90. $

Hugo's Spanish Restaurant, 931 S. Howard Ave. (813-251-2842). A friendly Spanish/Cuban eatery on bustling Howard Avenue. It's not "gourmet city" and it's not fancy, but it's darn good. Black beans and yellow rice are among the best in town; a whopping plateful easily feeds at least two hungry caballeros. $

Le Bordeaux, 1502 S. Howard Ave. (813-254-4387). For Provencale cuisine, you can't get better. Meats and fish are fresh, and a blackboard menu that changes daily always has a great selection. $$$

McHale's ChopHouse Barbecue With Style, 808 S. Howard Ave., next to Tuscan Oven (813-250-9809). Don't let a few classy touches, like cloth napkins and big, comfy booths, fool you. This is bodacious, down-home barbecue. Juicy, succulent Texas brisket, authentic St. Louis-style ribs, smoked duck, great grilled steaks, even pan-seared salmon are all done right and served with fresh, homemade dipping sauces. Try the aged prime rib, dry rubbed with fresh spices and herbs, and slowly roasted over a hardwood fire, served with mashed potatoes and rich beef gravy subtly flavored with Cajun spices. Sandwiches cost $6.25 to $7.99, and entrees range from $11 to $17. $$

The Old Meeting House, 901 S. Howard Ave. (813-251-1754). For more than a half-century, this beloved institution has been delighting people with good old American diner food. Blue plate specials, such as tasty meat loaf, roasted chicken and roast beef are served on blue plates at prices around $5. We love their big, thick hamburgers. Hearty breakfasts are served till 11 a.m. Treat yourself to a malt with homemade ice cream. Cash only, with an on-site ATM. Open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. Breakfast served till 11 a.m. $

Royal Palace Thai Restaurant, 811 S. Howard Ave. (813-258-5893). You'll eat like royalty at this Thai restaurant, where they show off one of the best curry sauces for seafood we've ever tasted. Any dish that promises "crispy" is a delight, from the delicate, crispy duck breast to the flash-fried red snapper. More traditional dishes show that Thai flavors can be subtle as well as spicy. Expect delicious food, a lovely interior and polite, if unpolished, service. Entree prices range from $7.95 to $14.95. $$

Sally O'Neal's Pizza Hotline, 1319 S. Howard Ave. (813-251-0220). Wrap your mouth around a piece of pizza that will please you plenty. The Pizza Hotline is a longtime favorite in Hyde Park, turning out first-rate pizza made with top-quality ingredients. A favorite is the chicken artichoke pizza: a white pizza that has layers of ricotta, mozzarella and provolone; a dash of Romano and feta; with onions, garlic and herbs. Good calzones and pastas, too. All together now: "Yuuuuuuum!" $

Sole Mio, 3201 S. Dale Mabry (813-902-1222). Forget about those tasteless, cardboard-crust franchise pizzas. This is pie the way it should be: crisp, fragrant, hand-tossed crust topped with rich, homemade red sauce and deli-quality toppings like real Parma prosciutto, ripe tomatoes, fresh arugula and basil. We love the deep, rich flavors of the chicken and artichoke pie. To really indulge, be sure and ask for a cup of the homemade garlic butter sauce. Twelve-inch pies range from $6.95 to $10.45. Try their great deli sandwiches and antipasto too. $

SideBern's, 2208 Morrison Ave., Tampa (813-258-2233). Chef Jeannie Pierola, one of the shining stars of Tampa Bay's dining scene, creates a cuisine that is both luscious and lustrous and serves it in a sophisticated setting that manages to be both worldly and witty. The chef grabs premier ingredients from around the globe and blends them into deeply flavorful and texturally exciting dishes, like a mignon cut of tuna and rare Kumomoto oysters wok seared with shiitake mushrooms in a cognac sauce, served with truffled potato puree and baby bok choy, or, for meat-eaters, a duo of short ribs and hanger steak with an orange rosemary ginger steak sauce, horseradish glazed potatoes, and a side of roasted carrots and parsnips. From soup to nuts, it's a tour de force of fine dining at surprisingly affordable prices. Menu entrees range from $13.91 to $18.91 $$$

Tuscan Oven, 808 S. Howard Ave. (813-251-0619). A wood-burning oven is the heart of the kitchen, adding flavor and crusty texture to breads, pizzas, roasted meats, seafoods and vegetables. Try slow-cooked Osso Buco or creamy four cheese pasta and for dessert, a warm, sweet polenta bread pudding with seasonal berries. Dinner entrees range from $6.99 to $12.99 $$

The Wine Exchange, 1611 W. Swann Ave. (813-254-9463). David Tyler and crew pair fine wines with good food. For appetizers try the country stufel, wild mushrooms in pastry with a horseradish sauce or their spicy island cakes with jerked crab in honey yogurt sauce. There are soups, salads, innovative pizzas, pastas and a good choice of savory entrees, including a grilled lamb tenderloin with a cream sauce over fettuccini. $$

Tampa — Seminole Heights

Ansley's Natural Marketplace, 402 Sligh Ave. E. (813-239-2700), and 3936 Kennedy Blvd., Tampa (813-879-6625). Large, natural food stores with exceptional produce. The Sligh location also has a bakery with good whole-grain breads, carrot loafs and such. Good takeout prepared foods with plenty of flavor and variety. $

Rigo's Eatery, 6607 N. Florida Ave. (813-236-7446; www.rigoseatery.com). This arty little eatery is terribly tiny. Good thing they have a big garden patio out back. Inside, you can order scrumptious breakfast and brunch foods like made-to-order French toast and waffles, eggs Benedict, breakfast sandwiches and more. Lunch and dinner offer big, tasty sandwiches, several "meals-in-a-minute" for the on-the-go diner, and for dessert, old-fashioned ice cream sundaes with plenty of ooey-gooey toppings. Not too hungry? The easygoing atmosphere makes it a swell place to stop for a cafe con leche and slice of tiramisu while you read the Weekly Planet. $

South Tampa/Palma Ceia/ Interbay

Al Bacio, 3211 Bay to Bay Blvd. (813-839-8486). Yet another in the new mode of gourmet pizzerias, using fine ingredients and fresh ideas to create tasty pies, like the Latin Lover, an ultra-thin crust topped with garlic cream sauce, caramelized onions, Cuban mojo roast pork and a sprinkle of cheese. The flirtatious might like a Flirtation, an ultra-thin crust brushed with fragrant olive oil, covered with caramelized onions and dotted with olive tapenade and goat cheese. Salads, sandwiches, coffee and desserts, as well, can be enjoyed on the outdoor terrace. $

Bec's, 6211 S. MacDill Ave. (813-837-2700). This tiny place (three tables inside, more on a charming outdoor patio) is open seven days a week. Grab-n-go morning drivers will love the palmlettes, calzone-like breakfast sandwiches stuffed with delicious combos of eggs, meat, cheeses and veggies. For brunch, try baked egg souffles with a variety of meats, cheeses and veggies, or baked French toast with cinnamon custard and a topping, either banana pecan or Vermont cinnamon apple, both with whipped cream. Lox and bagel lovers will appreciate the generous Nova platter. For lunch, try dough-zers, big, overstuffed pockets with tasty, creative fillings. $

Cafe B.T., 3324 W. Gandy Blvd. (813-831-9254). B.T. Nguyen will graciously welcome you to her casual, yet sophisticated cafe and introduce you to the fresh fusion flavors of French and Vietnamese cuisine. At lunch, try light fare like salads packed with a profusion of fragrant herbs and fresh dressings. At dinner, focus on some of the most creative daily specials around. Our favorites include duck breast with a buttery mango sauce and baby grilled lobster tails spiked with Dubonnet. A wine list is available. Entrees range from $12.95 to $24.95. $$

Caffe Italia, 3114 Bay to Bay Blvd. (813-831-0600). Leave it to savvy chef/owner Andre to create some of the most awesome cuisine "Italiano" in town. For starters try the melanzane, thinly sliced eggplant in extra virgin olive oil. Continue with the radicchio and endive salad. Follow with at least one pasta selection, like Andre's cappellacci di zucca, homemade spinach pasta with squash in a light tomato cream sauce. $$$

Caffe Paradiso, 4205 S. MacDill Ave. (813-835-6622). Delectable Northern Italian cuisine can be had in this cozy trattoria-style ristorante. Pastas are fresh, veal is simply exquisite and seafood is, well, magnifico! $$

Cesare's of New York, 2117 S. Dale Mabry (813-254-2141). Cesare made his way from Italy to New York, then to Tampa. Their loss is our gain, as evidenced in his crusty New York-style pizza dough, tomato sauces, and his deft hand at putting it all together. Fresh spinach with double cheese and tomato sauce is the house specialty. $

Dong Phuong, 3636 Henderson Blvd. (813-874-2919). Closed Sunday and Monday. This dinky cafe, which shares space with an Asian grocery, serves the basic refreshing Vietnamese noodle dishes and pho, the meal-in-a-bowl. A good spring roll, grilled shrimp and pork over noodles and Vietnamese filtered iced coffee costs under $8. The market offers bargains on fresh herbs and Asian produce. $

Fuji Sushi Bar and Japanese Restaurant, 1155 S. Dale Mabry (813-282-9098). Look for traditional Japanese dinners like katsu, fried beef, chicken or pork cutlets, along with shrimp and vegetable teriyaki on the menu, with a sushi bar offering daily lunch and dinner specials. Bento boxes are the best buy. Isobeage, seasoned, grilled salmon rolled with seaweed paper, is a treat. $$

Green Iguana Bar & Grill, 4029 West Shore Blvd. Cheap eats in a rowdy setting. The food is surprisingly good for a place where the focus is on drinking, loud music and the usual watering hole mating rituals. Try the grouper sandwich. $

Il Gabbiano, 3671 West Shore Blvd. S. (813-831-0694). Inside Il Gabbiano you'll find an intimate dining room, fine food and attentive service, but don't let the Italian name fool you. Moroccan owners Ali Seghrouchni and Chef Younes Bennani sneak a bit of the Casbah into their Mediterranean menu. Enjoy fine pastas with fresh-made sauces, as well as splendid lamb shanks kissed with wine and cinnamon, delightful couscous, or tender veal in green peppercorn cream sauce. Dinner entrees from $12 to $16. $$

Jimmy Mac's, at the Imperial Marina, 5000 W. Gandy Blvd. (813-839-3449). Known to most as a burger empire, Jimmy Mac's dips into the sea to come up with some unique fish dishes. There are langostino in Chardonnay sauce, seafood "in the coop," large Dungeness, blue and golden crab. If you like their famous burgers, order the "Bigger" Mac; it contains one full pound of beef. Grouper, swordfish, tuna and salmon can be ordered blackened, broiled or grilled. $$

Joto Japanese Restaurant, 2549 Countryside Blvd. (727-796-2022) and 310 S. Dale Mabry, Tampa (813-875-4842). Belly up to the sushi bar or grab a seat on the floor while a kimono-clad waitress serves traditional Japanese dishes. Try the special sushi and sashimi platters. $

Kojak's House of Ribs, 2808 Gandy Blvd. (813-837-3774). If you want excellent barbecue on your plate in just minutes, this could be the spot for you. Barbecue lovers will dig the tender slabs of pork ribs, the chopped or sliced pork and beef dinners with sides of fresh corn-on-the-cob, homestyle baked beans and slaw like Ma used to make. $$

Lola Jane's Crawfish Inn, 5712 S. MacDill Ave. (813-805-0312). Good-natured informality is as abundant as flavor in the little house at the south end of MacDill Avenue, where Lola Jane and hubby Gardner re-create the food and atmosphere of their family table. Enjoy absolutely authentic muffaletta and po-boys, outstanding jambalaya and crawfish pie, great red beans and rice, and a marvelous crawfish etouffe with roux made to your special order. High quality and low dough are the house rule. Salads and sandwiches cost $2.95-$6.95. Hot foods like gumbo and etouffe range from $5.95 to $7.25. Homemade pecan pie or bread pudding ranges from $1 to $2.25. All food packaged for carryout. Screen porch has three tables if you can't wait. No alcohol. $$

Miguel's, 3035 W. Kennedy Blvd. (813-876-2587). Authentic Mexican food at reasonable prices. Combo specials are always good and they make a mean stuffed poblano. Colorful, casual atmosphere. $$

Nature's Harvest, 1021 N. MacDill Ave. (813-873-7428). A full-service supermarket with organic produce, bulk grains, nuts and dried fruits, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, etc. In the back, you'll find an on-site bakery making whole-grain breads, carrot cake, muffins and more; a cold case for prepared takeout; and a small cafe offering a salad bar and at least one hot daily special. Veteran Chef Debby DeGraaff teaches free vegetarian cooking classes every Wednesday and Thursday, offering easy menus for people looking to add meatless meals to their diet. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 11 am to 6 p.m. Sunday. $

New City Bistro, 3333 S. West Shore Blvd. (813-805-0250). Roger and Terri Lenzi, chef/owners of the popular New City Diner, turn their talents to delicious bistro dining with their New City Bistro. The New American menu changes often, but exciting flavor combinations and skillful preparation remain constant. Look for dishes like Moroccan-spiced salmon with feta couscous salad, goat-cheese stuffed filet mignon or fresh herb rub on grilled rack of lamb. A wine bar with more than 60 affordable labels and especially tasty appetizer assortments make this a pleasant place to linger. Entrees range from $10.95 to $17.95.$$

NK Cafe, 4100 W. Kennedy Blvd. (813-287-1385). A longtime Bay area favorite, NK (for natural kitchen) proves that healthy can also be tasty. Whether your focus is vegetarian or omnivorous, you'll find something to satisfy your taste. Try the best fruit salad in town, delicious smoothies, great salads. Hearty lunches, like turkey, reuben sandwiches or vegetable cashew saute. $$

Ruth's Chris Steak House, 1700 N. West Shore Blvd. (813-282-1118). This is one of the only local steak houses specializing in U.S. Prime-aged steaks. Potatoes, vegetables and desserts are served in large, quality portions. There's a state-of-the-art wine list featuring good wines by the glass. Service and attention are consistently excellent. One of 78 successful restaurants by Ruth Fertel, a pathfinder in the industry. $$$

Shula's Steak House, 4860 W. Kennedy Blvd. in the Wyndham West Shore Hotel (813-286-4366). This place is just what you'd expect from a football great; an emphasis on sports and red meat in an elegant masculine setting. Outstanding steaks including the 48-ounce Porterhouse (finish it at one sitting and your name goes up on the wall). Also recommended: barbecued, bacon-wrapped shrimp, carpaccio, lobster cocktail, gorgonzola-tomato salad. Voted Best Business Lunch in 1996. $$$

Thailand Restaurant, 5252 S. Dale Mabry (813-837-1793). Some of the best spicy Thai cuisine in Tampa. Start with the hot and sour soup or the shrimp lemongrass, and then graze on a few appetizers like the satay with a slightly hot peanut sauce and cucumber salad dip, fried shrimp with sweet and sour sauce or the all-encompassing combo appetizer platter. $$

Trattoria Lauro, 3915 Henderson Blvd. (813-281-2100). The venerable old Lauro's has reinvented itself with a more relaxed, affordable, family-dining atmosphere. Enjoy Northern Italian cuisine with homemade pastas, breads and fabulous desserts, and a wine list to complement any dish. $$

Yoko's Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, 3217 S. MacDill Ave. in Beechwood Plaza (813-835-4311). Great sushi bar, comfortable seating with an innovative dinner menu and plenty of fresh sushi and sashimi. The house roll is a winner. Sample lunch specials for some of the best eating around. $$

Tampa Int'l Airport/ Courtney Campbell Causeway

Armani's, Hyatt Regency Westshore, 6200 Courtney Campbell Causeway (813-281-9165). A romantic Italian enclave of fine dining. You must not leave without trying the awesome antipasto bar, the homemade pastas and their decidedly decadent desserts. The cuisine is prepared by a master chef, trained in Italy, who keeps getting better and better. Pasta dishes are excellent, as is the fresh seafood. Have an after-dinner drink on the cozy outdoor patio. Good wine list. $$$

Castaway, 7720 Courtney Campbell Causeway (813-281-0770). Seafood is the popular fare here, especially the chef's creations, including a luscious grouper Capri, a filet baked in an herb and wine sauce topped with a sun-dried tomato-basil cream sauce and sauteed shrimp. Also noteworthy is swordfish with island fruit salsa. Carnivores will savor the choice center-cut New York Strip. $$$

CK's Revolving Rooftop Restaurant, Tampa International Airport atop the Marriott Hotel (813-878-6500). CK's will make your head spin with its stellar view, atmosphere and cuisine. Great seafood pasta packed with mussels, lobster and scallops in a pesto pomodori sauce. Don't leave without a slice of their Key lime pie, a many-times Best of the Bay winner. $$$

Oystercatchers, 6200 Courtney Campbell Causeway, in the Hyatt Westshore complex (813-281-9116). Oystercatcher's incredible Sunday brunch buffet has it all: a nearly unlimited assortment of salads and antipasto, made-to-order omelets, waffles, pastries, grilled steak, fresh shrimp and oysters, great coffee and champagne, and the Dessert Table To Die For, with everything made from the finest ingredients. Seating in a beautiful seaside dining room and attentive service make this all-you-care-to-eat buffet a serious luxury. Costs $26 for adults, $14.50 for children 4 to 11 years old, free for children 3 years old and under. $$ brunch/$$$ dinner

Roy's, 4342 Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa (813-873-7697). This chain restaurant bases its menu on the cuisine of famed Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi, who describes his style as French-inspired Euro-Asian. So look for plenty of Pacific fish, such as opa, ono, butterfish, seared mahi mahi (dolphin fish) with grilled fresh oyster Chinese black bean sauce, or seared Hawaiian fish in roasted macadamia lobster sauce. Beef lovers will go for slow-braised and charbroiled short ribs of beef with natural jus and butter sauce. A large, well-executed wine list complements the menu. $$$.

Town N Country

Nicki's Omelette & Grill, 6805 W. Hillsborough Ave. (813-888-9365). This unpretentious little diner serves bargain-priced breakfasts that will fill you up for under a fiver, seven days a week. Folks line up for the fluffy omelets. Choose from a huge menu variety or design your own omelet from a list of meats, cheeses and vegetables. $

Satsuki Japanese Cuisine, 5537 Sheldon Road (813-884-4128). This small, refined little restaurant is at once exotic and homey, clean as a whistle and affordable. The sushi bar seats eight, serving fresh, well-prepared sushi with daily specials. Menu offerings include soba and udon, delicious Oriental noodles in spicy broths. Try tempura-udon, well-prepared shrimp tempura served alongside a bowl of thick noodles in hot, fragrant broth. Asian beers, hot or cold sake and green tea ice cream round out the meal. Dinner entrees under $10. $

Tampa — Busch Gardens/USF/ Temple Terrace

Angithi Fine Indian Restaurant, 2047 E. Fowler Ave. (813-979-4889). Discover a whole new world of delicious exotic flavors at this north Tampa find. Sample the crisp samosas, succulent, moist tandoori-baked meats, and hot and spicy curries. Cool the fire with a smooth and fruity mango lassi drink. Plenty of vegetarian selections and a nice lunch buffet for a mere $6.95. $$

Bombay Masala, 4023 W. Waters Ave., North West Plaza (813-880-7511). This casual Indian Cafe offers good, healthy food cooked with plenty of herbs and spices. Try delicious breads, especially naan stuffed with nuts and raisins; shrimp madras with fresh coconut, roasted spices and curry; or fill up at the Tuesday night "all-you-can-eat" vegetarian buffet. $$

Mel's Hot Dogs, 4136 E. Busch Blvd. (813-985-8000). The Vienna beef that owner Mel Lohn buys are skin-popping good. In our opinion, these are the best in town. Have it all-the-way! $

Sawatdee Thai Cuisine, 10938 56th St. N. (813-985-2071). This humble little cafe is a neighborhood favorite in the university area for its inexpensive lunch buffet and a dinner menu that mixes a melange of Thai and Indian flavors. The cooking's not fancy, but it's fresh, filling and nicely spiced. Try Pla Shu Shi, deep-fried fish filets in a spicy Thai chili sauce garnished with dried lime leaf and bell peppers or Pra Ram Lonmg Srong, chicken, beef or pork stir-fried with mixed vegetables and topped with peanut curry sauce. Most entrees range from $6.95 to $11.95. $$

Skipper's Smokehouse, 910 Skipper Road (813-971-0666). Skipper's has always been the place to kick into high gear with killer reggae, blues, rock and world beat, but did you know it's also the place to kick your taste buds into high gear? Spice up your night with smokehouse favorites like hickory-smoked alligator ribs and new wild flavors, like lobster stirfry with soy/ginger sauce over linguine, Florida crab cakes with black bean salsa and orange-crusted perch with mango salsa. $$

Taj, 2734-B Fowler Ave. (813-971-8483). Regulars will tell you it's the best Indian food in town. There are a number of good curries, from sweet kormas to spinach, prepared with vegetables, lamb, beef or seafood. Have plenty of naan, their addictive bread, and some luscious ice cream. $$

Trang Viet Cuisine, 1524 E. Fowler Ave. (813-979-1464) and 8502 N. Armenia Ave. (813-931-5119). Lunch and dinner daily. Tasty, healthy Vietnamese cooking with a French flair, featuring fresh, home-grown herbs and daily market specials. Weekday lunch specials are a bargain. Lively dinner menu, like "cook your own" seafood fondue, or chicken in a clay pot. Homemade desserts are special. Try banana cake (banana and coconut cake topped with peanuts). Beer & wine. $

Vallarta Mexican Restaurant, 9255 N. 56th. St., Temple Terrace (813-987-2720). The Jimenez family puts plenty of tasty dishes on the table, all served with zesty homemade salsa and guacamole. Large portions of well-known favorites like chimichangas, quesadillas, burritos and taco salads make up most of the long menu, all made with better ingredients and fresher flavors than you'll find if you run for the border. Dinner platters will fill you up for under a tenner. Smaller lunch portions start at $3.50. $

Tampa — Ybor City

Bernini, 1702 E. Seventh Ave. (813-248-0099). Chef Thomas "Bob" Barfield presents innovative Italian cuisine in a classy, sophisticated setting. The menu changes daily, so expect surprises, but favorite standards include gourmet wood-fired pizzas, especially the one with marinated chicken, smoked mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and oregano and a spicy three-chili oil, and Chef Bob's lamb shank, slow-braised in Marsala and red currant lamb broth. $$$

Carlino's, 1915 14th St., Ybor City (813-241-4646). Adult dining does exist in Ybor. You'll find it at Carlino's, tucked away inside the restored Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn. Chef John Eric Kern tempts mature taste buds with fully defined flavors in dishes like pan-seared Chilean sea bass with creamy mushroom risotto, chestnut-crusted rack of lamb and filet au poivre with foie gras. An excellent wine list offers an array of choices for first-rate food and wine pairings. $$$

Cafe Creole, 1330 Ninth Ave. E. (813-247-6283). If you're into Cajun or Creole cuisine, this is perhaps the very best Tampa has to offer. Whether it's Andouille sausage or one of the best etouffees and gumbos in town, you can find it at this popular spot in Ybor. Great bar and lots of fun to boot. Louisiana oysters and crawfish are among the very best. $$

Sushi on Seventh, 1919 E. Seventh Ave. (813-247-8744). Leave the tatami mats at home. There's nothing traditional about the neon atmosphere of this Ybor City sushi bar. Browse through a large menu of sushi rolls with names like Screaming Orgasm, salmon rolled in seaweed with shrimp, crab, cream cheese, asparagus, avocado, scallions and smelt roe, topped with Japanese mayo and baked or try the Tampa roll, breaded grouper, cucumber and spicy mayo rolled in seaweed, topped with smelt roe and sesame seeds. $$

Tampa Bay Brewing Co., 1812 N. 15th St. (813-247-1422). One of the best microbreweries in the Tampa Bay area is also one of the best restaurants. Choose from good-quality pub grub like huge sandwiches or crusty pizzas (there's ale in the dough). For dinner entrees, choose from regular menu offerings like savory roasted prime rib, shrimp pasta with Creole seasonings and bronzed salmon flavored with ale or explore the daily specials for beer-infused New American cuisine like duck breast risotto with a sauce of cask stout-balsamic reduction. Sandwiches range from $5.95 to $7.95. Entrees range from $6.95 to $15.95. Open seven days a week. $$

PINELLAS

Clearwater

Bunny Hop Cafe & Nature's Food Patch, 1225 Cleveland St. (727-443-6703). If you're craving fresh, healthy foods, try this combination of natural foods market, deli and cafe. Graze at the 50-item salad bar, order a sandwich on fresh-baked bread or a smoothie made with just-squeezed juices, or pick from the deli's huge selection of good, and good-for-you foods to go. Choose individual entrees like fresh sushi, tofu "egg" salad sandwiches and free-range turkey breast sandwiches, or complete dinners like teriyaki tofu with brown rice and mixed veggies, or lentil loaf with mushroom gravy, garlic mashed potatoes and mixed veggies. Complete dinners average $5 to $6. $$

Caramba's Restaurante Mexicano, 1842 Drew St. (727-446-7469). There's a new menu and it's better than ever. This former Best of the Bay recipient features Mexican cuisine at its authentic best. On arrival, one should immediately turn to the pescados y mariscos portion of the menu and order one or more of their awesome fresh fish creations. Grouper a la Veracruzano, a traditional favorite, is done in true Mexican style. $$

Fred's Famous Bar-B-Que, 2257 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. (727-799-FRED). Fred really does have a whole slew of national and international awards, but the best testimony to his barbecue is the crowd of neighbors who pack this place nightly, chowing down on meaty, fall-off-the-bone pork ribs, grilled or smoked chicken, smoked brisket, sausage and corned beef. Sauces are sweet, but overall, flavors are spicy. Be sure and try extra-thick milkshakes. Dinners start at $7.50. $$

Jillian's Bistro & Piano Bar, 13575 58th St. N., in the Icot Center Summit Building (727-538-7776). You work hard. Reward yourself at Jillian's, where diners are spoiled with rich, intensely-flavored cuisine served in casually elegant, but romantically delicious surroundings. Must-haves are the Bay area's best filet mignon, crispy, spicy Szechwan duck and herb-rubbed rack of lamb, or you can just make a meal from fabulous appetizers, like venison tenderloin, sealed seared scallops, or tuna carpaccio. $$$

Yanny's, 1258 Highland Ave. S. (727-446-5797). Recommended for breakfast/brunch. Yanny's has fresh-squeezed fruit or vegetable juices, scrumptious three-egg omelets, old-fashioned pancakes, or the famous French toast, dipped in a crepe batter and dusted with powdered sugar. Be sure and try a cup of homemade yogurt, the freshest, healthiest, most delicious live-culture, whole-milk yogurt you'll ever taste. Closed Mondays. $

North Clearwater/Countryside

G. Bellini's, 2544 McMullen-Booth Road (727-724-5716). Clearwater folks like this Italian bistro's individual-size, very thin-crust pizzas baked in a brick oven, tasty pasta dishes and entrees like grilled jumbo pork chops seasoned with rosemary and olive oil. Be sure and try fresh Florida grouper, breaded and baked, then bathed in lobster cream sauce. Full dinner entrees include fresh focaccia and salads, and range from $10.95 to $26.95. $$

Joto Japanese Restaurant, 2549 Countryside Blvd., Clearwater (727-796-2022) and 310 S. Dale Mabry, Tampa (813-875-4842). Belly up to the sushi bar or grab a seat on the floor while a kimono-clad waitress serves traditional Japanese dishes. Try the special sushi and sashimi platters. $$

Pulcinella Ristorante, 2475-E McMullen-Booth Road (in the Oakbrook Plaza) (727-669-9512). If you've ever visited Italy, you'll feel right at home with Chef Carmine's exquisite, authentic Italian menu prepared with the finest imported ingredients. You must try fresh arugula with olive oil and paper-thin slices of bresaola, an incredibly delicate, slightly nutty beef, cured prosciutto style. Then sample pastas to make you swoon, like rigatoni with fresh, imported porcini and very expensive white truffle oil, or the rigatoni al Amatriciana, pasta in fresh tomato sauce flavored with basil, onion and bacon. Entrees from $9 to $14 offer incredible quality at bargain prices. $$

Sukhothai, 2569 Countryside Blvd. #3 (727-724-2995). Thai dishes and an elegant Eastern ambiance combine to create a romantic adventure. A class operation. $$

Travis Bistro, 28530 U.S. 19 N. , 1.2 miles south of Curlew Road (727-712-9101). Travis is an elegant little oasis amid the nightmare traffic of U.S. 19, where Robert Masson, one of the Bay area's best chefs, presents a menu filled with dishes that will lure you back again and again. Beef lovers will be smitten with the succulent filet mignon stuffed with crab meat and Saga blue cheese, for $22.95, while seafood lovers will swoon over the award winning seafood lasagna, blending spinach pasta, shrimp, scallops and crab meat stuffing with four cheeses and tomato butter sauce for $18.95. Not enough? Try lamb, chicken, quail and venison. $$

Tri-City/St. Pete-Clearwater Airport/Feather Sound

The Grill at Feather Sound, 2325 Ulmerton Road (727-571-3400). One of Clearwater's dining hot spots, this restaurant was named Best New Restaurant in our 1996 Reader's Poll. Menu includes something for everyone: fabulous steaks, succulent lumpfin crab cakes, colossal shrimp cocktail, an outstanding house salad and desserts that are truly to die for. Don't miss their special creme brulee and mousse-like chocolate torte. Great place for a special evening or impressive business lunch. $$$.

Carmelita's Mexican Restaurant, 5042 East Bay Drive (727-524-8226). Fresh, homemade Mexican flavors at bargain prices. The best appetizer is the crunchy, tasty taquito. Combo platters are heaped. Sopa de tortillas, chicken-rice-corn soup, makes a meal in itself. Be sure and try sangria soda, a great alcohol-free choice for lunch or the designated driver. $$

Thai Basil, 4445 East Bay Drive (727-532-6108). This unassuming cafe offers a heaping helping of tasty Thai food with a young attitude. Try their fresh, zingy cheese rolls, a tasty combination of cream cheese, shrimp, carrots and green onions wrapped in a spring roll and fried golden, dipped in sweet raspberry sauce, or toasted tortillas stuffed with a spicy filling, fried and dipped in sweet chili sauce. Best menu bets are grilled lamb chops with basil sauce, anything with chili jam, vegetarian fried rice with tofu, as well as traditional Thai dishes like pad Thai and curries. Most entrees are $6-$8.

Dunedin

Bayou Bistro and Mudbug Lounge, 456 Causeway Blvd. (727-736-6467). Chef/owner Karen Thomas serves up some fine Cajun food in this funky restaurant and bar. Everything is fresh and made from scratch, right down to the blackening spices on the thin-sliced, gator tail filet. Don't pass on dessert, a huge slice of bread pudding with spiced rum sauce, or is that yum sauce? Oversize appetizers are priced from $3.95 to $6.95, po boys $5.25 to $7.25 and entrees $9.25 to $13.95 $

Benedict's, 2676 Bayshore Blvd., inside Causeway Plaza (727-736-1600) Recommended for breakfast/brunch. What else would you expect but a tasty and nearly unlimited variety of fluffy poached eggs set atop a toasted English muffin, slathered with a creamy lemon sauce and your choice of ham, crab meat, bacon? But there's more: sweet selections like Belgian chocolate pancakes or zesty flavors like huevos ranchero, all served in enormous portions. $

The Black Pearl, 315 Main St. (727-734-3463). With only 13 tables, this classy cafe turns out some of the freshest, most creative cuisine in the Bay area. Owner Kathleen LaRoche goes the extra mile to secure fresh, prime ingredients. Chef Karen Schluntz turns it into cuisine that dazzles the eye as well as the taste buds. Every selection, from crab cakes to duckling, will delight you. $$$

Cafe Alfresco, 344 Main St. (727-736-4299). You'll enjoy leisurely meals on the patio overlooking the Pinellas Trail. Menu specialties include crisp fresh salads, creative pastas and mouth-watering grilled items such as grilled chipolata sausages, Tandoori pork medallions and roasted duck with balsamic raspberry glaze. Don't miss the delicious ice cream creations. $$

Casa Tina, 369 Main St. (727-734-9226). Got some extra hot sauce on hand? Bring a bottle to this cozy gourmet Mexican and vegetarian restaurant and they'll buy you a drink. (Forget about Tabasco, though; that doesn't count.) The menu has heart-healthy items, including a good ceviche (fresh marinated seafood). Also featured are "heavenly" wild mushroom quesadillas, fresh roasted poblanos stuffed with cheese, a dish of mole verde and mole poblano and corn tamales juicier than ever before. $$

Kelly's For Just About ... Anything, 319 Main St. (727-736-5284). Whether it's for breakfast, lunch or dinner, this casual, ambient, award-winning eatery is the shining star on the Dunedin culinary scene. It's funky, fun and you can dine under the stars. Breakfasts are unique; lunch and dinner specials, seafood, beef and poultry, are always consistently good. Better than that, they're done with a flair. $$

Gulf Beaches/North

Frenchy's Rockaway Grill and Beach Club, 7 Rockaway St., Clearwater (727-446-4844). For reasonably priced seafood, this beach spot is a favorite of locals as well as snowbirds. She-crab soup, grouper and a variety of other local seafood are just a few of the specialties offered. Great place to go for a rendezvous, or to dine al fresco. $$

Guppy's, 1701 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach (727-593-2032). Guppy's is across from the public access on the gulf, so you can go in beachwear casual, but expect the fish to be all dressed up. The emphasis is on fresh fish, prepared in innovative ways with the best ingredients. Don't miss the shrimp in olive oil and roasted pepper appetizer or the creative daily specials. The bar features a respectable wine list and German and English beers. Prices range from $6.95 to $15.95. $$

Nadia's Restaurant & Bar, 2721 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach (727-596-7222). You'll find well-prepared Continental cuisine, fine French and American wines and attentive service in this charming seaside cottage. Classic cream and wine sauces bathe fresh seafoods, veal, beef and ostrich. Try the crab and shrimp in a creamy Pernod sauce. Entrees range from $11.95 to $19.95. $$

Shephard's Waterfront Restaurant & Tiki Bar, 601 S. Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater (727-441-6875). Recommended for its Sunday brunch, this Clearwater Beach spot is a glutton's delight, where every meal is an all-you-can-eat bargain buffet of chef-prepared foods. A perfect weekend includes leisurely grazing through the $13 Sunday buffet featuring eggs Benedict and an omelet station, along with shrimp and carved beef, before retiring to the beachside Tiki Bar to sip a margarita and listen to the live band. $

Gulf Beaches/South

Alfredino's on the Beach, 7141 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach (727-367-9999). If you've ever been to Italy, then you'll appreciate the true taste of fine Italian cuisine served by Alfredo and Maria Elena Quatraro in this cozy and charming restaurant. If you've never been to Italy, then this is the place to discover what real Italian cuisine is all about. Heavenly pastas bathed in sauces prepared fresh when you order, and the Quatraros also serve beef dishes, such as filet in red wine demi-glace, and perhaps the best-prepared fish on the beach, like grouper topped with crab in a Dijon wine sauce. For dessert, try caramel-glazed bananas Foster prepared at your table. Entrees range from $8 to $22. $$

Captain Kosmakos, 9610 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island (727-367-3743). Brothers Kosmos and George Kosmakos bring a touch of Greece to a mostly American menu stacked high with classic favorites. Greek specialties, especially the baked chicken and Greek salad, are noteworthy. Other winners: steaks, chops, duckling, fresh seafood and stuffed lobster. $$

DeLosa's Pizzeria, 12801 Gulf Blvd., E. John's Pass Village, Madeira Beach (727-398-4657). This cozy pizzeria is located in an area known for catering to tourists, but that doesn't mean it isn't good. In business since 1983, the place is highly recommended by locals, as well snowbirds. Excellent crust and sauce from the family make the difference. Have a side of ziti with red sauce while you're at it. $$

Der Eisenhut, 357 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach (727-367-6495). Schnitzels, sauerbraten "Hotel Lowenhof," and an Oktoberfest platter with the best brats, pork, potato salad and red cabbage you've tasted. Schaller & Weber products from the deli take out and a fabulous beer collection including Bitburger, Spaten and Weisse. $$

Dockside Dave's Grill and Bar, 13203 Gulf Blvd., in the Charterboat Center, Madeira Beach (727-392-9399). Locals know this humble bar and grill is the place to go for a good, old-fashioned Florida fish fry. Fresh-off-the-boat black grouper and shrimp are bathed in a rich batter, then fried up with a golden, crackling crust. Best-ever onion rings get the same treatment. Good seafood pastas and chowders are also worth trying. If a great grouper sandwich isn't your idea of heaven, then try the grilled half-pound burger, beef on weck, or Italian sausage sandwich. Menu prices range from $4.25 to $11.45. $

Hurricane Seafood Restaurant, Ninth Avenue and Gulf Way in Pass-a-Grille (727-360-9558). The Hurricane is a classic, one of the oldest and best beach bars on the Gulf shores. Over the years, the building and menu have been updated, but the free-wheelin' beach feeling remains. Breakfast on the outdoor deck overlooking Gulf waters, or party at night after a great seafood dinner. They serve award-winning grouper, stone crab and Key lime pie.$$

La Croisette, 7401 Gulf Blvd. (across the Pasadena Causeway), St. Pete Beach (727-360-2253) One of the best breakfasts on the beach, every day of the week. Flaky, buttery homemade croissants accompany a nearly unlimited assortment of fluffy omelets. Outstanding home fries and incredibly light pancakes are menu highlights. $

The Lobster Pot, 17814 Gulf Blvd., Redington Shores (727-391-8592). Has been serving fresh finfish and shellfish for nearly 20 years now. The focus, of course, is lobster but other treasures of the Gulf are nicely done. Black grouper, snapper and a variety of crustaceans are ever-present on a menu that has some interesting daily attractions. Don't leave without checking out the chowder. $$$

Sea Critters, 2007 Pass-a-Grille Way, St. Pete Beach (727-360-3706). It's AAA approved, but that's not all. There are fresh finfish and shellfish, dockside dining, fresh salads and sandwiches and a chance to feed their catfish, too. A full bar and a kiddie coloring menu add to the playfulness of this peachy beachy eatery. $$

Snapper's, 5895 Gulf Blvd. (727-367-3550). This beautiful little bistro is more than just another pretty face. There's serious chefing going on in the kitchen, where a variety of fresh Atlantic fish are being turned into mouthwatering dishes like cashew-and-coconut-crusted mahi-mahi, or pepper-crusted crusted tuna, seared and served on a bed of bright spring greens with an imaginative and exciting blueberry teriyaki glaze. Carnivores will love veal and pork meatloaf, and steaks are cooked on an oak-fired grill. $$

Yoji Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar, 4615 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach (727-367-6762). Open for dinner only. Teppan yaki chefs perform tableside as they cook softshell crab, shrimp, filet, lobster and chicken in spicy sauces on an iron grill. Be sure and try gyoza (traditional sauteed dumplings) and fresh selections from the sushi bar. Entree prices run from $7.95 to $26.25. $$

Gulfport

Backfin Blue Cafe, 2913 Beach Blvd. S. (727-343-2583). Closed Tuesdays. Quaint little Cafe with classy food, in the heart of an arty district. Great prime rib and meat loaf, excellent fish. Don't miss the corn puree with lump crabmeat or the crab cakes. Great desserts, too. Laid-back, casual and definitely tasty. $$

The Habana, at 5402 Gulfport Blvd. S.(727-321-8855). Authentic Cuban foods, with the menu topping out at $10.95. Owner Jo Hastings was born in Cuba but grew up here. She serves traditional Cuban food with a today-twist, like roast pork with cumin, laurel and grilled onions, as well as mojo. Chicken breast done palomilla style and catfish with a plantain crust. $

La Cote Basque Winehouse, 3104 Beach Blvd. (727-321-6888). Expect affordable French foods au gratin, braise and others, plus continental-style dining with prices that are easy to live with. $$

PierHouse Grill and Pepper Co., 5401 Shore Blvd. S. (727-322-1741). The bright tropical dining room offers a great view of Gulfport's pier, and the menu offers hamburgers, steaks, pasta, sandwiches and homemade soups. Best buys are daily specials that show off fresh seafood, like shrimp and grouper in a spicy broth of tomatoes, garlic, onions, olives and peppers over fettucine. Want more fire? The house makes its own hot sauce, and will spice up your entree, on request. Entrees range from $4.95 burgers to $14.95 sirloin masterpieces. $$

Largo

Cafe Largo, 12551 Indian Rocks Road (727-596-6282). A continental style eatery popular with locals as well as tourists for many years. There's great attention to detail paid to the menu as well as the service. Check for monthly specialty dinners that feature a fine taste of French cooking. $$$

Sushi Fune, 10801 Starkey Road, in the Bardmoor Village (727-319-6627). Fune means "boat," and here you'll sit at the bar as a small fleet of sushi-bearing boats sail past you. Prices are signified by the colors of the plates. Chef Tony will offer you plenty of friendly advice about what's available. The menu also offers dinner entrees like tempura, teriyaki and sukiyaki. Look for green mussels baked in a special wasabi sauce and cooked baby octopus marinated in special seasonings. $$

Pastino's, 11750 Clearwater-Largo Road (727-559-0506). Pastino's calls itself a neighborhood pizzeria, but when was the last time you saw gnocchi with wild caribou at your corner joint? Pastino's menu runs from mild to wild. Pizzas include Wild Bill's Western steak special, the taco pizza, and even a lobster supreme pizza with lobster, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil, topped with white cheddar and mozzarella. Pasta dishes range from linguine with clam sauce to ravioli with exotic wild game stuffing. Entrees are priced from $5.95 to $15.45. $$

Palm Harbor

Blue Heron, in the Shoppes at Cloverplace, 3285 Tampa (727-789-5176). Some of the freshest seafood and fowl you'll ever taste. The cuisine at this upscale favorite is a blend of the best techniques and ingredients that encompass Mediterranean, Caribbean, Pacific Rim and New American cuisines. $$$

Picasso's Palate, 3430 East Lake Road, East Lake Woodlands Shopping Center) (727-772-0707). This arty cafe serves up eye-opening breakfasts that are worth getting out of bed for seven days a week. Good omelets and eggs Benedict, fresh fruit and yogurt parfaits, or indulgences, like cream cheese and fruit stuffed between slices of French toast. $

St. Larry's, 34980 U.S. 19 (727-786-0077). St. Larry's feels like a chummy private club, with small, intimate dining spaces, a great bar and plenty of hobnobbing among the patrons, but don't worry; they'll be only too glad to have you join the fun. An eclectic menu that changes daily can offer anything from smoked lobster egg roll with fresh blueberry sauce to angus filet sauteed with cultivated and wild mushrooms in a brandy brown sauce and topped with Maytag Blue Cheese. Fish lovers can look for dry-packed scallops and large shrimp sauteed in a rich Asiago cream sauce or authentic Maryland crab cakes. The extensive bar offers a great wine list and a huge collection of single malt scotch. $$

A Taste Of Tokyo Sushi and Yakitori Bar, 3428 Tampa Road (State Road 584) in The Village at Lake St. George (727-787-6235). Closed Monday. Like a visit to Japan. If you've never tried sushi before, this is the place to start. Superior sushi bar, yakitori bar, old faves like tempura, new faves like gyoza, pan-fried Japanese dumplings. $

Pinellas Park

Athenian's Famous Gyros and Chicken, 5320 Park Blvd. N. (727-544-5740). This longtime favorite serves up meal-size sandwiches of fluffy pita bread folded over a fragrant mound of spiced, grilled meat, onions, tomatoes and tzatziki, a cooling sauce made of non fat yogurt and cucumbers. Great grilled chicken, too, and all at bargain prices. $

Cajun Cafe, 8285 Park Blvd. (727-546-6732). Drive past Wagon Wheel Flea Market and pull off onto the dirt road where Cajun Cafe sits on a backwater bayou. There you will find tattooed men and darlin' women playing zydeco tunes on the jukebox and washing down fiery gumbo or jambalaya with Dixie beer. Don't miss the searing barbecue shrimp or the crawfish cornbread, full of fire and mudbugs. Good po-boy sandwiches, gator bites and boudin sausage served with beans and rice. $$

Hickory Smoke House Barbecue, 6769 34th St. N. (727-526-8072). A mainstay for decades, this popular barbecue restaurant serves up succulent pork, chicken and beef entrees with all the fixings. Baked beans are a local favorite, and the chunky pork sandwiches should not be overlooked. Sampler platters are the best meal deals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. $$

La Teresita Restaurant, 7101 66th St. (727-447-4240). Stepchild of Tampa's famous eatery since 1976, this local Cuban coffee and sandwich shop features quick meals at rock bottom prices. There's the requisite Cuban sandwich and plenty of classic dishes, like picadillo, roast pork, Russian trout and liver done Italian style; all for under a fiver. $$

Regina's Philippine Cuisine, 9727 66th St. N. (727-544-6182). Ever tried this flavorful cuisine? If not, you're in for a culinary awakening. There are plenty of daily specials made with fresh, crunchy veggies and perfectly cooked noodles. A range of sweet, sour, salty, etc. Cash only. $$

Safety Harbor

Safety Harbor Resort Cafe, 105 N. Bayshore Drive (727-726-1161). If you think eating healthy means giving up delicious flavor, then you need to try the spa meals at this renowned resort. The casual cafe offers imaginative appetizers, like grilled portobello mushroom with candied figs and Maytag bleu cheese drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar or try pan-fried lump crab cakes with mango and scotch bonnet aioli garnished with carrot hair and frizzled leeks. Dinners range from guava-glazed and grilled duck breast served with sweet potato pancakes and sauteed greens with chili-vinegar drizzle to a rich seafood bouillabaisse seasoned with allspice and sherry. Lunch entrees 7.50-$9.95, dinners $11.50-$16.50. $$

St. Petersburg

Central St. Pete/Tyrone

Ajanta Indian Cuisine, 5005 34 St. N., inside Mirage Hotel (727-525-1181). Once upon a time, you had to drive to the far side of Tampa to taste the savory, seductive flavors of Indian cuisine, but no more. Ajanta serves up a fine feast of dishes that celebrate the Indian tradition of using a large variety of very fresh spices to turn foods as simple as lentils or potatoes into surprisingly sophisticated dishes. Be sure and try tandoori chicken, or jinga masala, shrimps bathed in a subtly spicy sauce. Check out daily lunch specials and the Sunday buffet. $$

Athenian Gardens, 6940 22nd Ave. N. (727-345-7040). You probably can't get more delicious family-style Greek food at affordable prices without driving to Tarpon Springs. This is the exception. Swift, efficient service and tasty food. The hefty gyros sandwich is a feast. Full dinner menu. $

East Wind, 6139 Park Blvd. N. (727-541-6377). One of the best deals in town for real, honest-to-goodness Vietnamese cuisine. A friendly chef/owner-husband/wife team consistently creates an amazing melange of tastes; the freshest fresh rice rolls, the best whole fried fresh fish with herbs and spice, and noodle soups that will make anyone's day look brighter. $$$

Little Italy Pizza, 3523 49th St. N. (727-522-2717/727-525-1029). You'll have to elbow your way through the crowd of neighbors to get a table at this family-operated pizzeria. This casual, strip-mall storefront packs 'em in with full-flavored pizza, but don't leave without one of the tastiest hoagies and subs we've had, made on crisp, crusted bread with top-notch meats and cheeses. $

Nature's Finest, 6651 Central Ave. (727-381-1806). A full-service supermarket at 15,000 square feet, the largest around. The takeout deli dishes up fresh baked goods, vegetarian, vegan, even macrobiotic takeout, with choices like bean stew, good organic vegan pizzas, vegetarian and vegan lasagna and terrific salads. $

Saffron's Caribbean, 1700 Park St. N. (727-345-6400). Saffron's sister team offers authentic jerk chicken and more, with spices that will take you to Jamaica. Appleton steak and curry dishes to satisfy the fussiest island connoisseurs. $$

The Steak Joint, 4871 Park St. (727-545-9481). This joint has some of the best black angus treats around. Aged beef makes the difference, but so do the fresh salads, veggies and superb appetizers. No a la carte here; salad, bread and additional veggies are included with meals. Hickory smoked barbecue baby back ribs are the best in town. Fully-stocked bar. $$$

Downtown St. Pete

Adobo Grill, 167 Second Ave. N. (727-823-8226). This tiny Mex taqueria serves up fast food with a fresh twist (of lime, that is). Try the fish tacos, two soft wheat shells filled with grilled mahi-mahi, angel hair cabbage, a fresh tomato, onion, cilantro and a dollop of red and white salsas, and don't forget to add the zip of fresh lime juice. Or try the roast pork burrito with salsa verde, sauteed poblano chile, onions and crema, washed down with Mexican beer or homemade sangria. Entrees range from $4.50 to $6.95 $$

Alfresco at The Vinoy, 501 Fifth Ave. N.E. (727-894-1000). This Floribbean-style restaurant is one of the best-kept secrets in town with its authentic conch fritters and curried remoulade, grilled grouper and good pasta dishes including a superb seafood linguine. Spicy cold peel-and-eat shrimp along with one (or two) of their imported beers makes for a nice poolside lunch. $$$

Bertoni Italian Restaurant, 16 Second St. N., Jannus Landing (727-822-5503). Chef Bertoni transformed this old night club into a casual, tony bistro serving fine Italian cuisine. Servings are large. Split them if you like a meal with more than one course. The portobello mushroom in puff pastry is a delightful starter; the ginger cream a perfect ending. Fill in the middle with fine pastas and filets. $$

The Garden, 217 Central Ave. in Jannus Landing (727-896-3800). This art-full little cafe is noted for its support of the local scene. Home-grown works grace the walls, and local jazz bands play in the quaint brink patio. Menu favors fresh Mediterranean flavors, with splendid paellas, polentas, frittatas and pastas. Tajine, long-simmered Moroccan stew with complex flavors, is a real find. $$

Grand Finale, 1101 First Ave. N. (727-823-9921). This creative bar and bistro is mere blocks from the Tropicana Field of dreams, but light years away from hot dogs and Cracker Jacks. Instead, you'll find one of St. Petersburg's premier destinations for fine dining. The style flirts with Asian ingredients fused with French accents. Try sophisticated starters like seared foie gras drizzled with black pepper caramel, and entrees like seared red snapper served with black truffle risotto. Entrees $15-$24. $$

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