High-end, good-value lunches in Tampa Bay

Why settle for fast 'n easy when you can go gourmet (and save money, too)?

click to enlarge Spice-rubbed scallops atop spicy, cheesy grits and drizzled with red-eye gravy at Mise En Place. - Chip Weiner Photographic Arts
Chip Weiner Photographic Arts
Spice-rubbed scallops atop spicy, cheesy grits and drizzled with red-eye gravy at Mise En Place.

For most people, lunch is an easily forgotten midday break, the first thing you sacrifice when the shit hits the fan, the last thing you think abut before noon rolls around. It's either a sandwich from the serviceable place near the office or an even less interesting plastic tub of last night's leftovers, suitable for filling your tanks, maybe, but little else. The culinary highlight of the year comes at the retirement/birthday/Christmas lunch, when everyone treks down to the local mid-range chain for some fried food and co-worker bonding.

It hasn't always been this way — the three-martini lunch wasn't just about gin and olives, after all. People used to enjoy the midday meal more than dinner. Savor it, even.

But wait, you say, I don't have the money or the time to have a truly fabulous dining experience during work hours. Pshaw. Overworked and underpaid? Then lunch is the ideal fine-dining experience for you. It's cheaper than dinner, faster than dinner and — if you choose the right destination — just as good as its later counterpart.

Finding the right place, however, can be tricky. Like dessert, the red-headed stepchild of dinner service, the lunch menu is often neglected by chefs, who opt instead for more crowd-pleasing, mainstream dishes than they might serve at dinner. Some, however, manage to stamp their own culinary perspective onto lunch, despite the decrease in price and increase in non-foodie clientele.

No cutting corners, just cutting costs. Pick well, and that's what lunch can be for you. And just think how nice it will feel to go back to work sated and satisfied, instead of just full.

Lunch, elegant and complex: Mise En Place

442 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-254-5373, miseonline.com

Marty Blitz doesn't fuck around. If he's doing lunch, it's going to be a Mise En Place lunch. That means a litany of high-end ingredients combined in occasionally unusual — but usually tasty — ways. Oh, even he succumbs to sandwiches and salad, with mundane items like a "quesadilla of the moment" and the ubiquitous take on a burger, but you can also dive into spice-rubbed scallops atop spicy, cheesy grits and drizzled with red-eye gravy. Or curly gemmeli pasta topped by luscious braised short ribs and accented by creamy mascarpone and reduced red wine.

Even if you decide on something a tad more, well, lunch-like, Blitz will treat you right. That burger? Pancetta, fig balsamic red onion ketchup, basil aioli and arugula all play a part. His Cobb salad features duck confit and a dried cranberry orange sage. And the service and luxe atmosphere remain the same as at night, albeit a little sunnier.

Lunch, No Shortcuts: Cafe Dufrain

707 Harbour Post Dr., Tampa, 813-275-9701, cafedufrain.com

If you've read anything about Cafe Dufrain chef Ferrell Alvarez, you know how dedicated he is to food. From sourcing local ingredients to devoting himself to a seasonal menu, the guy is full of passion about every plate he puts out. Take a look at his lunch menu, however, and you might think he doesn't respect the midday meal. Then look closer.

His shepherd's pie isn't the usual mash and ground beef. Instead, it's a vegetarian feast constructed with rich polenta, organic mushrooms, salsify and a bright tomato ragout. His Cuban is stuffed with homemade pickles, the burger topped with homemade bacon, his reuben built on fresh brioche with a smoked gouda croquette. Sure, it's the usual lunch, just made unlike any lunch you've ever had.

Lunch, Tapas-Style: Pelagia Trattoria

Renaissance Hotel International Plaza, 4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa, 813-313-3235, pelagiatrattoria.com

Hotel restaurants, for all of their potential problems, do know how to do one thing right: serve three square meals a day without stretching their resources. Combine that with Pelagia Trattoria's excellent and interesting take on Italian cuisine, and you have a recipe for daytime delight.

You can start and end with Pelagia's small plates, which are item-by-item the same as those on the dinner menu. Spicy shrimp a pil pil, octopus cured with mint, goat cheese and fig marmalade, risotto croquettes — any one of them will beat the pants off of the best local deli sandwich. And for a mere $23, you can pick four of them, plenty for a hearty lunch, especially if you throw on the restaurant's fabulous grilled caesar fondue.

Lunch, Like Dinner: Wood Fired Pizza Wine Bar

2822 E. Bearss Ave., Tampa, 813-341-2900, wood-firedpizza.com

Yeah, it's pizza. But it's the best pizza in the Bay area. If you don't live in New Tampa, you may not be able to justify the extra time to drive to Wood Fired for dinner after a long work day. So why not go during lunch?

Don't expect to slide in and out of Wood Fired like you would a typical pizza joint — Peter Taylor takes the time to cultivate his own wild yeast, grow his own herbs and make his own sauce, so he doesn't rush the final product out of the oven. But it's worth the wait and the drive and, good news everyone, he's opening a second location. Expect it to hit downtown St. Petersburg later this year.

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