Rating the ratings: Zagat's Tampa/Sarasota choices

The new guide to America's top restaurants favors the old guard.

click to enlarge TASTING TOGETHER: Mise en Place chef and co-owner Marty Blitz (right) with co-owner Maryann Ferenc and GM Dave Madera. - Nick Cardello
Nick Cardello
TASTING TOGETHER: Mise en Place chef and co-owner Marty Blitz (right) with co-owner Maryann Ferenc and GM Dave Madera.

In the age of crowd-sourced online restaurant reviews and rankings — on sites like Yelp.com, Urbanspoon.com, and even here at CL — it's been difficult to justify more antiquated organizations like Zagat. You can see that in the decided lack of interest shown over the past few years, when Zagat founders and owners Tim and Nina Zagat tried to sell the company and get out of the reviewing biz. Google bit recently for a price estimated between $100-200 million, a lot less than the $500 million Google bid for Yelp two years ago.

Why have the iconic burgundy-colored restaurant books fallen so far behind? The competition, for one, as well as Zagat's decision to use a pay wall on its website and its lackluster adoption of mobile platforms. Ballot stuffing and an aging population of dedicated reviewers also haven't helped, although all review sites have to deal with shills and idiots.

Whether Google can leverage the brand to bolster its own struggling local restaurant review business remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the Zagat name can still grab some headlines, as it did last week when it released its list of America's Top Restaurants for 2012.

Look at the Tampa/Sarasota spots that made the list and you will immediately see why Zagat may be a bit behind the times. Twenty restaurants were recognized, 10 of them making the "Top Food Ranking" list and 10 grouped under the heading "Other Noteworthy Places." The top 10 are for the most part worthy of acclaim, but the "Noteworthy" list is more up to date, with such recent hot spots as The Refinery and Ciro's Speakeasy making the cut.

Overall, though, the lack of more forward-thinking, or even just newer, restaurants is disconcerting. Even the venerable James Beard Foundation has done a better job recognizing Bay area restaurants that are more on the cutting edge, places like Z Grille.

That said, Zagat's tried-and-true Top 10 is a service to Bay area diners. A little pat on the back for the old guard can serve to remind us of the restaurants that have served excellent food in gracious settings for years, the kinds of places that are always worth a visit.

Here are my favorites from the Zagat Top 10:

Armani's 2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa, 813-207-6800, hyatt.com. Armani's has traded on its setting — high atop the Grand Hyatt overlooking Tampa Bay — since it opened, but after a renovation two years back the classic Italian restaurant had a breath of new life. It's still very upscale, almost stuffy, and the food is still old-school Italian fine dining, but the dining room's modernity adds a little something to the experience that makes all the expense and dressing up seem worth it. And the view was worth it even before that.

Beach Bistro 6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, 941-778-6444, beachbistro.com. Twenty years ago, Beach Bistro was at the forefront of Floribbean cuisine, setting a standard for upscale preparations of fish and meat using Caribbean ingredients. Thing is, the restaurant still serves a lot of the food that made it famous decades before. Those dishes are exquisitely prepared, however, and the intimate dining room takes full advantage of the beach that runs right up to the floor-to-ceiling windows at one end. Romantic, tasty and beautiful, with a decadence that comes both from the food and the hefty price tag.

Bern's Steak House 1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, 813-251-2421, bernssteakhouse.com. The old gal's still got it. What more is there to say?

Cafe Ponte 13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater, 727-538-5768, cafeponte.com. Chris Ponte used to be the dashing and energetic young chef of the Bay area, breaking ground in a part of Clearwater that then (and still) was bereft of fine-dining options. Well, he's still energetic — just look at his involvement in the excellent Burger 21 chain — and his restaurant still prepares and serves some of the most precise and exquisite food in the Bay area.

Mise En Place 442 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-254-5373, miseonline.com. The groundbreaking partnership of Marty Blitz and Maryann Ferenc recently celebrated 25 years of serving amazing food to an adoring Tampa, with all the pomp and circumstance it deserved. And a lot of wine. Mise benefits greatly from the two very different owners: Blitz adds a culinary curiosity and skill, keeping the restaurant's menu modern and well executed, while Ferenc is more active in the community than any other local restaurateur.

Pane Rustica 3225 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-902-8828, panerusticabakery.com. Pane Rustica has evolved several times since it opened, from bakery with a cafe to bakery and a cafe to restaurant with baked goods. At every step, however, the restaurant has managed to keep its lively and exciting vibe and core belief in good food that doesn't break the bank (unlike many of the restaurants that made Zagat's list). These days, the dinner menu features comforting versions of fine-dining dishes that still manage to keep the rustic in Rustica.

Restaurant BT 2507 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-258-1916, restaurantbt.com. Restaurant BT chef/owner BT Nguyen has seen her star rise and fall over the years, consolidating from three restaurants to one, then moving to smaller and less-prestigious digs last year. Throughout it all, she's managed to prepare incredibly elegant Vietnamese-French fusion fare that — if my visits to the new location this year are any indication — is better than ever.


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