Restaurant Review: Emilio's Bistro basics

Breakfast is stripped down to the easily accomplished basics, just baked goods, egg sandwiches and quiche, all easily and quickly accomplished with little effort by a limited kitchen staff. It also allows Emilio's to get those few items right, with good bacon and cheese on good bread for the sandwiches, fresh-squeezed OJ and quiche that's a bit dense but packed with rich flavor.

At lunch, the menu seemingly opens up to a couple dozen choices, enough variety to make you forget that it all boils down to salads and sandwiches. Emilio's salads could be an object lesson for any restaurateur in town, some of the best constructed one-plate meals around. The greens are hand-ripped and come straight from a head of lettuce, not from a pre-mixed box, then tossed with just the right amount of house-made dressing to accent every piece. Then the extras go on, like tiny bits of creamy goat cheese, dried cranberries, chopped nuts and marinated onions on the restaurant's Pandora salad, arranged so that every bite gets a bit of everything, but never overwhelms the greens.

Emilio's extensive sandwich offerings boil down to burger, panini and baguette categories. In the baguette line-up the best option is the meatloaf. You could only call the massive, inch-and-a-half slice of loaf a slab of meat, tender enough to fall apart in your mouth but with enough structural integrity to survive the bite through the crusty bread. Cumin and chipotle infuse the slab, cut by the bright flavor of pickles and sharp red onion.

Burgers, often the tired standby for people who want a hot meal in sandwich form, are exceptional here. Emilio's serves them "stuffed," which means the patties are sliced horizontally and packed with the toppings of your choice. Although that can spell trouble if you order your burger on the rarer side, the meat is so damn beefy it's easy to overlook the occasionally problematic construction.

Panini are Emilio's weak spot, if only because they're just not as exciting as the other sandwiches on the menu. The pressed bread is crisp, the ingredients are fine and the combinations are tasty enough, but meh. Grab a baguette or burger instead, unless you're a vegetarian. For meatless eaters there are several panini worth a look.

At night, Emilio's serves the same menu as lunch, along with a brief selection of more upscale nighttime dishes. Sadly, the restaurant's simplicity is evident there in a much less appealing way, the menu stocked with a laundry list of tired fine-dining tropes like seared tuna, crab cakes and a quesadilla. Those dishes are accomplished almost as well as the other offerings, but it's harder for the restaurant to distinguish itself with the more complex food. There's a lot more competition out there for tasty crab cakes than for tasty salads.

There's no better example of how the restaurant tries to keep things easy on the kitchen than in the side dishes. Emilio's serves sweet potato fries laced with vanilla; regular fries (which also pick up a hint of that vanilla from the fryer); an edamame, chick pea and corn salad; and cold potato salad made from purple Peruvian potatoes. None of it requires fresh vegetables, none of it requires on-the-spot cooking besides a dunk in the fryer.

Accenting the casual but tasty food is a small but smart range of craft and import beers, from lesser-known Irish stouts to classic Belgians like Bernardus. Emilio's wine list is less exciting, but there are enough well-priced options that you'll find something worth pairing with a burger or salad.

One of the many complaints local chef-terrible Domenica Macchia had during her Diner 437 days was the horrible kitchen in the space, which she said made her job nearly impossible. Not so for Emilio's, where the menu is designed to churn out simple food done right, at prices that fit most folks' dining budget.

437 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-258-4891,

In the current, incredibly uncertain economic climate, it seems that people aren't going out less, they're just spending less. Let's be honest, people who eat out a lot aren't suddenly going to start whipping up weekday dinners from that Rachael Ray book their aunt got them for Christmas. Instead, they'll look for places that give them the same kind of aura, the same kind of service, the same kind of excellent food they used to receive, but at prices that match their new pseudo-frugality. Places like Emilio's Bistro.

Emilio's is the latest restaurant to make a go of the 437 Central location, after two spots failed in less than five years. That could indicate potential problems, but Emilio's has a sharp and smart concept that suits the current downtown St. Pete dining scene, with food that delivers on that promise.

Like Diner 437 before it, Emilio's serves three square meals a day and stays open fairly late — 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. Unlike Diner 437, the food is the essence of simplicity, with nothing over the magical $10 price point.

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