The Food Issue: 25 delicious Tampa Bay destinations

Whatever kind of meal you're hankering for, you'll find it in this list of go-to spots.

click to enlarge Tampa's Anise Global Gastrobar: A terrific place for cocktails and snacks. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Tampa's Anise Global Gastrobar: A terrific place for cocktails and snacks.


“Where should I go for...?”

A restaurant critic hears lots of questions that begin that way.

I like to ask a few questions in return. What yardstick do you use to judge what makes a meal soar? Are you on an expense account or a tight budget? Looking for meat and potatoes or cutting-edge cuisine?

In last year’s Food Issue, I listed all the restaurants I reviewed from 2012-14 to which I’d awarded 3.5 stars or more (check it out for an explanation of what the stars mean). While the following list of recommended spots does include ratings as well as review dates, my main goal is to help you find answers to some of those oft-asked questions.

Note that I’ve left off many restaurant icons (Bern’s, the Columbia, Don CeSar) to focus on personal favorites, or joints that may be off your radar. The selection is deliberately short, with several worthy omissions, but even 25 gives you myriad options.

So try some place unfamiliar. Diversity is a gift, and tons of wonderful cuisines are at your fingertips. Soon, perhaps, even on the tip of your tongue.

Where should I go for…
COCKTAILS AND SNACKS?

Anise Global Gastrobar
“The corner of Zack and Ashley” may sound like some Southern California OC coupling, but the flavor fireworks bursting forth from the restaurant that holds up the Skypoint Tower are worthy of your rapt attention. 777 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa, aniseglobalgastrobar.com. (Reviewed 1/9/2014; 3.5 stars)

click to enlarge The Canopy. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
The Canopy.
The Canopy Rooftop Lounge
There’s the sky bar, private cabanas, fire pits, indoor-outdoor grass, living room seating, high-top tables and a surprising glass railing with unobstructed, breathtaking views across the treetops of Straub Park out to the glistening bay. The attention to detail quickens my pulse; it’s the nicest outdoor bar in the Bay area (or any place else I can remember from my culinary travels). 340 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, thebirchwood.com. (5/30/2013; 3 stars)

Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club
Ciro’s not only includes my favorite food groups — caviar, foie gras and truffles — it’s also not afraid to transform fries and carrots with duck fat or a bacon glaze. 2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa, cirostampa.com. (3/21/2013; 3.5 stars)

Where should I go for…
CREATIVE COMFORT?

Champions BBQ
Friends visiting from England were “gobsmacked” by the stunning KC-style beans with their heady mix of cumin, golden raisin and apple. The shredded brisket and pork glisten with juiciness — plus, Champions offers five delicious sauces. 4400 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg, championsbbq.com. (8/2/2012; 4 stars)

Pizzeria Gregario
Like a great composer, chef-owner Greg Seymour takes the same pizza “notes” available to all the region’s other pizza parlors and delivers a peak experience. 400 Second St. N., Safety Harbor, pizzeriagregario.com. (3/12/2015; 5 stars)

William Dean Chocolates
Just a fleeting glance enchants with color even before you settle on your flavor from a cornucopia of 34 knockout choices in shapes and shades that delight. 2790 W. Bay Drive, Belleair Bluffs, williamdeanchocolates.com. (7/19/2012; 5 stars)

click to enlarge Z Grille. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Z Grille.
Z Grille
Zack Gross, the “Z” in Z Grille, reputedly has an attitude. All I can say is, “Thank goodness.” It permeates the décor and, more importantly, the audacious flavors that shape every dish coming out of his kitchen. 104 Second St. S., St. Petersburg, zgrille.net. (11/14/2013; 3.5 stars)

Where can I find a…
GOURMET PLAYGROUND
?

Locale Market
Chef Michael Mina calls his new brainchild with chef Don Pintabona a curated “culinary Disneyland.” Indeed, Locale Market is a magic kingdom. There’s less “market” than at Mazzaro’s, but more fantasyland kitchens where you can snatch up fresh, local ingredients, or let one of the 11 stations display its theme park wizardry. 179 Second Ave. N., St. Petersburg, localegourmetmarket.com. (12/25/2014; 4 stars)

Where do I go for…
REFINED CUISINE?

Rooster & the Till
Serious food is usually serious business. But a short trip to Seminole Heights proves the exception to the rule. Rooster & the Till explodes all the benchmarks and upends any preconceived notions about what constitutes the highest level of fine dining across Tampa Bay. 6500 N. Florida Ave., Tampa, roosterandthetill.com. (3/20/2014; 4.5 stars)

click to enlarge Castile at Hotel  Zamora. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Castile at Hotel Zamora.
Castile
The dining room is dominated by a  wall of huge floor-to-ceiling window arches, each the size of a car. They look out over a lanterned patio to the calming waters of the intracoastal waterway, which serves as a reminder of the menu’s contemporary Mediterranean influences. How about some oysters or mussels or scallops or tuna or crab? Maybe calamari? 3701 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, castilerestaurant.com. (8/28/2014; 4 stars)

Currents
Everything I’ve eaten here I’d easily welcome again. Why? Because the chef handpicks the freshest seafood and produce daily and every dish is then made to order with impeccable technique — as it should be. 200 E. Tarpon Ave., Tarpon Springs, currents-tarpon.com. (9/20/2012; 3.5 stars)

Piquant
Piquant is not to be missed. Whether you need to see what the “Cronut” knockoff is all about or just taste some of the best French-inflected bistro fare this side of the pond, chefs Rosana Rivera and Ricardo Castro passionately deliver what they promise: “authentic epicurean cuisine.” And free parking in the Hyde Park Village garage to boot. Hyde Park Village, 1633 W. Snow Ave., Tampa, piquanthydepark.com. (4/24/14; 4 stars)

Sea Salt
Sea Salt has all manner of offerings on the oyster and raw bar menu, with a spectrum of 35-plus oysters, both fresh and baked, along with caviar, crudo and tartare. I can’t resist the classic oysters Rockefeller, which adds crab and sweet Tomaccio raisin tomatoes to the traditional spinach with Pernod. 183 Second Ave. N., St. Petersburg, seasaltstpete.com. (3/26/15; 4 stars)

Where do I go for…
A SPECIAL OCCASION?

The Black Pearl
Like Bern’s, The Black Pearl is a throwback. But who cares if you’re in a time warp when everything on the menu is fresh and impeccably sourced, prepared with care and downright delicious? Every single appetizer, salad, entree and dessert is worth considering. 315 Main St., Dunedin, theblackpearldunedin.com. (8/9/2012; 4 stars)

click to enlarge Cafe Ponte's braised short ribs. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
Cafe Ponte's braised short ribs.
Cafe Ponte
Cafe Ponte’s kitchen is consistently turning out food at a very high level, beginning with fresh, locally sourced ingredients and delivering multilayered flavors. So, whether you order the seasonal tasting menu or choose from the delicious à la carte selections, Cafe Ponte remains at the apex of Tampa Bay’s dining options. 13505 Icot Blvd. #214, Clearwater, cafeponte.com. (1/10/2013; 4.5 stars)

Haven
Under the keen eye of Chef de Cuisine Courtney Orwig there are surprises at every turn, like the whole roasted cauliflower. From the ashes of Sidebern's rises a five-star phoenix. 2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa, haventampa.com. (4/2/2015; 5 stars)

What if I want a…
WORLD TOUR?

ABC Seafood
There’s everything from whole Peking duck with steamed buns to a wide range of soups, noodles and clay pot preparations. And lots of dishes with ingredients not found at the local food court: fish maw, garlic frog and braised tofu, beef tendon, seaweed and jellyfish. As the name suggests, the specialties of the house come from the sea. Or to be more accurate, from the aquariums that line a wall near the kitchen. 2705 54th Ave. N. #3, St. Petersburg, abcchinesestpetersburg.com. (5/9/2013; 4 stars)

click to enlarge The kabob trio from Byblos. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The kabob trio from Byblos.
Byblos Café
The bill of fare showcases a range of Mediterranean staples, but the way to go is to share a full “Taste of Lebanon.” While the menu lists this Middle Eastern smorgasbord at $33.95 each (with a two-person minimum), these 10 courses (x2) are ample enough to serve a party of four. That, dear readers, is a bargain in any culture. 2832 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, bybloscafe.com. (10/10/2013; 4 stars)

Cafe de Paris
Outside of France, good baguettes are hard to come by. Few, if any, crackle and spray you with crumbs when your teeth pierce the crisp, chewy crust to reveal what seems an impossibly airy interior. Luckily, Café de Paris brings France to you in the person of master baker Xavier De Marchi. He’s the real deal, and so is his bread. 2300 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach, cafedeparisbakery.com. (10/4/2012; 3.5 stars)

Casa Tina's
What makes me return is a salt-rimmed frozen margarita with bracing lime and plenty of zip. Or sizzling faijitas that I can load onto warm tortillas with shredded cheese, creamy guacamole, roasted tomato salsa and sour cream. 365 Main St., Dunedin, casatinas.com. (8/8/2013; 3.5 stars)

click to enlarge Cena's boccocini con crema. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Cena's boccocini con crema.
Cena
Like its intimate, sleek dining room, the menu is narrow, but boy, does it pack a punch. Chef Michael Buttacavoli delivers on Cena’s promise to be “modern, fresh and simple.” 1208 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, cena-channelside.com. (7/4/2013; 4 stars)

Gateway to India
From the moment you enter Gateway to India, you know you’re in for a special treat. A large pool of floating rose petals immediately gives a feeling of tranquility, and the ornate statue of the multi-armed Hindu elephant god, Ganesh, transports you to the subcontinent as whiffs of curry spices fill the air. 8300 Bay Pines Blvd., St. Petersburg, gatewaytoindiastpete.com. (2/20/2014; 4 stars)

Red Mesa
It’s a shame there aren’t more Mexican restaurants that are aspirational in the mode of Fourth Street’s Red Mesa. Far away from the trendy downtown scene, it promises “a synergy of the finest ingredients, bright, bold flavors and refined cooking skills,” and it delivers big time. 4912 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg, redmesarestaurant.com. (9/26/2013; 4 stars)

Roux
I silently repeat the “nouvelle” mantra in my mind as I pop a few of the Abita beer-battered alligator (tastes like chicken) bites in my mouth after dipping them in spicy cayenne rémoulade. They’re tasty morsels that only grow in my estimation as I (FSU alum) imagine Gators from Gainesville. Umm-umm good! 4205 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, rouxtampa.com. (9/18/2014; 4 stars)

Thai Gourmet Market
Regardless of how you do the math, the food at Thai Gourmet Market explodes with so much flavor at such a modest cost that I feel like I’m guilty of insider trading. Luckily, there’s no Martha Stewart jail time in my future. 5831 Memorial Highway, Tampa, thaigourmetmarket.com. (11/21/2013; 4 stars)

click to enlarge Diners grub inside the absinthe room at Roux in South Tampa. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Diners grub inside the absinthe room at Roux in South Tampa.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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