Food & Drink Critics' Picks

Best of the Bay 2006

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Best Restaurant: Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant, St. Petersburg
95 Central Ave.
[map]
727-209-2302

This one qualifies for so many awards — Best New Restaurant, Best Looking Waitstaff, Best Date Spot, and more — but in the final equation, I realized that my meals at Ceviche were consistently my favorite, all year long. The redesign of the old Ponce Hotel space is exceptional and suits the style of the restaurant perfectly. Ceviche’s tapas are the same as they’ve always been at the SoHo location — vibrant, tasty, impeccably prepared and downright fun. In an era of ubiquitous “small plates” menus and American “tapas,” this food is the real deal, with the rest of the restaurant package to match.

See the full review.

» See full Good Eats listing

Best New Restaurant: Primi Urban Café

It’s rare to find culinary virtuosity and everyday prices all in one package, particularly a package as pleasant and comfy as Primi. But that’s just what owners Arno and Irene Von Waltsleben have managed to put together in downtown St. Pete. Arno works the kitchen with his son, turning out simple but exceptional Italian cuisine — skirt steak accompanied by an incredible sun-dried tomato tapenade, for instance — with the occasional South-African twist, like pasta with chicken in tomato sauce blitzed with curry powder. Prices stay well below $20 for entrees, and you can get away for a lot less, which makes Primi an everyday sort of place with much better than everyday food. 27 Fourth St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-895-4909.

Best Chicken: Ponte’s Tuscan Grill

Roast chicken is a perfect test of a kitchen’s skills, along with being one of the cheapest and most overlooked items on the entrée list of most restaurants. At Ponte’s Tuscan, it’s also one of the best. It’s half a small bird, chopped into manageable chunks, united by exceptionally moist, seasoned meat and a crisp skin impregnated with chopped herbs, black pepper and garlic. Fabulous. 2544 N. McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater, 727-724-5716.

See full review.

Best Miso Soup: Grass Root Organic Restaurant

Miso soup is ubiquitous at Japanese and “Asian” fusion restaurants across the Bay area, but when was the last time you actually noticed eating it? Maybe necessity is the mother of invention, because Grass Root has a re-imagined version made for their “raw diet” customers. Dip a spoon into the murky pool of subtly sweet coconut water (yep, straight from the hairy nut) and miso paste blossoms, filling the bowl with a cloud of nutty, salty seasoning. Floating atop the soup are strands of shredded coconut “noodles” that are tender enough to mimic the real deal. It’s enough to make me think “raw” isn’t such a bad idea after all. 2702 Florida Ave. N., Tampa, 813-221-7668.

See full review.

See full Good Eats listing.

Best Side Dish: Edamame Mash, Restaurant Hapa

Edamame has become the hip bar snack of choice lately, but I’d rather have boiled peanuts than salted soybeans with my beer any day of the week — except when the little bundles of protein are mashed by the crew at Restaurant Hapa in Oldsmar. Each grainy bite is salty and luxuriously rich, a ridiculously simple and healthy replacement for potatoes. Hopefully, we’ll see more places experimenting with this dish in the coming year. 3970 Tampa Road, Oldsmar, 813-749-8400.

See the full review.

Best Late-Night Eats (Downtown Tampa): Fries at Fly

Newcomer Fly serves food until 2 a.m. and is a short three blocks from Tampa Theatre. Better yet, the place is cool and filled with the kind of hip crowd that will, eventually, repopulate downtown. Order a plate of their frites three ways — crispy sweet potato shoestrings, chunky Idaho hand-cut fries and cumin-scented Peruvian blue chips — and hang on Fly’s roof deck, taking in the sights and muted sounds of downtown Tampa. 1202 Franklin Street, Tampa, 813-275-5000.

Best Late-Night Eats (Ybor): Tacos at Mema’s Alaskan Tacos

I’ve gotten flack for calling Mema’s tacos “late-night alcohol sponges.” Sure, that’s what I use them for, but only because they are really, really good. At this little taco shack, fried fish and alligator and good steak get piled with salsa and veggies into tasty tortillas until 3 a.m. for most of the week. Owner Sean Godin even plans to open a sit-down restaurant up the street on 8th Ave., which will keep the same hours, increasing the opportunity for tasty late-night Alaskan-Mexican fusion cuisine. 1604 N. 17th Street, Tampa, 813-514-8226.

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