When it comes to eating late, you can't afford to be too picky. After all, you're up past the bedtimes of about 80 percent of the people in your time zone. However, for some reason, our stomachs are just as discerning after midnight as they are at any other hour. It's damn near impossible, in fact, to meet the stomach's selective demands for quality late nite eats.
Late — just to qualify the term — would be considered too late to call out for pizza. Nite — again, just qualifying the term — presumes that you've had a few drinks or are on a tear hanging out with friends and, not wanting the night to end, think it would be a shame to simply go home and have a bowl of corn flakes and crawl into bed. Eats — that just means food.
What you and your stomach may not have known, though, is that there are several choice grazing grounds open late that meet the standards of even the most selective stomachs.
As far as service, you'll also be surprised. (Though how dare you reasonably expect flawless service when you already know you can't afford to be too picky?)
Bella's Italian Cafe, 1413 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, in Hyde Park (813-254-3355) — Bella's is so on top of things they even have a Late Nite menu that focuses on antipasti, salad, calzones/pizzas and deserts. The calzones and pizzas are identical in toppings; it's simply a matter of whether they fold the crust over. The Paulie Special (sausage, pepperoni, ricotta, mushrooms and onion) is ideal for someone looking for the comfort found only in the taste of sweet and spicy Italian meats, with just enough grease to squelch an oncoming hangover. Bella's also has a great bar and fair wine selection, and their calamari and pasta fritti are excellent. Open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Last call for food is a half-hour before closing. Price: $4-$7 an entree.
Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant, 2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa, in Hyde Park (813-250-0203) — This place is so stylish it'll make you ashamed to shop from catalogs. It's really a place for experienced tapas eaters, but they'll take advanced beginners. Tapas are a beautiful concept; you order a variety of appetizer-size dishes and eat them at will. It's delectable Spanish food at its conversation-friendliest. Just remember to bring enough cash to tip the valet, as there's rarely any place to park. Open till 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; the tiny bar stays open until 3 a.m. Price: $3-$10 per tapas entree.
Cherry's, 1512 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City (813-247-4541) — Cherry's is a respectable little establishment, with a menu of all things grilled and fried. The way to go is with a burger, a side of onion rings and a milkshake (cherry, no less). The waitstaff is generally very attractive and attentive at almost any hour, and the food seldom takes long. Really, what more do you want when you're about to fall asleep reading the menu? Open till 4 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Price: $7-$10 an entree.
Dan Marino's Town Tavern, 121 Second Ave. N., St. Petersburg (727-822-4413) — The Miami Dolphins' old No. 13 offers some decent chuck at this snazzy Florida chain. Yes they have a TV so you can watch the game, but this is the furthest thing from a sports bar. Tucked upstairs in the clamorous BayWalk plaza, the restaurant/bar is quiet and spacious, with cozy booths, prompt service and fair portions. The food runs the gamut from humdrum (chicken quesadilla, angel hair pasta) to mmm ... (sesame seared tuna, cashew crusted salmon salad). And while waiting, brush up on your Marino trivia. Some of his stats are proudly on the menu, as well as a tidbit of the quarterback's philosophy, "Pick a guy and let it fly." Such profundity. Open till 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Kitchen closes at midnight. Price: $8-$15 an entree.
Grand Finale, 1101 First Ave. N., St. Petersburg (727-823-9921) — Unless your night involved car trouble or a break-up, Grand Finale is going to send you home with a smile on your face. With pop art on the walls, a long black bar, one pool table and a DJ, they have the hangout vibe down, that's for sure. A wall of glass windows separates the fine dining area from the bar, allowing gazes to be exchanged without the noise. And the menu of New American cuisine by Chef John B. Shields is refreshingly light and infused with subtle Asian accents. Try sea scallops set on brandade potatoes and curried carrot emulsion with garlic confit, or perhaps pad thai noodles with baby corn cashews and garlic chives. You'll have a delightfully difficult time ordering. Open till 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, serving the entire menu nightly until 1 a.m. Price: $6-$8 a starter, $3-$6 a salad, $15-$24 a meal.
La Teresita Restaurant, 3246 W. Columbus Drive, Tampa (813-879-4909) — Something of a landmark, La Teresita garners mixed reviews from its customers, but their late-nite cafeteria remains a well-trafficked spot to get simple Cuban food. You can get a classic Cuban sandwich (no lettuce or tomato) for about $3. Or you can get one of their specials — inevitably involving a heap of saffron-simmered rice, beans (black or red), poultry or pork and Cuban toast — for about $5. Upon seating, they set you up promptly with water and cheap but spotless silverware, and give you as little or as much time as you need to order. Their platanos (fried sweet plantains) are delicious, as are their sugar cookies. And be it any indication of their coffee's quality, they won the WP's '99 Best of the Bay award for their cafe con leche. Late Nite Hours: Open 24 hours Friday and Saturday. Price: $3-$8 an item.
Red's Twins Cafe, at the Tampa Wholesale Produce Market, 2801 E. Hillsborough Ave. (813-237-3314) — To find Red's you've got to brave pulling into the market among incoming and outgoing trucks and then safely navigate your way around the many produce pallets, pallet jacks and task-minded forklift drivers. But it's worth the effort, especially if it's 4 a.m. on a weeknight and you desire a heavy, cheap breakfast. Set in the middle of the main warehouse of truck terminals is one of the slackest and baddest breakfast/lunch counters in town. Despite the bustle and truck noise outside, it's particularly quiet inside. They have a cigarette vending machine. And their specials are sure to satisfy: a fresh-grilled waffle, two eggs, two strips of bacon and coffee for $2.99; or two eggs, smoked sausage, potatoes or grits and toast for $2.99. They also serve lunch (a burger, fries and a 16-ounce soda for $3.99), Cuban sandwiches, breakfast ham and steak. And you insomniacs out there can't beat the hours. Open 3 a.m. until 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday. Price: $3-$5.