I'm a restaurant loyalist. For years I have been a regular at a handful of tried-and-true favorites where the server not only knows my preferences but can converse knowledgeably about the love life of the sommelier, the college prospects of the manager's daughter and the hostess' new baby. A good restaurant can inspire in me a brand of loyalty that I don't exhibit toward clothes, airlines, grocers or even hair salons. Therefore, one of the best aspects of my job is the mandate to try new places. In 2004, my first year as a food critic in Tampa Bay, I had the opportunity to move beyond my comfortable circle of eateries and learn exactly what this area's culinary scene has to offer. In some instances, I realized that my lifelong patronage was well deserved. In others, I discovered exciting new horizons.
Best Vegetarian Eats: Udipi Café. As I wrote in my June 24 review of this tiny Indian restaurant, I'm a devoted carnivore. But at Udipi, with its primarily Indian clientele and a staff more than willing to help out the newbie, I soon found myself ensconced in enough buttery dosai, piquant saffron curry and tart black tamarind sauce to forget all about the meatless nature of my meal. If you aren't sure whether you can handle meatless or Indian, Udipi is the place to test your palate. If you're already a fan, it's the spot in which to revel in your wise and sustainable choice. 14422 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, 813-962-7300
Best Drink: Coco Loco at Liquor Lloyd's Brandon Beach House My mouth still waters two months later at the memory of Liquor Lloyd's Coco Loco piña colada. Fresh coconut milk and limejuice, coconut-flavored rum, sweet coconut cream — it doesn't sound like a complicated combo, but Liquor Lloyd's made it magic. Served in a hollowed-out coconut (free with purchase, as I was informed), the Coco Loco was adorned with more parasols and pinwheels than an Easter Parade. Though nowhere near the water, this Caribbean-inspired Brandon hangout is one of my favorite beach bars. 779 W. Lumsden Road, Brandon, 813-655-0511
Best Swanky Celebration: Birthday Parties at the Salt Rock Grill. The day before I got my first food assignment at the Planet, I was living it up with perfectly prepared steaks, delicious seafood and to-die-for wine at this trendy waterside restaurant. (If I hadn't become a food critic, I might be waiting tables there now.) In this town, I know there are better steakhouses, better seafood restaurants and better wine lists, but the Salt Rock Grill combines powerhouse ratings in all three areas with an ebullient atmosphere and an innate sense of classy cool. I've been there on romantic dinner dates and even business meetings, but, for my money, the best time to go to Salt Rock Grill is when you have a large and very rowdy party. (They'll even put candles in your creme brulee.) 19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores, 727-593-7625
Best Sports Bar: Rose & Crown Pub. Ollie, Ollie, Ollie! Oy, Oy, Oy! If there are no sports fans like soccer fans, then there's no place in the bay area to enjoy the game like the Rose & Crown Pub. Here, refugees from across the pond gather to feel at home, English beer flows freely from a good dozen taps, and the fish and chips are to die for. When I manage to squeeze into the joint on a day when "the rugby" or "the football" is on, I stick close to the bar. Don't want to get lost in the scrum. 12580 Walsingham Road, Largo, 727-593-7673
Best Local Food Event: Stone Crab Season Opener at Frenchy's. Is there anything better than sweet, succulent stone crabs, drawn butter, a pint of beer and a seat under the tent at Frenchy's on the day they start hauling those traps in? Not in Tampa Bay. For 20 years, Mike "Frenchy" Preston has been holding a short but highly appreciated celebration in honor of the famous Florida claws, and the only thing I regret is not being there all 20 times. 41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach, 727-446-3607, and other locations on Clearwater Beach
Best Newsworthy Food Event: Dine Out For Disaster Relief, Oct. 14. More than 1,600 Florida restaurants participated in the Dine Out For Disaster Relief Program on Oct. 14. Patterned after Dine Out America, which took place after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the disaster program was implemented to give a jolt to our state's ravaged economy as well as provide money to hurricane victims. Participating restaurants donated 10 percent of the day's take to relief services. Dozens of local eateries took part in the program, from the swanky (Melting Pot) to the simple (Skipper's Smokehouse) to the painfully obvious (Hurricane's on St. Pete Beach). Remember, our restaurants give the bay area a large part of its personality, and as far too many Florida towns realized after decades-old establishments collapsed beneath the weight of oak trees and insufficient insurance, their loss may just be a weather pattern away.
Best Prix Fixe: La Cachette. When I'm lucky enough to score a seat at this tiny beach-cottage-cum-restaurant, I give thanks to the culinary gods and raid my wine stash for something good and French. I know I'll need it to keep up with the wonderful prix fixe (and BYO) bill of fare at La Cachette. From the homemade pickle crudités served upon arrival, to the melt-in-your mouth butter-maple tart that finishes off the meal, the food at this minuscule, utterly divine beachside hideaway is a secret I wish I was better at keeping. 321 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach, 727-596-5439
Best Spot for a Romantic Dinner: Dominic's Capri. Remember those favorite restaurants I was discussing earlier? Well, this is one. In my youth, it was a family favorite, and now Sailor Boy and I like nothing more than to hide away in the high-backed booth beyond the wine-barrel door and wait for Dominic to grace us with his exquisite vodka blush over lobster and pasta. It's simple and homey, but I never feel more comfortable making goo-goo eyes across the table than when I know the only people who might catch me at it are already friends. Fresh, homemade bread, amazing soups and a wine cellar that is almost bigger than the restaurant add to the incredible atmosphere. 411 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach, 727-441-1111
Best Private Party: Peterfreunds' Annual Wine Dinner. Speaking of bias... For several years now, my parents have thrown a lavish dinner every spring, exploring and celebrating a particular variety of wine and the cuisine from its native region. One year, it was grand cru Burgundy. The next, an out-of-this-world extravaganza of 1990 vintage Champagne. In 2004, they organized a Tuscan evening, complete with imported wine, cheese and even boar. Through careful manipulation of the filial system, I've snagged invites the past two years. This year, I came home from Australia in order to attend. My folks spend months in the design and implementation of this wine dinner, and they probably couldn't pull it off if it weren't for the tireless work of local restaurateur and our favorite caterer, Linda Alfano. Unfortunately, the Peterfreund table can only fit so many people at a time, but if you want to come close to the experience, head to Alfano's Restaurant, where Frank and Linda Alfano turn out a nightly menu so wonderful that you'll never miss my father's lectures on noble rot.
Best New Discoveries: Benedetto's and Clancy's of New Orleans. There's nothing like finding a great new restaurant. You get to act all smug to your foodie friends: "You haven't had crabcakes until you've tried Clancy's. Terrific gumbo. And what Chef James Graham can do with wild game...." At Benedetto's, you get to act as if you are the only one who knows of its existence (despite the hour-long waits at the door): "Oh, you haven't heard of Benedetto's? Very young chef, out-of-this-world sauces. Totally worth the trek out to Land O'Lakes for his grouper bianco." Best of all, you get to eat there, to open your taste buds to a brave new world of flavor. Clancy's, 2525 Gulf to Bay Blvd., Clearwater, 727-725-2692; Benedetto's, 21529 Village Lakes Shopping Center, Land O'Lakes, 813-909-9694
This year I learned more than I ever thought I could about our local culinary scene, and I urge you to make 2005 your year of discovery. Break out of the norm and find the new restaurants, the secret spots, the old standbys you've never really given a chance. Your old favorites will be there, and you might find a new place to add to your list.
Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.