With all the beautiful flora and fauna, beaches and parks in our area, it really comes as a surprise that there are relatively few places to eat en plein air. Part of it has to do with the stifling heat that afflicts us six months out of the year; the other culprit is the misguided legislation of shortsighted politicians (e.g., Tampa's ordinance against outdoor dining from the 1950s through '70s, supposedly for health reasons). But in the past decade, charming eateries with patios, decks, sidewalk seating and atria have sprung up all over the Bay area. The following is an overview of some of our favorite places to get tasty vittles and fresh air.
Cafe Creole, 1330 Ninth Ave. E., Ybor City, (813-247-6283). A comfortable distance from the hustle and bustle of Seventh Avenue, in the historic red-brick El Pasaje building, this New Orleans-style eatery offers quaint appeal and tasty Cajun fare with nice Continental touches. Oh, and when you're there, ask for Hassan, our favorite, five-star waiter. Recommended is the blackened salmon salad.
Jackson's Bistro and Sushi, 601 S. Harbour Island Blvd. (813-277-0112). Jackson's has become infamous for its happy-hour yuppie meat markets, but it's actually a pleasant place to take in the views of downtown Tampa and Old Tampa Bay. The sushi at Jackson's is tres fresh and affordable.
Rick's on the River, 2305 N. Willow Ave., Tampa (813-251-0369). Margaritaville cheese at its finest! Rick's restaurant, marina and hair salon (?!) overlooks the Hillsborough River and the lush greenery that lines it. We recommend the cheap American beer on tap, conch fritters or a grouper sandwich with a huge basket o' fries. Pine over the sad state of what used to be Hillsborough County's most beautiful natural resource amid the human comedy of bleach blond mullets and cover bands.
The Garden, 217 Central Ave. (727-896-3800). Long established as one of downtown's favorite bistros, The Garden offers tasty Mediterranean fare — paellas, polentas, frittatas and pastas, and tajine, long-simmered Moroccan stew with complex flavors. Dine in the quaint brick patio with creeping vines and a big oak tree, and, on certain nights, laugh with The Unprofessionals improv comedy troupe, or take in the ultra-cool pure jazz of trombonist Buster Cooper and his trio.
Moon Under Water, 332 Beach Drive (727-896-6160). Down a Guinness and enjoy some good Brit-style food as you gaze at the best view of downtown St. Pete's waterfront — from the majestic Vinoy to the neoclassic Museum of Arts to The Pier and its fleet of sailboats. Moon Under Water has an extensive beer list and serves Indian curries, Middle Eastern dishes and, of course, fish and chips (but only at dinner Tuesday and Friday).
Palm Pavilion, 18 Bay Esplanade (727-446-2642). Whereas the majority of locals and sunset-gazers head to the Rockaway Grill next door, the simple white, wood-frame Palm Pavilion has enjoyed a steadily growing customer base without the long, cramped, loud waits one must endure at Rockaway. Try PP's blackened grouper burritos and pina coladas with whipped cream and coconut shavings. (Insert Homer Simpson groan here.)
Boulevard Bistro, 8595 Seminole Blvd (727-399-1800). In a sea of white hair and Oldsmobiles lies this culinary oasis that, yes, offers early bird specials, but the kind that'd make South Tampa yuppies salivate. Dine in BB's elegant stucco patio while enjoying the friendly atmosphere, well-prepared seafood (especially the grouper sandwich) and an incredible ahi tuna spring roll wrapped in puff pastry and served with a warm, spicy dipping sauce. The complimentary white bean garlic dip and crispy bread are to die for.
ST. PETE BEACH
The Sea Porch Cafe at the Don CeSar. 3400 Gulf Blvd. (727-360-1881 or 800-282-1116). Along with featuring the majestic "Pink Lady" hotel as its locale, this casual cafe features an open deck that overlooks whispery sea oats and one of the Gulf Coast's most expansive, sugary white beaches. Order drinks, and, if you're hungry, try one of the dinner pasta dishes served with the "fish of the day." They change daily, depending upon what the chef considers the freshest.
The Thirsty Marlin, 1023 Florida Ave. (727-784-3469). Nestled amid draping oak trees and the quaint old buildings of Palm Harbor's historic "downtown" neighborhood sits one of the most professionally run, top-notch Floribbean restaurants in the Bay area. Features shady patios, delicious frozen drinks and an unusually extensive menu. Treat your vegetarian friends to a grilled portobello sandwich or try the Caribbean cracked conch sandwich. Very affordable prices; hell, if this place were in Ybor or on the beach, they'd be charging double what the stuff costs here. Note to owners: Please lose the blackface antique memorabilia in the lobby. Customers may lose their appetites upon viewing this display of poor taste.
Green Springs Cafe and Gathering Place, 122 Third Ave. N. (727-669-6762). Safety Harbor may very well be Tampa Bay's prettiest town, with its rolling hills, bayside views, shady oaks and old wood-frame homes. Smack in the heart of the quaint town's even quainter downtown area is Green Springs. Housed in a restored 1920s house, this excellent eatery features ingenious, delicious fare, live music and friendly service. My vegan pal recommends the big salad, with fresh baby greens, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, Roma tomatoes, red onion and basil balsamic vinaigrette (non-vegans can opt for the garlic Parmesan dressing).
Bella's, Le Bordeaux, Ciccio and Tony's and Taqueria Quetzalqoatl, all on Howard Avenue in the Hyde Park area, have small outdoor patios and great food. If you're in the mood for cheap, healthy Mexican fare, go to Taqueria. If Italian is your thing, both Bella's and Ciccio and Tony's offer creative twists on food from the boot; Bella's has specialty wood-fired pizzas and Ciccio and Tony's is known for great wraps. Le Bordeaux offers top-notch French food in an intimate setting.
Tampa Bay Brewing Company on 15th Street in Ybor City has some of the best food you'll find anywhere — beef, pizzas, vegetarian fare, robust salads — but only a small upstairs balcony for fresh-air dining. Skipper's Smokehouse, way up in North Tampa on Skipper Road and Nebraska Avenue, features gator tail, Southern and Cuban-style fare, with the added bonus of a sandy deck under a ceiling of stars that regulars call "The Skipperdome," where national and local acts perform live music.
Downtown Dunedin has long been known for its quaint eateries with limited-but-nice outdoor seating: Kelly's ... for Just About Anything, Sea Sea Riders and Cafe Alfresco. All feature quality, contemporary Continental/Floribbean dining.