Tampa Bay's 50 best restaurants of 2021

Tampa Bay's 50 best restaurants of 2021
Photo by Melissa Santell / Design by Jack Spatafora
In spite of the last two years taking so many beloved restaurants away, some local chefs and restaurateurs have found ways to not only survive, but thrive over the last 12 months.

Sure, a lot of us still aren’t going out—with many more doing so cautiously, mask in hand—but the last year was a time to reconnect with old favorites and find new ones, too. Creative Loafing Tampa Bay staff and contributors joined you in doing our best to support the local food and drink scene, and while these are such “unprecedented times” (aren’t you so sick of hearing that phrase an unprecedented number of times??), what follows is a rundown of our favorite food experiences of the last year, be they classic spots, brand new digs, coat-and-tie kinda joints or straight up holes in the wall.

Here’s to an even better 2022, keep on tipping like your money is on fire, people.—Ray Roa
Scroll down to view images
The Restorative
420 Patricia Ave., Dunedin
It’s hard to believe that it’s been four-and-a-half years since I lost my mind at this Dunedin-based unicorn. I’ve dined here at least a dozen times without ever having the same dish twice. It remains my pick for No. 1 in the region. The key to Erin “Cricket” and Jason Borajkiewicz’s ever-changing poetic menu is not about quantity, but rather freshness, balance and finesse. The carefully composed seasonal dishes are wondrous kaleidoscopes of color and texture that look too good to eat. The flavors explode on your palate in combinations that surprise or amaze. I ran out of superlatives long ago.  Ask for half-pours and sip both white, red, and bubbles to make the meal soar. The Restorative recently renovated, but the dining room is still tiny, so reservations are a must.—JPC
restorativerestaurant/Facebook
The Restorative
420 Patricia Ave., Dunedin
It’s hard to believe that it’s been four-and-a-half years since I lost my mind at this Dunedin-based unicorn. I’ve dined here at least a dozen times without ever having the same dish twice. It remains my pick for No. 1 in the region. The key to Erin “Cricket” and Jason Borajkiewicz’s ever-changing poetic menu is not about quantity, but rather freshness, balance and finesse. The carefully composed seasonal dishes are wondrous kaleidoscopes of color and texture that look too good to eat. The flavors explode on your palate in combinations that surprise or amaze. I ran out of superlatives long ago. Ask for half-pours and sip both white, red, and bubbles to make the meal soar. The Restorative recently renovated, but the dining room is still tiny, so reservations are a must.—JPC
7th+Grove
1930 E 7th Ave., Ybor City. 813-640-8422
Haters (you know who you are) say the place is too lively on weekend nights, but that’s a lie. Not only is 7th+Grove now a staple of the Ybor City historic district, but it’s also home to a rocksteady menu of Southern favorites all dished up by an ace team ready to guide you through brunch, taco Tuesday, late night, lunch and dinner. If you’ve never been, get baptised by the braised oxtails, then scream hallelujah, amen.—RR
7thandGrove/Facebook
7th+Grove
1930 E 7th Ave., Ybor City. 813-640-8422
Haters (you know who you are) say the place is too lively on weekend nights, but that’s a lie. Not only is 7th+Grove now a staple of the Ybor City historic district, but it’s also home to a rocksteady menu of Southern favorites all dished up by an ace team ready to guide you through brunch, taco Tuesday, late night, lunch and dinner. If you’ve never been, get baptised by the braised oxtails, then scream hallelujah, amen.—RR
Al’s Finger Licking Good Bar-B-Que
1609 Angel Olivia Sr. St., Ybor City. 813-956-0675
We hope COVID didn’t take your sense of smell because this is a time-tested Ybor City spot you can ID from down the street. Meats are obviously the star here (we suggest smoked sausage, ribs or the pulled pork), but don’t skip out on sides, especially the creamy coleslaw, spicy collards and the only-available-on-Friday mac-and-cheese. If you’re a fiend for a bang-bang, scoot on over to Big Al’s soul food spot located just a few blocks away (2302 E 7th Ave.).—RR
AlsYbor/Facebook
Al’s Finger Licking Good Bar-B-Que
1609 Angel Olivia Sr. St., Ybor City. 813-956-0675
We hope COVID didn’t take your sense of smell because this is a time-tested Ybor City spot you can ID from down the street. Meats are obviously the star here (we suggest smoked sausage, ribs or the pulled pork), but don’t skip out on sides, especially the creamy coleslaw, spicy collards and the only-available-on-Friday mac-and-cheese. If you’re a fiend for a bang-bang, scoot on over to Big Al’s soul food spot located just a few blocks away (2302 E 7th Ave.).—RR
Anju
2827 16th St., N, St. Petersburg. 727-289-8568
Korean food has always been a favorite, but it really feels like the cuisine had a moment locally in 2021, and the main reason was a big, crunchy embrace of a new kind of KFC—Korean fried chicken—that Anju really does better than anyone else. With roots in a 12-foot food trailer, Mee Ae Wolney now runs her restaurant out of a beautiful brick building on 16th Street where slings sweet, salty and spicy K-pops and a drunk person’s dream: tots loaded with bulgogi and kimchi, plus cheese and scallions, crushed peanut and St. Pete heat sauce.—RR
Visit St. Pete-Clearwater
Anju
2827 16th St., N, St. Petersburg. 727-289-8568
Korean food has always been a favorite, but it really feels like the cuisine had a moment locally in 2021, and the main reason was a big, crunchy embrace of a new kind of KFC—Korean fried chicken—that Anju really does better than anyone else. With roots in a 12-foot food trailer, Mee Ae Wolney now runs her restaurant out of a beautiful brick building on 16th Street where slings sweet, salty and spicy K-pops and a drunk person’s dream: tots loaded with bulgogi and kimchi, plus cheese and scallions, crushed peanut and St. Pete heat sauce.—RR
Bayou Bodega
241 E Davis Blvd., Tampa. 813-513-5478
Tampa’s Davis Islands is home to a lot of old reliables (Thai Island, Margarita’s Mexican Food, Islands Pizza, Anchor Bar) plus some solid Italian (Oggi, and it’s even more impressive neighborhood market and wood fired pizza kitchen), but Yarinel Ramos and Robert Sickler have turned it up at their concept which serves a whole lot of natty wine alongside the flavors of New Orleans, Puerto Rico and the wider Caribbean. It’s hard to go wrong, but the po’boys, garlic shrimp, brabant potatoes and simple red beans and rice will guarantee a return trip.—RR
Erin Benik of Emagine Photography
Bayou Bodega
241 E Davis Blvd., Tampa. 813-513-5478
Tampa’s Davis Islands is home to a lot of old reliables (Thai Island, Margarita’s Mexican Food, Islands Pizza, Anchor Bar) plus some solid Italian (Oggi, and it’s even more impressive neighborhood market and wood fired pizza kitchen), but Yarinel Ramos and Robert Sickler have turned it up at their concept which serves a whole lot of natty wine alongside the flavors of New Orleans, Puerto Rico and the wider Caribbean. It’s hard to go wrong, but the po’boys, garlic shrimp, brabant potatoes and simple red beans and rice will guarantee a return trip.—RR
Brgr Kitchen & Bar
10800 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island. 727-322-7040
I recently found myself on Gulf Boulevard and decided to drop in at Brgr (stylized “BRGR”) to see if it still had the great burgers that put it on my 2019 Top 50 list. If you missed that or my 2016 review, you may not even know that BRGR exits. It keeps a low profile, mostly serving Treasure Island Beach Resort guests. But every time I visit, I’m wowed. The “spuds and rings” are terrific. Choose from skin-on truffle or cinnamon-dusted sweet potato fries. My favorite is the super thick cut Samuel Adams beef-battered onion rings. And “The Nooner” remains as good as any burger that I can recall.—Jon Palmer Claridge
BRGRkitchenandbar/Facebook
Brgr Kitchen & Bar
10800 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island. 727-322-7040
I recently found myself on Gulf Boulevard and decided to drop in at Brgr (stylized “BRGR”) to see if it still had the great burgers that put it on my 2019 Top 50 list. If you missed that or my 2016 review, you may not even know that BRGR exits. It keeps a low profile, mostly serving Treasure Island Beach Resort guests. But every time I visit, I’m wowed. The “spuds and rings” are terrific. Choose from skin-on truffle or cinnamon-dusted sweet potato fries. My favorite is the super thick cut Samuel Adams beef-battered onion rings. And “The Nooner” remains as good as any burger that I can recall.—Jon Palmer Claridge
Cafe Hey
1540 N Franklin St., Tampa. 813-221-5150
Make no mistake, when it comes to Cuban sandwiches, West Tampa Sandwich Shop’s Obama Cuban and even more working class offerings at Palm Avenue Sandwich Shop and Florida Bakery are some Tampa’s best, but it’s hard to kick a craving for the Cafe Hey version. Maybe it’s the finely shaved meat, or extra crispy outer shell of the classic bread, but I’ve walked down Franklin Street with one in my hand at least two dozen times this year. Throw in the new Thai tea and perennially homey vibes at the now 14-year-old downtown staple, and you’ve got a restaurant worth working into your own rotation next year.—RR
Ray Roa
Cafe Hey
1540 N Franklin St., Tampa. 813-221-5150
Make no mistake, when it comes to Cuban sandwiches, West Tampa Sandwich Shop’s Obama Cuban and even more working class offerings at Palm Avenue Sandwich Shop and Florida Bakery are some Tampa’s best, but it’s hard to kick a craving for the Cafe Hey version. Maybe it’s the finely shaved meat, or extra crispy outer shell of the classic bread, but I’ve walked down Franklin Street with one in my hand at least two dozen times this year. Throw in the new Thai tea and perennially homey vibes at the now 14-year-old downtown staple, and you’ve got a restaurant worth working into your own rotation next year.—RR
Chanta
113 S Hyde Park Ave., Tampa. 813-605-4011
You’ve probably driven by this old European cafe a million times on your way to a much trendier spot like Oxford Exchange or Fly Bar, and never noticed the casual way it goes about its business. But Chanta has an old world charm that only family run restaurants can seem to perfect, right down to the high backed, wooden chairs and at home dining room feel. This Romanian family, complete with grandmother cooking in the kitchen, and daughters serving and hosting tables, is everything you want in a warm, cozy, old world food hug. The bread is homemade, the goulash perfectly spiced, and the lamb chops grilled to perfection. A small but mighty Italian wine selection helps round out a great little place to share a meal with friends or family.—Daniel Guess
chantarestaurant/Facebook
Chanta
113 S Hyde Park Ave., Tampa. 813-605-4011
You’ve probably driven by this old European cafe a million times on your way to a much trendier spot like Oxford Exchange or Fly Bar, and never noticed the casual way it goes about its business. But Chanta has an old world charm that only family run restaurants can seem to perfect, right down to the high backed, wooden chairs and at home dining room feel. This Romanian family, complete with grandmother cooking in the kitchen, and daughters serving and hosting tables, is everything you want in a warm, cozy, old world food hug. The bread is homemade, the goulash perfectly spiced, and the lamb chops grilled to perfection. A small but mighty Italian wine selection helps round out a great little place to share a meal with friends or family.—Daniel Guess
Chile Verde
2801 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg. 727-800-2679
Opened out of a gutted gas station in 2018, Chile Verde now has two busy locations dishing out some of the best Mexican food in St. Pete. You literally could not miss this restaurant even if you tried—its gigantic green and red lettering and large plastic horses out front definitely catch the eye. Pre-pandemic, Chile Verde was also a small grocer, but now focuses solely on its hot menu of tamales, flautas, burritos and other typical Mexican fare, as tables now fill the aisles dry goods once occupied. There are a lot of taco choices, too, from beef tongue to al pastor to chicken, and make sure to mention whether or not you want the food Mexican-style (with onion and cilantro) or American-style (with lettuce, tomato, cheese and sour cream.)—Kyla Fields
Google Maps
Chile Verde
2801 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg. 727-800-2679
Opened out of a gutted gas station in 2018, Chile Verde now has two busy locations dishing out some of the best Mexican food in St. Pete. You literally could not miss this restaurant even if you tried—its gigantic green and red lettering and large plastic horses out front definitely catch the eye. Pre-pandemic, Chile Verde was also a small grocer, but now focuses solely on its hot menu of tamales, flautas, burritos and other typical Mexican fare, as tables now fill the aisles dry goods once occupied. There are a lot of taco choices, too, from beef tongue to al pastor to chicken, and make sure to mention whether or not you want the food Mexican-style (with onion and cilantro) or American-style (with lettuce, tomato, cheese and sour cream.)—Kyla Fields
Chopstick Express
3946 4th St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-526-8999
Chopstick’s menu is stacked with straightforward Chinese and a rotating slate of specialty sushi rolls, including the St. Petersburg roll with shrimp tempura, cream cheese, avocado and spicy krab meat. No surprises here either—lo mein, fried rice, krab rangoons, egg drop soup and chop suey are all dished out. The most charming thing about this Chinese spot isn’t that its building closely resembles the Checkers that previously operated in the space (drive thru and all), but the fact that the same large birds are always chilling out front, like Florida’s version of bodega cats. If you eat outside at the picnic tables be careful, because sometimes the birds get a little too comfortable. Chopstick Express is always available on third party delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub if you’re not in the mood to fight the cranes.—KF
Google Maps
Chopstick Express
3946 4th St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-526-8999
Chopstick’s menu is stacked with straightforward Chinese and a rotating slate of specialty sushi rolls, including the St. Petersburg roll with shrimp tempura, cream cheese, avocado and spicy krab meat. No surprises here either—lo mein, fried rice, krab rangoons, egg drop soup and chop suey are all dished out. The most charming thing about this Chinese spot isn’t that its building closely resembles the Checkers that previously operated in the space (drive thru and all), but the fact that the same large birds are always chilling out front, like Florida’s version of bodega cats. If you eat outside at the picnic tables be careful, because sometimes the birds get a little too comfortable. Chopstick Express is always available on third party delivery apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub if you’re not in the mood to fight the cranes.—KF
Columbia Restaurant
2117 E 7th Ave., Ybor City. 813-248-4961
My first time ever going to the Ybor City staple was this year (shocker). From the time I stepped in, it was obvious why the restaurant has lasted for over a century. Guests feel like they’re in old Tampa when the mobsters were like kings and cigar factories were on every corner. The 1905 salad is such a simple dish but packs a lot of flavor from the dressing down to the fresh veggies. The cannelloni de langosta (lobster and shrimp pasta in a sherry cream reduction, smothered with a lobster sherry Mornay cheese sauce) is a phenomenal dish I’d order over and over. The real star, however, is the white chocolate bread pudding, made with bread from another Tampa OG La Segunda. If “died and went to heaven” was a dessert, it would be this.—Alexandria Jones
ColumbiaRestaurantGroup/Facebook
Columbia Restaurant
2117 E 7th Ave., Ybor City. 813-248-4961
My first time ever going to the Ybor City staple was this year (shocker). From the time I stepped in, it was obvious why the restaurant has lasted for over a century. Guests feel like they’re in old Tampa when the mobsters were like kings and cigar factories were on every corner. The 1905 salad is such a simple dish but packs a lot of flavor from the dressing down to the fresh veggies. The cannelloni de langosta (lobster and shrimp pasta in a sherry cream reduction, smothered with a lobster sherry Mornay cheese sauce) is a phenomenal dish I’d order over and over. The real star, however, is the white chocolate bread pudding, made with bread from another Tampa OG La Segunda. If “died and went to heaven” was a dessert, it would be this.—Alexandria Jones
Page 1 of 6

Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

At a time when local-based reporting is critical, support from our readers is essential to our future.