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Best Tampa/St. Petersburg Restaurants

AOL PICK from our Editors

Tampa Bay is slowly growing out of its reputation as a place for fried fish—although a grouper filet lightly dusted with panko and almonds crisped up in a soupçon of olive oil hardly qualifies as fried fish in our book. The city’s rich history of immigration gave it the foundation for great food and it’s beginning to deliver on that promise. Naturally, being situated on the Gulf, seafood is still a large part of the menu here. The difference is that most of what you’ll find on the menus is fresh off the boat. Traditional high-end restaurants (Bern’s and the Columbia stand out) continue to prosper, but for foodies intent on discovery, the hundreds of moderately priced ethnic restaurants are the stars. You won’t find better Cuban food, even in Miami, and the blend of Mediterranean and Caribbean flavors here is intoxicating and addictive.

Bern’s Steak House

Neighborhood: Downtown Tampa Price: Expensive

This place doesn’t deserve a paragraph. A book would be more fitting. At one time or another we’ve tried nearly all of the “best” steakhouses that make the national lists. None of them stack up to our favorite steakery in the world. Bern’s longtime slogan is “Art in Steaks,” and to the uninitiated it seems to be typical PR hype. After dining at Bern’s, you realize the slogan is an understatement. First, you’ll have to get past the gaudy red bordello-style interior. Even the dining areas don’t appear to be any better than average. A glimpse into the menu begins to change that perception and it reads like a primer in fine beef. Take the after-dinner kitchen tour and view the dry-aged, hand-cut filets, hear your host talk about the meticulousness of their own vegetable garden, witness energetic trainee servers who probably make more money than you. Steaks are ordered by cut, thickness, weight and temperature, and that’s exactly how they arrive every time. The chateaubriand is fabulous. Service is unparalleled and expectedly so—the waiters earn six-figure income and many of them have been here for 20 years or more. The a la carte menu adds the perfect accompaniments such as mushrooms, onions, creamed spinach, garlic mashed potatoes and more. Take a guided wine cellar tour and you’ll gasp at their selection of over half a million bottles. A mere 68,000 bottles are stored on-site, but oh, what a collection. There are about 200 table wines available plus another 300 Madeiras, Ports and Sherries. Bern’s has one of the biggest collections of Madeiras in the U.S., with bottles from as early as 1808 through the 20th century. And most are available by the glass. Be sure to read the final check closely as they add a 12% gratuity; if you don’t note this you might end up tipping the waiter about a third of the total—and the total will be considerable. After dinner you’re escorted upstairs to the separate dessert room and seated in private rounded booths, a smart move that more quickly turns over the tables downstairs and gives patrons a place to relax and decompress after indulging in all that red meat and wine. Even if you have to starve yourself for a day or two, the expense is worth experiencing this best-of-the-best steakhouse.

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Bern’s Steak House  

Six Tables

Neighborhood: Culbreath Bayou
Price: Expensive

It’s not quite like having crumbs patted from your chin with a velvet glove, but being pampered is part of the process at Six Tables. With just half a dozen tables (although some tables can accommodate up to 10 or more), attention to detail is personified. The chef-owner not only gives a rundown on the preparations, he discusses the special sauces and other details of what’s on the menu and the courses you’re having. The Venison Loin is heavenly in flavor. The specialty involves a six-course French-Continental price-fixed dinner of $90, excluding beverages, tip and tax, but the table is yours for the evening. A glass of champagne is a classy start to it all. Not surprisingly, service is immediate with used dishes and glasses removed in a blink. Being this small, it’s a nice touch for a romantic occasion like a birthday or anniversary. Do this on a first date, and you’re in.

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Roy's

Neighborhood: Beach Park
Price: Expensive

Don’t confuse this place with the Roy Rogers chain or the nearby Lee Roy Selmon’s BBQ joint. This is a national chain as well, but the infusion of Hawaiian tastes, smells and sounds dominates all your senses. Famed chef Roy Yamaguchi’s staff oversees an a la carte menu that’s pricey, but they do offer a reasonable three-course prix fixe dinner as well. The Blackened Island Ahi preparation is delectable and the Lobster Cobb Salad really rocks. The sushi bar puts out a colorful array of choices. Service is good and you won’t wait long for drink refills.

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Roy's  

Island Way Grill

Neighborhood: Clearwater Price: Expensive

Close to Clearwater Beach, the Island Way Grill is high-priced and close to the line as to whether it’s good value for the money, but if you get here before 5:30 there are good discounts available that tip the scale in favor of value. The Sunday brunch buffet presents a lot of choices and they’re prepared nicely—not the usual tray after tray of assembly line food. It’s very touristy and at times noisy and crowded, but not so much that you should avoid it. The Thai Clam Pot appetizer stands out and was nearly enough for an entrée; the Macadamia Nut Crusted Mahi Mahi, while not all that original, was nicely done and the fillet arrived exactly right. The quality of the service depends on whether you get a fast waiter or a slow one—we’ve had both.

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Island Way Grill  

Lobster Pot

Neighborhood: St. Pete Beach
Price: Expensive

Before finally checking out the Lobster Pot for ourselves, we’d heard it was “expensive but good.” That turned out to be accurate. Then again, do you really expect to get well-prepared escargot, lobster bisque, sea bass, king crab legs and other delicacies on the cheap? Located in Redington Shores on the Gulf coast, it’s worth the long haul if coming from Tampa only if you piggyback a stopover at a nearby lounge or club. The exterior is disarmingly pedestrian, though the dining room is pleasant. The Lobster Pot acquired new owners last year, though the chef and the menu have remained the same. Fresh Maine lobster (and to a lesser extent South African spiny lobsters, which aren’t lobsters at all but rather deliciously overgrown crayfish) is the star here.

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Lobster Pot  

Mise En Place

Neighborhood: Hyde Park Price: Expensive

It’s nice to visit an upscale restaurant where your waiter can recommend wine pairings without making you feel like a complete neophile—even if you are one. The low lighting gives a bistro feel to Mise En Place, and service entails a team of waiters attending to all needs. Most glowingly, happily, is the fine Modern New American preparations that found their way from the kitchen to our place settings. Given the abundance of wonderful fresh, local seafood, we seldom order fish that aren’t from around here, but we had to try the Sous Vide Halibut that arrived with bay scallops as well as the Zahtar Grilled Salmon with eggplant, squash, roasted mushrooms and a tangy vinaigrette. Everything was just so and in nice proportions. Head Chef Marty Blitz also presents a “Get Blitzed Tasting Menu” with five imaginative courses that includes seafood and beef as well as an abbreviated three-course tasting menu for slimmer wallets (and waists).

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Columbia Restaurant

Neighborhood: Ybor City Price: Expensive
If you only schedule one formal dinner during your stay, this is the one that best represents the history and soul of Tampa Bay. Although now with three Tampa Bay locations, choose the original Ybor City location that’s been in the same place, and operated by the same family, for over 100 years. The building is white and decorated with beautiful tile work, including a fountain in the center of the first floor atrium. Heavy, dark wood Spanish Colonial furnishings complete the look. If you can, arrive before the dramatic flamenco dance that’s performed on a wooden floor that echoes and amplifies the syncopated dance steps. The food is part Spanish, part Cuban, though through the years the family has developed its own signature recipes that blend Old World and New. The 1905 Salad, prepared tableside, may be the best salad we’ve ever experienced, including the ones we tasted in high-end restaurants of New York and Paris. The Paella Marinera is a classic seafood mix of clams, scallops, calamari, mussels and shrimp over a very scrumptious Valencia rice. The traditional Cuban dishes are superb—the boliche (roast eye round stuffed with chorizo sausage) is to die for, ropa vieja, bistec palomilla—while specialties such as Snapper Alicante (baked in a casserole) and Snapper Adelita (grilled and topped with hearts of palm, artichoke and sun-dried tomatoes) literally can’t be duplicated. To get a cross-section of goodness, order the La Completa Cubana (roast pork, boliche, empanada de picadillo, platanos, yuca, black beans and yellow rice). We’ve heard some claim that the food quality has dropped a notch, but that’s not been our experience. Service is prompt, with no one evidence of “manana” when a request is made. If you go on a weeknight or arrive when the restaurant isn’t too busy, ask one of the staff to show you the upstairs banquet rooms with their gorgeous antique furnishings and oil paintings.

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Bernini of Ybor

Neighborhood: Downtown Tampa Price: Moderate

Jason Fernandez knows how to create something simple yet dramatically effective. This small restaurant on 7th Avenue in Ybor City isn’t fancy and the menu is not one of those multi-paged monsters that dazzle you with quantity rather than quality.  Here you come face-to-face with a casual but sophisticated setting and food that is unfailingly delicious. You can sit on a stool at the small bar and eat, but we desire a little back support because we’re in no hurry and no one is hurrying us. Named after the Baroque sculptor Bernini—his gaping-mouthed bust glares like a gargoyle on the inner wall—he’d be flattered by the association. There’s an upstairs section for dining and larger parties, but we always sit downstairs because you can watch the open kitchen with the chefs doing their thing. The Mista salad is incredibly fresh and crispy, the Veal Lasagna bursting with so much flavor (a perfect mix of ground veal, pork, marinara sauce and ricotta cheese) that we nearly knee-walked over to Jason to kiss his ring. Prices are moderate and yet food here ranks with the best in town.

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Bernini of Ybor  

Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill

Neighborhood: Clearwater Price: Moderate

This is a Tampa Bay institution, located on the beach in Clearwater and the story here is seafood. They operate their own dock and fishing boats, and in our experience here we don’t doubt the freshness—they say nothing is frozen. The grouper sandwich is a signature dish and you can get it grilled, jerked or blackened. The crab artichoke dip appetizer is thick and easily scooped with chips. We really loved the She Crab Soup and kudos can be given as well for the Caribbean Jerk Shrimp Platter. You see a lot of locals in here, and that’s always a good sign.

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Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill  

Tijuana Flats

Neighborhood: Westcahse Price: Budget

A chain restaurant doesn’t have to be a dawdling clone. This chain originated in nearby Orlando and has multiple locations in Tampa Bay. The Tex-Mex food is never a disappointment and the young, casually stylish staff operates on alkaline battery power—everyone’s energetic and glowing. It’s so busy here at times they have three registers going at once and the line shrinks accordingly. The chimichangas are large and jammed with chicken or steak, depending on your order. Enchiladas are cheesy, burritos stuffed with beans and other things Mexican instead of the doughy mass so often served in other places. Their sauce bar offers flavors from mild to lava-like hot. Drink refills are free and usually the same with more sour cream or guacamole if requested from a waiter stopping by the table rather than at the counter.

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Tijuana Flats  

La Tropicana Cafe

Neighborhood: Ybor City Price: Budget

This is another Ybor City institution. It occupies a slightly lower rung than the Columbia in terms of atmosphere and pricing, but the food is excellent and the atmosphere—a little mundane at first glance—is priceless. La Tropicana is open 7AM to 3PM and makes a mean Cuban sandwich. Try the La Cuco lunch special, which includes black bean soup and a Cuban sandwich. These are very different from the Cubans you might have had in Miami—it has salami on it, a nod to the Sicilians who worked in the cigar factories down the street. Tampa claims to have invented both Cuban bread and the Cuban sandwich (as does Miami); and the first baker to produce Cuban bread in Ybor was in fact a Sicilian, who established La Joven Francesca bakery in 1896. The loaves came out of the oven and were delivered to homes across Ybor; the deliveryman would simply take a loaf and impale it on a nail hammered into the frame beside the front door. La Joven also made Cuban sandwiches for the cigar rollers. The original bakery (La Primera) closed in 1973 and is now the Ybor State Museum (worth a visit). A newer bakery founded in 1915, La Segunda (the second) is still pumping out fresh loaves for La Tropicana and other restaurants across the state.

First Watch

Neighborhood: Greater Carrollwood
Price: Budget

Just when you think another breakfast and lunch establishment is superfluous to IHOP or Waffle House, along comes First Watch to show how it’s supposed to be done. What’s more, it’s the same good stuff at every location we’ve visited. Service is usually quick, and the only hedge is because a time or two we’ve waited way too long between refills of iced tea and a fresh coffee pot, but usually the waiters are on you pronto. We seldom choose the same egg entrée twice in a row, but never fail to add a side order of a banana crunch pancake. Far from the small, dry masses of batter served as an after-thought elsewhere, the First Watch pancakes rule. We’re not all that crazy about their salads or sandwiches, but all of the egg, waffle and pancake choices are delectable.

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