I admit it I have been pessimistic about the Bay area restaurant scene in the past. Not any more. This years crop of new and interesting restaurants, powered by exciting chefs, has me singing a different end-of-the-year tune. For the first time in a long while and amidst a glacial climb out of an economic pit dining out is getting exciting.
Owning a restaurant is a risky business, even during the best of times, even if youre a chef with a local reputation as big as Jeannie Pierolas. So why bother? Pierola picked up on a trend thats been all the rage among food-conscious diners in big cities for the past decade or so pop-up restaurants, open for a limited time only and ran with it a couple months ago. KitchenBar transformed the humble Pinkys Diner in South Tampa into a cozy haven for people who not only wanted another opportunity to nosh on Pierolas creative cuisine, but also to take part in a semi-exclusive ephemeral experience that would disappear in less than 10 days. There were problems, primarily because you cant take time to work out the kinks of a restaurant thats only around for two weeks, but the food was spectacular and the experience was executed better than expected. Look for more KitchenBar to come whenever Pierola needs a vacation from her, well, vacation.
Easily the most impressive new restaurant to open this past year, Ciros combines a unique vibe with some serious thought about how to serve customers. No other Bay area bar or restaurant pays attention to cocktails like they do here, down to a variety of ice shapes chosen for just the right effect in each concoction. Throw in semi-private booths dark enough that you need backlit menus (and maybe a Do Not Disturb sign), along with interesting food that occasionally verges on exquisite and you have a formula that works for everything from promising first dates to infidelitous interludes to cross-party political negotiations. 2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa, 813-251-0022
Classic American comfort food, done right and at a good price, in an atmosphere that evokes classic diner themes without the diner grunge if there was ever a restaurant formula that would work in good times and bad, thats it. Thats Diner Sixty West. 2525 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater, 727-437-0255
Excellent fried chicken. Converted used car lot. Quirky decor pulled from an episode of American Pickers. Loves is the kind of place you can go for a casual anniversary or a weekly family dinner. 4914 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa
It may be another vaguely Southern menu at another new, mid-range restaurant, but Twisted Cork has one thing that sets it apart from the rest: loaded french fries. OK, that may not be unusual, but no one does it with the precision (yes, precision) that this humble spot does. I could talk about the subtle use of gorgonzola, the pickled peppers, the careful layering of ingredients, but the whole is far greater than my description of the parts. Go try them for yourself. 3405 34th St. N, St. Petersburg, 727-525-2675, twistedcorkgrille.com
Chef Christopher Tolans menu at the Independents beer bar outpost in Seminole Heights is loaded with food that goes with the brews on tap: bratwurst and pretzels, cheese and dips. But unlike most beer bars unlike most expensive restaurants, for that matter Tolan has a deep understanding of each utterly simple dish and adds the necessary touches to elevate the food far beyond what youd expect. That doesnt mean he deconstructs everything into a chefly joke, he just maximizes the potential. At the Independent, a bratwurst is still a bratwurst. Its just the best bratwurst youll find in the Bay area. 5016 N. Florida Ave., Tampa, 813-341-4883, independenttampa.com
Tolan may not play with his food at The Independent, but Greg Baker certainly does a few blocks over at Seminole Heights The Refinery. His ever-changing menu is full of in-jokes and foodie homages just look at his version of the McRib, which resulted in a terse letter from the fast food giants lawyers. Now its called the Cease and Desist Sandwich. In spite of or perhaps because of that playfulness, The Refinery has captured the imagination of locals who are serious about food, who find Bakers weekly menu to be just the breath of fresh and innovative cuisine lacking in the Bay area restaurant scene. 5137 N Florida Ave., Tampa, 813-237-2000, thetamparefinery.com
This little spot takes the usual bland and boring hotel restaurant trope and turns it on its ear. Although priced right and accessible enough for the masses, Kon Tikis menu is a vibrant and interesting blend of Asian and Latin flavors and techniques punctuated by pickled jalapeños and bright cilantro. The dishes do get a little repetitive, but theres plenty of choice to entertain both Tahitian Inn guests and folks who seek out Kon Tiki for its own considerable merits. 601 S Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa, 813-712-9212, kontikitampa.com
Fresh will never make my list of best restaurants, thanks to standard salads and sandwiches tainted by a bland chain-restaurant quality, but I cant get the restaurants cereal bar out of my mind. Two televisions playing news and cartoons sit above a massive display of multi-colored breakfast cereal shining with barely suppressed sugary power. Combine cereals at will and pick from toppings that range from toasted nuts to vanilla frosting for either a breakfast of champions or a divine dessert. Kids never had it this good. 507 N Franklin St., Tampa, 813-229-5500, eatfreshdaily.com
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If 2010 was this good, what can we expect in 2011? What can you bring to the table?
Greatness, folks. Greatness.