With apologies to Dave, Top Ten lists are so limiting. Even finding the Top 25 of something always seems like you’re barely scratching the surface. Maybe it points a compulsively indecisive streak in our nature, but here at CL we couldn’t cram all our favorites into such a meager list. And 100? Too many to maintain quality.
That’s why we present CL’s list of Tampa Bay’s Top 50 Restaurants, the perfect size to cover the entire Bay area, region by region, with room enough for all the best and no need to pad with inferior filler. From soul food lunch counters to chic hotel restaurants, from drive-up fried shrimp to reservation-only sea bass, you’ll likely find everything your stomach desires on these pages. But only if your stomach desires good food.
Oh, did we say it’s CL’s list? entirely. We picked 45 of the restaurants, then gave the readers a chance to pick the final five in a titanic battle of ballot-stuffing food fans. And you guys did a great job, every restaurant you picked worthy of its spot on the list. We were so proud, we gave you another challenge.
Last week we asked you to pick the best restaurant in each region of Tampa Bay, from our list. Didn’t vote? No problem. Starting today, you can join the fun by visiting cltampa.com/top50 and voting for Tampa Bay’s Top Restaurant from among the five regional winners – Council Oak Steakhouse, Backfin Blue Cafe, Guppy’s on the Beach, and Bin 27 Bistro.
If you’re into that sort of thing. We’re pretty comfortable with 50.
Bern's Steak House
What's left to say about Bern's? It's the single Bay area restaurant that receives -- and often deserves -- regular national press coverage for both its food and wine. It's Bern's. 1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, 813-251-2421, bernssteakhouse.com.
Bin 27 Bistro [READERS' CHOICE]
This new South Tampa spot -- a Readers' Choice entrant -- was opened by a restaurant newbie who spent a couple of years apprenticing to learn the trade. The result is casual fine dining with an interesting menu seasoned by international ingredients; here at CL we love the spicy, herbaceous chicken wings. 2702 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-878-2700, bin27bistro.com.
Founded in South Tampa by local restaurateur Gordon Davis -- and now owned by an investment group and working, managing partners -- Ceviche has established itself as the spot for traditional tapas in the Bay area. The Tampa location is back in Davis' old stomping grounds (formerly his Le Bordeaux), while the St. Pete spot features a gorgeous Spanish update of the old Ponce De Leon Hotel. 95 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-209-2302; 1502 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, 813-250-0203; ceviche.com.
Don't think of Datz as a deli, in spite of the long list of sandwiches. It's more a wine/beer bar, gourmet market, cheese and salumi joint that's still in search of an identity. Owners Roger and Suzanne Perry source artisanal ingredients from across the globe and serve their drinks at retail prices, making Datz a Bay area culinary destination. 2616 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-831-7000, datzdeli.com.
Paci's Pizza [READERS' CHOICE]
This relatively new pizza joint across from Plant High School won our Readers' Choice poll by a sizable margin. Having since tasted their pizza -- classic NY-style with one of the best crusts in the entire Bay area -- I can see why its fans have been so supportive. 2307 S. Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa, 813-253-2973, pacispizza.com.
Although Pane Rustica won our 2008 Tournament of Burgers with its perfectly seasoned, ideally cooked patties served on incredible house breads, there's much more to the place than mere ground beef. Breakfast and lunch fare is highlighted by the hand-crafted breads Pane produces, while dinner features often rustic-inspired, fine-dining selections that are beyond the scope of a simple bakery. Plus, the place is loud, funky and cool. 3225 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-902-8828, panerusticabakery.com.
Queen of Sheba
When owner Seble Gizaw brought Ethiopian cuisine back to the Bay area, she started a renaissance. Do two Ethiopian restaurants in two years count as a trend? Gizaw's Queen of Sheba still serves the best of this home-cooking cuisine, and she brings plates to the table along with her welcoming conversation. 3636 Henderson Blvd., Tampa, 813-872-6000, ethiopianrestauranttampa.com.
BT Nguyen is the only game in town for rarefied Vietnamese fare, her French-influenced dishes and professional techniques right at home in the posh Hyde Park location. You'll still find the flavors of Vietnam on the plate, though imbued with elegance instead of rusticity. 1633 W. Snow Ave., Tampa, 813-258-1916, restaurantbt.com.
Over the past two years, SideBern's has undergone a little rennaissance in the Tampa dining scene, with new people checking out the changes wrought by executive chef Chad Johnson and his team. The traditions are still there, but there's also some forward-thinking cuisine in Johnson's mutable menu. 2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa, 813-258-2233, sideberns.com.
Smoke Barbecue & Grill
In a converted gas station on Platt, Smoke somehow manages to combine the aura of a makeshift barbecue honky-tonk with the kind of slick eateries that populate South Tampa. The array of 'cue -- from duck to Hawaiian pork to Texas brisket -- helps, making this a more refined smoke spot with down-home roots. 901 W. Platt St., Tampa, 813-254-7070, smokeonplatt.com.
After 32 years in the same location, Atwater's is a pillar of the community and a hub of south St. Pete political culture. This humble little lunch counter has also found a way to elevate cafeteria soul food to surprisingly rarefied heights. Who said chopped steak couldn't be exquisite? 895 22nd Ave. S., St. Petersburg, 727-823-7018.
Backfin Blue Café [READERS' CHOICE]
Backfin Blue fits the relaxed vibe of Gulfport's dining scene. It sits in a converted cottage and serves casual, tasty seafood -- especially the hefty Maryland crab cakes -- that's easy on the wallet and tongue, perfect before a stroll past the art walk and down to the casino. 2913 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport, 727-343-2583.
The food at El Cap is 90 percent blah and 10 percent burgers, but that 10 percent makes up for the rest. If you've never sampled the unbelievably juicy, thin, diner-style patties, I daresay you can't claim residency in the Bay area. 3500 4th St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-521-1314.
Mazzaro's Italian Market
More a market than a restaurant, Mazzaro's still manages to serve more lunches and dinners than most sit-down spots. That's mainly due to the incredible ingredients they cram into every sandwich and tray of lasagna, as well as the one-stop shopping for foodies who want to fill their stomachs and stock their fridges. 2909 22nd Ave. N., St. Petersburg, 727-321-2400, mazzarosmarket.com.
Not only does Peg's fit Gulfport, it epitomizes the ideal Gulfport experience. Folks can sit in the converted bungalow or lounge in the pastoral, tree-shaded courtyard, while grazing on thin-crust Midwest pizza, Cali-Mex treats and one of the best beer lists in the Bay area. 3038 Beach Blvd. S., Gulfport, 727-328-2720, pegscantina.com.
Primi Urban Café
Who'd have thought that the Von Waltsleben family, formerly owners of a string of chain restaurants in South Africa, would end up serving the best Italian in St. Pete? Although there are a few touches from their homeland, Primi's cuisine is built on chef Arno Von Waltslebens's incredible talent with classical sauces, including decadent marsala and addictive sun-dried tomato tapenade. 27 4th St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-895-4909, primiurbancafe.com.
Over the past decade, Red Mesa has become the standard for upscale, modernized Mexican fare in the Bay area. There's a big California influence -- seen in the use of bright herbs and lots of goat cheese -- along with sound fundamentals like fresh tortillas made in-house daily. 4912 4th St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-527-8728, redmesarestaurant.com.
Wild Shrimp Company
Wild Shrimp easily competes for best cheap eats in the Bay area, with massive portions of tasty Louisiana-influenced fare served out the window of a block building in Haslam's parking lot that can feed a family for under $20. Even better, they use Gulf shrimp from nearby Bama Sea Products in their dishes. 2005 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-209-0813.
The downtown St. Pete dining scene is full of restaurants, but none with the quality or panache of Zack Gross's Z Grille. The new location is gorgeous and manages to convey Gross's love of tattoos and skateboarding with understated elegance, and the food is similarly fun and inspired. Gross also made the short list for Best Chef: South from the esteemed Beard Foundation this year. 104 2nd St. S., St. Petersburg, 727-822-9600, zgrille.net.
Old-style Cuban cuisine is the focus at Arco Iris, from luscious palomilla steak with maduro and yucca to a killer Cuban sandwich. There are also dishes that reflect Cuba's cultural heritage, like the big selection of Chino-Cuban entrees and a few Russian-inspired items. It's popular -- especially at lunch -- so plan on waiting for a table. 3328 W. Columbus Dr., Tampa, 813-879-1357.
Wildly popular with the downtown Tampa lunch crowd, Bamboozle has a fresh take on Vietnamese fast food that's healthy and different from the usual midday haunts. There are noodle salads and fresh spring rolls, prepared to order with ingredients you choose from the salad-bar line, along with a few hot prepared items for people in need of heartier stuff. 516 N Tampa St., Tampa, 813-223-7320, bamboozlecafe.com.
Donatello is the grande dame of Bay area Italian dining, long a denizen of Best Of and Top Restaurant lists. And there's a good reason for that, reflected in the consistent and accomplished classic Italian cuisine this restaurant serves year after year. 232 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa, 813-200-7701, donatellorestaurant.com.
The Taco Bus is a Tampa institution for some, a religion for others. Now a permanent building with the old truck permanently affixed to the back, Taconazo serves its incredible tacos at tables inside, or you can belly up to the bus and take your bounty to one of the covered outside tables. 913 E. Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, 813-232-5889.
Fly Bar and Restaurant
Fly's spot on this list is partly due to the place's interesting take on bar food -- which is quite good -- and partly due to what it represents. When it opened in downtown Tampa a couple years back, it was one of a few trailblazers aiming to show the promise of business-district mixed-use development. Now, with several new restaurants braving the same area, Fly's great restaurant-bar dining room and rooftop deck is still the best of what downtown can offer. 1202 N. Franklin St., Tampa, 813-275-5000.
La Teresita is the serious Cuban restaurant in Tampa, the first mentioned by locals, the first stop by visitors. It also represents the true American success story of the Capdevila family, who immigrated to Florida in 1962 on the Freedom Flights to Miami. Hard work in a plating factory and a textile company by Maximino and Coralia Capdevila led to an SBA loan for a Cuban market in 1972. Now, the family market is a giant restaurant and banquet center that serves the iconic food of Tampa's Cuban culture. 3204 W Columbus Dr., Tampa, 813-879-9704, lateresitarestaurant.com.
Mise En Place
While other Tampa restaurants were focusing on the working class and suburban diners, Marty Blitz and Maryann Ferenc were ahead of the trends. They opened Mise in 1986, bringing one of the first chef-driven, experimental restaurants to the Bay area, and ever since the duo have managed to stay on the cusp of that wave. The space underwent a redesign a couple years back, and Blitz's menu still changes with the times to keep Mise at the forefront of Tampa's fine-dining scene. 442 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-254-5373, miseonline.com.
This new, high-end steakhouse chain entered an already beef-saturated Tampa market this year and quickly carved out its own space. The food is better than that at most grill and seafood restaurants, but the cocktail and bar scene is the star. Be sure to start with one of the innovative martinis before you order a bottle of red wine. 2205 S. West Shore Blvd., Tampa, 813-490-5288 or ocean-prime.com.
Renaissance Hotels brought Fabrizio Schenardi to Tampa to open a signature restaurant in its International Plaza property. A few years later, he had taken over the entire food and beverage operation with his modern take on Ital-Med cuisine, from Pelagia to room service. From house-made pasta to deconstructed grilled romaine Caesar salads, Schenardi's touch is light, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. 4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa, 813-313-3235, pelagiatrattoria.com.
Roy's Hawaiian Fusion
Somehow, Roy's has made the formula of high-end chain dining work better and more consistently than any other. Partly, that's due to hiring accomplished chefs and giving them a piece of ownership, but it also has a lot to do with the guiding genius of founder Roy Yamaguchi. Best chain ever. 4342 W. Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa, 813-873-7697, roysrestaurant.com.
For some, ABC is the third seat at the Bay area's Chinese restaurant triumvirate -- along with China Yuan and Yummy House. Here you'll find an utter devotion to fish and shellfish -- pulled squirming from the restaurant's tanks -- with preparations taken from Hong Kong and Cantonese traditions. 2705 54th Ave. N, St. Petersburg, 727-522-1888.
Cabana Del Tio
This tiny spot won CL's 2009 Tournament of Tacos Critic's Bracket, thanks to tortillas pressed and griddled to order, incredible pastor and barbacoa, and plenty of fresh cilantro. Cabana also serves the kind of Mexican cuisine you won't find at a combo-plate joint, cooked and served right in front of the tiny lunch-counter seating. 1709 Drew St., Clearwater, 727-466-0504.
Café Ponte is the Bay area's finest upscale restaurant, thanks largely to the man on the marquee. Chef Chris Ponte's largely mainstream take on modern American cuisine is near-perfect in execution, day in and day out, and served in an elegant setting that belies its heavily trafficked strip mall location. 13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater, 727-538-5768, cafeponte.com.
Caretta on the Gulf
An enormous by-the-glass wine list, giant raw bar, menu loaded with seafood dishes laced with Asian and American touches, and an exquisite dining room located on Clearwater Beach is a tough formula to beat. Spend a night upstairs at the Sandpearl and you can call it a weekend. 500 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater, 727-674-4171.
Floridian [READERS' CHOICE]
Harold Seltzer -- the man formerly behind the Sam Seltzer's chain -- recently partnered with the decade-old Floridian to begin bringing Cuban sandwiches to the world. The first expansion location serves great pressed sandwiches and fries in Tampa, and garnered enough votes to be a Readers' Choice pick. 4424 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-287-6662; 230 Treasure Island Causeway, Treasure Island, 727-367-6662; floridianrestaurant.com.
Greektown Grille is the kind of place that makes it difficult to justify driving all the way to Hellenic spots up in Tarpon Springs. The menu features all those typical treats that Americans expect at lesser Greek spots, along with more traditional items that will expand a novice's Mediterranean palate. 1222 Cleveland St., Clearwater, 727-443-0520, greektown-grille.com.
Guppy's on the Beach
Chef Scott Bebell's Indian Rocks restaurant serves some of the best seafood on the beaches, much of it at prices that are well below the quality of the dishes. He doesn't play with his food, just lets the fresh ingredients express their flavor with little fuss beyond perfect preparation. 1701 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach, 727-593-2032, 3bestchefs.com.
Kelly's For Just About... Anything
It's difficult to categorize a place that uses the tagline "for just about... anything," especially a place like Kelly's where you can eat a burger at one of the several bars, or sit down to a more refined dinner in the dining room. Wherever and whatever you eat, though, you'll find that Kelly's food reflects the always vibrant, occasionally chaotic, atmosphere of this Dunedin standard. 319 Main St., Dunedin, 727-736-5284, kellyschicaboom.com.
Don Cesar's flagship restaurant lives up to the promise of a grand hotel eatery while simultaneously reflecting the Florida and Cuban culture that surrounds it. There aren't many surprises on the menu, but Maritana does classic very, very well. 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, 727-360-1881.
Savant Fine Dining
Chef David Miller has his hands full with a chocolate shop, a restaurant opening in the Caribbean and his new Cities restaurant just opened next door to Savant, but he's talented enough to pull it off. Savant's prix fixe menu reflects his style -- exquisite presentation, powerful but balanced flavors, and dessert creations that can surprise and delight the most jaded diners. 2551 Drew St., Clearwater, 727-421-9975, savantfinedining.com.
For many Bay area diners, China Yuan is the only place for traditional Chinese cuisine. Barbecued whole ducks and sections of pig hang in the back, the skins stained in shades of honey and mahogany by heat and five-spice powder, while the menu offers hot pots and Cantonese seafood. You can pick your own fish straight from the aquarium. 8502 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa, 813-936-7388, chinayuanrestaurant.com.
Although Bern's is the most well-known Bay area steakhouse, Council Oak may be the best. The beef -- on display behind a giant glass wall in the entry, often with a butcher hacking away -- is exquisite, but the extras on this menu are just as accomplished as the meat. The place looks spectacular, too, although you will have to walk through the Hard Rock's jangling symphony to get there. 5223 Orient Rd., Tampa, 813-627-7625, seminolehardrock.com.
First Choice Southern BBQ
Walk in to this strip mall spot and your clothes will be imbued with hardwood smoke for days. Considering how good the barbecue is at First Choice, you'll be happy for the reminder. 10113 Adamo Dr., Tampa, 813-621-7434, firstchoicebbq.com.
Grass Root Organic Restaurant
One of the only vegetarian/vegan/raw restaurants in the Bay area, Grass Root's food is tasty enough to convert meat-eaters to some of their refined and thoughtful dishes. The miso soup, when it's available, can compete with the finest bowls at any Tampa restaurant. 2702 N. Florida Ave., Tampa, 813-221-7668, thegrassrootlife.com.
Part of Oystercatchers' appeal is the fresh, expertly prepared seafood and great weekend brunch spread, but the biggest draw is the locale. Inside, it looks like a fancy lighthouse suitable for a billionaire's getaway, while the outside deck has one of Tampa's most spectacular waterfront views. 2900 Bayport Blvd., Tampa, 813-207-6815, oystercatchersrestaurant.com.
Pho Quyen may have a humble appearance, but it's the spot people flock to for traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Pho is great here, but it's best to branch out and try items like the intense roast duck broken rice, or the best seafood congee in town. 8404 Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, 813-885-9424, phoquyen.com.
Rice Korean Restaurant
There are several fine Korean restaurants in Tampa, but Rice offers a little extra on the formula. There's the usual astounding array of powerful pickles and condiments -- including excellent fresh kimchi -- served with dishes like fiery tripe stew. Rice is also the only spot in town for tableside BBQ. 7525 W. Hillsborough Ave., Tampa, 813-889-7766, ricekoreanrest.com.
Thai Sweet Basil
Thai places are a dime a dozen these days, but rarely do they represent the grace and power of Thai cooking the way that Thai Sweet Basil can. Here, the kitchen is masterful at producing profound, rustic flavors that still manage to come across as elegant to Western palates, all at the same price as your local joint. 3875 Northdale Blvd., Tampa, 813-961-8898.
Udipi is strictly vegetarian, strictly no-alcohol, but this Carrollwood Indian restaurant still draws all kinds of people for its traditional cuisine. You won't think about what you're missing after tasting Udipi's tender rice crepes stuffed with brightly seasoned veggies, or the wide selection of classic breads. 14422 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa, 813-962-7300.
Always mentioned in the same breath with China Yuan as Tampa's top Chinese, Yummy is just as good and very different. It has barbecue, too, but the menu is largely focused on Hong Kong cuisine, like potent XO sauce over fish or salt-and-pepper tofu that will have you craving more before you get to your car. 2202 W. Waters Ave., Tampa, 813-915-2828.
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