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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.
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