If you’re descending on Tampa Bay for the RNC with the other elephants, you’ll eventually have to ditch the stump speeches to refuel. Here’re seven of the region’s best places to fill up. All are perfect for celebratory splurging or expense account purging (we know, we know, if you’re a lobbyist you can’t wine and dine any politicians while sitting down, but you have to eat, don’t you?). If you’re lucky, you’re rolling with the crowd that snapped up reservations early at these places. If you missed the boat, well, here’s where to amuse your taste buds the next time you’re in Tampa Bay.
High atop the Grand Hyatt (2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa) with the Bay area’s best view, is Armani’s, whose gourmet Italian fare screams indulgence. The classic start is the antipasto misto. With over 30 specialties such as balsamic glazed meatballs, clams with sambucca vinaigrette, fresh hearts of palm with citrus dressing, plus a sampling of cheese and cured meats fresh from Italia, you can’t go wrong. Then, opt for the seven-course Presidential Dinner paired with matching wines and try to secure the four-top that sits in an intimate corner of the restaurant for a multi-directional panoramic view of sunset over the Bay.
Bern’s Steak House (1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa) is among the best in the U.S. With 500,000+ mind-boggling bottles including an 1851 Ch. Gruaud-Larose magnum, the wine cellar is the world’s largest. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a fan of their hand-cut, dry-aged beef, and knows to request the André Tchelistcheff room, named after the Napa wine icon. The secret door from the kitchen allows VIPs to enter unobserved. The mayor quips, “if only I could get my hands on the double magnum of ’47 Ch. Latour” (the cellar’s most expensive at $30K).
The Black Pearl (315 Main St., Dunedin) is a cozy 38-seat restaurant where the decor says Deco, the lights are low, there’s a fresh red rose on every table and Sinatra’s piped in crooning jazzy show tunes. In a candle-lit corner you can dine on a menu that seems like a martini-induced hallucination — succulent garlicky escargot in puff pastry; tender, rosy rack of baby New Zealand lamb in brandied demi-glace, and a nostalgic, warm and golden tarte tatin. Who cares if you’re in a time warp when everything on the menu is fresh, impeccably sourced, prepared with care, and downright delicious?
Also in Pinellas, don’t miss perennial Zagat food fave Café Ponte (13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater) that wowed Martha Stewart. Don’t let the strip mall exterior fool you. Chef Chris Ponte and his team of wizards perennially turn out some of the Bay area’s most sophisticated and delicious food. Strategize over the 24-hour braised short ribs with a creamy parsnip puree, sautéed baby spinach, and a slightly sweet, caramelized shallot red wine sauce; it will bring you to your knees.
The saltwater aquarium-lined Maritana Grille and its succulent Floribbean seafood inhabit The Don CeSar (3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach), fondly known as the “Pink Palace.” Don’t be so totally smitten by the 1928 Mediterranean-style castle facing the white sands of the Gulf that you forget the food. The summer menu offers an exciting tasting trio appetizer of tuna tartare, beef carpaccio and gulf prawn. Follow up with your choice of the freshest fish imaginable cooked in the au courant, lush “sous vide” style or opt for cast iron-grilled crispiness with eggplant gnocchi or caramelized Brussels sprouts accompaniment.
Mise en Place (442 W. Kennedy Blvd., Suite 110, Tampa) is chef Marty Blitz’s playground. We are lucky indeed that his current passion is a house-cured charcuterie plate that takes us on a world tour: duck andouille, dried cured chorizo, foie gras rillettes, lomo crudo, paper-thin coppa, tasso ham, and “groovy” continents. It is jaw-droppingly good. As is the “Get Blitzed Tasting Menu” — under $90, even if you include cheese and matching wines. It’d be an appropriate way for the GOP to help the restaurant celebrate 25 years elevating the tastes of the Bay.
SideBern’s (2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa) is the yin to Bern’s yang with stunning degustation menus reflecting trends in modernist cuisine. Chef Chad Johnson was CL’s Best of the Bay for 2011, and deservedly so. Go with an adventuresome friend and share both tasting menu options — that’s 12 courses with 12 matching wines. It’s a bargain at $300 (tip inclusive). My tongue still remembers the surprise of the rye fettuccini with a heady combination of merguez sausage, octopus, ramps and bright, fresh mint.
Your palate might not feel conservative, but all of these restaurants are definitely RIGHT!
Jon Palmer Claridge is Creative Loafing Tampa’s restaurant critic.