Florida’s Tampa Bay Area: A Foodie Destination Whose Time Has Come; A Great Area for Floridians to “Staycation” this Summer!

Tuna special with mango sorbet at edison food + drink lab in Tampa.

This post was originally written and supposed to be published in mid March, 2020, the height of Florida’s winter-spring tourism season, and a great time to be in the Tampa Bay area, with fantastic weather and spring training in full swing. Enter COVID-19. I had tickets to see the Braves play the Mets at their new spring training park in North Port, Florida, near Venice, and the day before the game, Major League Baseball cancelled the rest of spring training. At least they refunded me for the tickets, as well as tickets we had for  Orioles and Yankees games the following week. This article was due to come out then, but unfortunately things quickly escalated with the COVID crisis and restaurants could no longer seat diners, so a version of this article, which was also going to be part of a story in the spring issue of Venu Magazine as a destination piece inviting readers to discover the new food and entertainment scene in the Greater Tampa Bay area had to be put on hold.

Several months later, with restaurants beginning to re-open and many restaurants, their staff, and other small businesses around Florida and the nation struggling, I felt it was a good time to share, especially for my Florida foodie friends who may be thinking about a staycation this summer, or might be looking to get out of the house and try a new restaurant, whether dining inside, al fresco, or doing takeout.

I know many of the restaurant owners and chefs of the establishments listed below, as well as their staff and I truly feel for everyone affected by COVID-19. However, few industries have been hit harder than restaurants and tourism/hospitality in general, which is the lifeblood of Florida. Did anyone ever imagine that Walt Disney World would be closed for two months…and counting?

The article is essentially in its original context, minus a couple places I have learned had permanently closed due to COVID or other reasons. I did not include any nationwide chains in this article, although there are many good local outposts–I wanted readers to get a true taste of Tampa Bay, which is best savored by eating in locally-owned places that you will only find here. I enjoy many chains as well, but why travel to Tampa Bay for a weekend or longer and eat in a place you could find in New York, Boston, or Chicago? Now more than ever, our local restaurants in our own communities and elsewhere across the nation need our support! Why not plan a foodie road trip or staycation here in Florida when you are comfortable venturing out again.

Tampa’s skyline. If you are visiting, a great place to enjoy outdoor activity is the city’s Riverwalk, which continues to grow in length and popularity. There are tons of little scooters for the adventurous all over the area, find one on the sidewalk, download the app, link a credit card, and off you go! It makes getting around a little faster and easier, though there are lots of bike rental stations and walking here is doable. Along the Riverwalk are The Tampa Museum of Art, Channelside, The Florida Aquarium, Sparkman Wharf entertainment area with restaurants and bars by the cruise port, and The Armature Works food hall on the north end. For a little more nostalgia, take a ride on one of the streetcars downtown, an effort to revitalize something the city was known for half a century ago. The Riverwalk and adjacent complexes are family-friendly, and the Riverwalk allows open containers of alcohol from approved vendors along the way, provided it is in a special cup. The entire walk is more than two miles long and has great views of the city as well as the Russian-inspired University of Tampa spires.

Cocktail at edison food + drink lab in Tampa.

Wishing the very best to everyone affected by this profound tragedy. Hopefully soon we will all be going out, seeing family and friends, breaking bread, traveling, and learning to enjoy life all over again.

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Tampa Bay may be best known for sunshine, beaches, sports, year-round recreation, and fun places like Busch Gardens. Few people ever really considered the area a culinary destination in years past, though there were a handful of great restaurants people (like my family) would literally plan vacations around. In the past decade, the Greater Tampa Bay Area, which includes Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and towns in-between has established itself as a true culinary destination, combining amazing talent and marvelous new venues.

Any feature of Tampa Bay food must acknowledge the following legends, which have stood the test of time and are worth a visit if you haven’t been. Bern’s Steakhouse, a landmark since 1956 features 500,000 bottles of wine, prime steaks aged and butchered in house, and the famed Harry Waugh Dessert Room upstairs (a tree house with an extensive dessert and cordials menu for adults). Definitely take the kitchen and wine cellar tours– you will be impressed with a behind-the-scenes look at this extremely well-run, legend of a restaurant. Bern’s is featured in my first edition of “The Restaurant Diet” with a recipe for their Salmon (yes, their seafood is excellent as well). Don’t miss the table side Caesar Salad for two or more, it is quite a production!

The famous “1905 Salad” at Columbia, the recipe is featured in my book one of “The Restaurant Diet,” and was named one of America’s 10 Best Salads by USA Today.

The original Columbia Restaurant (1905) in historic Ybor City (Tampa’s equivalent of “The French Quarter,” as it boasts many bars, restaurants, and night clubs)—enjoy the “1905 Salad” and Cuban/Spanish fare (flamenco dancing nightly except Sunday).

Donatello is the grand dame of Old World, romantic Italian restaurants. Exquisite food, exceptional service—you’ll think you’re in Italy. The monthly Opera Night featuring performers from Opera Tampa is incredible! Owner Gino Tiozzo exemplifies Old World hospitality and charm, as he learned from the best, his late father the legendary Guido Tiozzo who founded Donatello after a storied career in hospitality in some of the best restaurants and hotels in Europe.

Ossobuco alla Milanese with Saffron Risotto is a specialty at the Romantic Venetian Masterpiece, Donatello in Tampa. The recipe is featured in my first edition of “The Restaurant Diet.” Don’t miss their homemade pastas (order Tagliatelle alla Kathy, spinach pasta with tomato, ham, and a touch of cream–an old favorite dating back to the founding of the restaurant in 1984). It is no longer “on the menu” but those in the know always order it!

Malio’s Steakhouse is a local “power scene” and is VERY Tampa–you will see the area’s movers and shakers doing deals here. Mise en Place by veteran restaurateurs Marty Blitz and Mary Ann Ferenc took Tampa’s culinary scene to a never-before-seen heights with their New American cuisine back in the 1980’s and they are still going strong. Other veterans include Armani’s (amazing Italian and rooftop views of the city, Tampa Airport, and the bay with views all the way to Clearwater in the distance, a great spot for sunset or to impress a date atop the Grand Hyatt), and Caffé Paradiso, a neighborhood Italian gem owned by Paolo Tini, whose family hails from Rimini. I love Mamma Fernanda’s Lasagna Bolognese and their pasta alle Vongole (Clams).

Tampa owes a lot of its culture and flavor to its Cuban heritage. Back in the early 1900’s, Cuban and Sicilian immigrants worked in the cigar factories in and around Ybor City and the combination of cultures who ultimately mingled and married greatly influenced the area’s cuisine and cultural traditions, including the famed Gasparilla Pirate Festival, with its annual pirate invasion of Tampa and parade each winter. It is one big party! Locals all have their favorite pick for best Cuban Sandwich…La Teresita is my go-to, and the La Segunda bakery is a must for a true taste of local flavor and is famous for their bread.

For the best recent additions to the Tampa food scene, start at the Epicurean Hotel (affiliated and across the street from Bern’s—it is THE perfect place to stay and sleep off your “food coma” from the typical 4-5-hour Bern’s meal– it is possible to eat there in less time, or to go for only dessert, though reservations in general are typically hard to get and book months in advance!) Stay longer at The Epicurean and explore the wonderful culinary options in the hotel and surrounding areas). The hotel is very stylish and geared to healthy gourmands with an excellent bottle shop off the lobby, comfy and stylish seating and public areas, a gym, and pool. It is located in a fun, fashionable and very walkable area of the city with beautiful historic neighborhoods, large moss draped live oak trees, tall palms, quaint craftsman cottages and Mediterranean mansions, all leading down to the famous pedestrian promenade along Bayshore Boulevard, a favorite for exercise! Bayshore is definitely the most iconic street in the Tampa Bay area, along with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which links St. Petersburg to Bradenton and Sarasota to the south.

Enjoy drinks at EDGE, the cool rooftop lounge, and dine at Elevage SoHo Kitchen & Bar, which is overseen by CIA graduate and award-winning chef Jason Bamford, offering a contemporary take on classic comfort food. The area of South Tampa is known as “SoHo” after South Howard Avenue which is the Main Street for this area of town which houses Bern’s, The Epicurean and lots of other shops and restaurants.

Nearby Haven, also part of the Bern’s family features house made charcuterie, tantalizing small plates, and noteworthy cocktails. edison food + drink lab, owned by 5-time James Beard nominee, Chef Jeannie Pierola features some of the most inventive and inspiring food and libations in town, with menus that change daily to feature fresh ingredients and exciting flavor “experiments.” Visit Tampa’s cool new food hall, the Armature Works—in a revitalized warehouse. Choose from an exciting array of international and local food and beverages in a bustling, family-friendly atmosphere. For full-service dining visit Steelbach, which showcases Florida’s top producers and grass fed beef, or Oak & Ola, with timeless appeal and a seasonal Euro-American menu by James Beard award winning chef/owner Anne Kearney. Rooster & the Till, a favorite since 2013 (James Beard semi-finalist chef Ferrell Alvarez utilizes the best fresh farm-to-table ingredients, paired with partner and Ty Rodriguez’s expertise in wine).

Fried Gnocchi at Cena in Tampa.

Cena by Long Island native chef Michael Buttacavoli features a “modern, fresh, and simple” take on Italian cuisine in a new area east of downtown. Along with other Italian newcomers Ava (SoHo), Osteria Tampa (Top Chef Fabio Viviani downtown), and Forbici (Hyde Park–get the Square Pizza and their house Negroni, made with Malfy lemon-infused gin from Italy), and Bavaro’s Pizzeria Napoletana and Pastaria, an authentic Neapolitan style pizza and pasta house with locations in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota, there is no shortage of creative, contemporary twists to classic Italian flavors.

The best sushi experience in Tampa is Noble Rice by chef/owners Eric and Adriana Fralick. The “leave it up to the chef” omakase experience is now legendary, featuring either a seven course, or a fifteen-course “Grand Tasting,” which can be expertly paired with wine or sake (reserve well in advance on Tock).

Tampa’s Oxford Exchange is part book store, part cool home goods store, part restaurant, part café, and partially Tampa’s indoor living room! Enjoy a great place to meet friends for a French pressed coffee, loose leaf tea, or a glass of bubbles, brunch, or simply to admire the beautiful design of this reimagined space. Oxford Exchange is a great example of Tampa’s urban renewal. It is definitely the most “Instagrammable” building in the city with stunning architectural and design details evoking the spirit of Old London. When you go, ask to sit in the atrium, pictured above.

On Swann is a hip spot by veteran restaurateur Chris Ponte (of Clearwater’s now closed icon Café Ponte) in the fashionable Hyde Park area.

Photo courtesy of Restaurant BT of the Snapper Saigon.

For stunning presentations of fresh Vietnamese-French fusion, visit Restaurant BT in trendy South Tampa. Yummy House (two locations) has the best dim sum in the area. Old Hyde Park Village is a great area to bring the family and stroll around, grab a coffee, juice, or cocktail, and do some shopping! Before COVID, there was a great farmer’s market that took up the entire village’s streets on the first Sunday of every month. Hopefully they will bring it back!

Fred Bollaci with Chef David Benstock at Il Ritorno, a great example of St. Pete’s culinary renaissance.

Across the bay in Pinellas County, let’s start in St. Petersburg, a city that has been totally transformed this past decade, beginning with the bay front near the famed Salvador Dali Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, which are both worth visiting, as well as the nearby Chihuly Exhibit. You can easily spend an entire day in downtown St. Pete just doing the museums with a couple stops for food and drinks along the way. The trendy new Birchwood is the hip place to stay (enjoy the namesake restaurant and The Canopy rooftop bar). Stroll along the bay to Annata Wine Bar, Bella Brava, Flute & Dram (Champagne and caviar), The Moon Under Water (Indian/Curries), and Stillwaters Tavern along Beach Drive. Try Cider Press Café (raw and vegan), Red Mesa (Mexican) and Brick & Mortar (rustic New American). My favorite for Italian in “The Burg” is Il Ritorno by Chef David Benstock. Try the 5-course tasting menu with matching wines. For Japanese, try Ichihoro Ane @ Station House and order Yakiniku the grilled wagyu beef, and Sushi Sho Rexley for sushi. The Renaissance Vinoy Resort is a beautiful, storied property overlooking the yacht basin and Tampa Bay, and is a tried-and-true place to stay and dine for a taste of old-time St. Pete. We are looking forward to the much-anticipated opening of the new Pier, a reincarnation of an area landmark that had closed some time ago.

Family style Steaks and sides at Bascom’s Chophouse in Clearwater.

Our of town guests are always impressed by the Martiana Grill in the magnificent Don Cesar, a century old pink palace overlooking the turquoise water on St. Pete Beach, another grand place to stay and be transported to another time.

Above photo courtesy of the Don Cesar (Facebook)

Our other favorite spot on St. Pete Beach is Spinner’s Revolving Bistro, a rooftop seafood restaurant that spins and offers panoramic Gulf views in the Grand Plaza Hotel on the 12th floor. If you are looking for bread, baked goods, and pizza, La Casa del Pane has been a local favorite for decades, it will transport you straight to Italy. The bread is so good they supply numerous restaurants and delis in the area.

Another St. Pete culinary landmark is Mazzaro’s Italian Market, a huge space with imported meats, cheeses, gelato, a bakery, fresh pasta, vino, and more!

Be on the lookout for Lingr on 6th St. by area favorite Top Chef Jeffrey Jew later this year.

Heading north, my Clearwater favorites include Acqua Alta (Venetian) in Northwood, Bascom’s Chop House (premium steakhouse experience), Cristino’s Coal Oven Pizza downtown, and Felice’s Italian Deli, for amazing sandwiches, imported Italian provisions, freshly made mozzarella, and house made sausage owned by Felice (Happy) D’Elia and his wonderful famiglia.

Bouillabaisse at Parts of Paris in Safety Harbor.

In charming Safety Harbor, Parts of Paris is a must for authentic French fare in a quaint cottage. Safety Harbor is a charming village situated along Tampa Bay and is perfect to enjoy strolling along Main Street, the waterfront, or in nearby Philippe Park, a favorite place to watch the sunrise over the bay. Pizzeria Gregario is one of very few pizzerias in the country featuring dough with 100-percent stone milled grain, or grain that is milled in-house. The Safety Harbor Resort and Spa is the place to stay and be pampered. Dunedin is another lovely town looking west over St. Joseph’s Sound. Try Bon Appetit for waterfront dining and watch dolphins play from your seat. Casa Tina is great for fresh Mexican and vegetarian cuisine, and head to Dunedin Brewery for an ice cold local beer. The Pinellas Trail, which runs along the coastal cities is a favorite place for locals to bike, run, and rollerblade from town to town. For the ultimate beach day, consider taking the ferry or your own boat over to Caladesi Island, part of Honeymoon Island State Park, which is less crowded than other area beaches due to its limited access–it is recommended to bring a picnic.

Tarpon Springs is a little slice of Greece right in North Pinellas County! You can’t go wrong at any of the restaurants or bakeries along Dodecanese Boulevard. The city is also known for its sponges harvested from local waters. On a recent visit, we had a lovely authentic Greek lunch at Dmitri’s on the Water. Other standbys are Hella’s and Rusty Bellies. Anyone familiar with Tarpon Springs of old will know the story of Pappas restaurant, and the Tarpon Springs tradition of having homemade potato salad in the center of a Greek Salad. We recently had family visit us in Florida who are Greek, and had never been. They thoroughly enjoyed our state’s ode to Greece! Louis Pappas Fresh Greek is a local mini chain of fast casual Greek restaurants owned by the family of the legendary Louis Pappas restaurant in Tarpon Springs, a family favorite that sadly is no longer open. For a quick fix at multiple locations, their family’s casual concept is a winner! The Greek Salad recipe is featured in “The Restaurant Diet” book one.

Nearby Palm Harbor boasts a few favorites as well. Try the Lucky Dill Deli for New York style Jewish comfort food (Corned Beef, Pastrami, Matzoh Ball Soup, and Cheesecake), and a huge menu of comfort foods that would please Bubbie, Strachan’s for ice cream and their legendary carrot cake (original is in Palm Harbor, now with locations in Clearwater and Dunedin), Molly Goodhead’s Raw Bar for a taste of Old Florida in Ozona, Massimo’s for eclectic Italian (and great wine dinners), and Mystic Fish for amazing seafood (try the Bermuda Fish Chowder, finished with Gosling’s Rum and Spicy Sherry at the table–owners founded the famous Lobster Pot, which is still operating in Bermuda). The #1 bestseller is the Chilean Sea Bass. Even if you’re not a Sea Bass fan, you will probably love they way they prepare it (both recipes for the Sea Bass and the Chowder are in the first edition of “The Restaurant Diet.” Don’t overlook their steaks or chops either. Their sibs, E&E Steakout and Guppy’s on the Beach in Indian Rocks Beach are worth checking out as well.

Golf enthusiasts who want the best test of skill and playing conditions in the area will want to stay at Innisbrook. Their Copperhead course is legendary and hosts the Valspar classic in the PGA Tour in March. Try to play in the weeks leading up to the tournament, with US Open rough, rolling hills, and wide pine-tree lined fairways, feels like being in North Carolina. Packard’s Steakhouse in the resort is a good choice for meat lovers with classic steaks and sides.

Franz’s Lagerhaus in Palm Harbor’s East Lake area is famous for their beers as well as textbook wings, conch fritters, and authentic Austrian favorites (Pork Wienerschnitzel) by owner Franz Rothschadl. His Royal Bohemian Pilsner is my favorite, a perennial Gold Medal winner at numerous competitions. Down the road in Oldsmar, we are big fans of Flamestone–a great family place with something for everyone from an extensive menu, including table side guacamole, fresh seafood, chops, and s’mores. Sun Groves is one of few orange grove stand stores remaining–purchase or send fresh fruit and Florida products, as well as the famous orange swirl soft serve ice cream for a real taste of nostalgia.

Clearwater Beach is known for its wide, white sand beach, fishing pier, and festive atmosphere. If you haven’t been in the last ten years, you will hardly recognize it coming over the causeway and bridge with all the development that has taken place. The most elegant beachfront resort is the Sandpearl, part of the Opal Collection. Brunch or dinner at Caretta on the Gulf, followed by a walk on the famous white sand beach alone more than worth the trip! Their sister property, The Opal Sands on the south end of the beach has a contemporary beachy feel, and restaurant Seaguini also overlooks the Gulf. Enjoy timeless American comfort food (local seafood, prime steaks, and “Back to the Farm” fried chicken) in an upscale atmosphere at Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber (1948), a family favorite when we visited Clearwater when I was growing up. If you’re looking for the ultimate local catch, you need to have a Grouper Sandwich (fried, grilled, or blackened) at one of the Frenchy’s locations–my favorite is Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill near the Sandpearl on the north end of the beach.

Kids will love the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the Dolphin.

Heading south along the beaches, Salt Rock Grill is a longtime favorite on the Intracoastal in Indian Shores. For New York-style, family-friendly Italian favorites, Campanella’s in Pinellas Park has been pleasing locals for decades.

Clearly, Tampa Bay in all its locales offers something for everyone. I am excited to experience and share the positive evolution of this timeless Florida destination. If you are planning a first visit, please note that the area is very spread out. Between crowded roads, distance, and lack of reliable mass transit makes it challenging to cover a lot of ground. Rather, I suggest focusing for a day (or a few) on individual areas, rather than picking one spot and venturing out from there.

Sunset on Sand Key in Clearwater.

Note: it is strongly recommended to call any restaurant ahead to see that they are open and taking reservations given the current capacity limitations.

About Fred Bollaci

I'm CEO and President of Fred Bollaci Enterprises. I lost more than 100 pounds while living "La Dolce Vita" and I'm now known as "The Healthy Gourmet." Sample the good life with me through fitness, fine food, and good wine. Meet chefs who cater to a healthy gourmet lifestyle through my Golden Palate blog.
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