In a weekend open thread, a couple of valued commenters who plan to visit the Tampa Bay area soon asked for some restaurant recommendations. The site’s mobile interface made a meal of my lengthy, carefully considered reply. So here’s a response composed on a more stable format.
This post is also an open thread and invitation to provide your own restaurant and food recs for whatever cities or towns are your foodie favorites. Below the fold, Tampa!
Most iconic restaurant: If you only eat out once in Tampa, make sure you dine at the Columbia Restaurant in the Ybor City neighborhood. The food is good and the white sangria is exceptional, but the experience is the main attraction. The building is an architectural oddity with multiple dining rooms that are filled with marble surfaces, colorful tiles, fountains, statues, palm trees, paintings, etc. Bow-tied servers make sure guests never run out of fresh, warm Cuban bread from the nearby La Segunda Bakery. Consider the 1905 Salad, which is assembled tableside — a half of one is a meal all by itself. There’s also a dinner show in one part of the restaurant featuring flamenco dancers. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and you may suddenly find yourself in a conga line! And for all the that, the Columbia is surprisingly affordable!
Best boozy brunch: Gaspar’s Grotto in Ybor City has all-you-can-drink mimosas and bloodies Mary, plus a respectable brunch spread that includes a carving station, bespoke omelets, etc. It’s on 7th Ave., Ybor City’s main drag (as is the Columbia), and has indoor and outdoor seating. For the best experience, try to reserve the “Bullshit Corner” table at 11 AM sharp on Sunday so you’ll be seated by the windows overlooking 7th. From there, you and your dining companions can watch the walks of shame as Ybor revelers wake up and make their way home from Saturday night debaucheries. (Take an Uber there and back, obviously.)
Must-try local foods: Try a deviled crab if shellfish and fried foods are items you enjoy! You can’t really find authentic deviled crabs outside of Tampa, though there are items marketed as “deviled crab” elsewhere. True deviled crabs are football-shaped croquettes containing blue crab meat, tomato sauce and spices, often eaten with a sprinkling of hot sauce. You can find them at pretty much any restaurants that serve Cuban food, including Carmine’s in Ybor City, Liborio’s and La Segunda Bakery. You might even see them in local convenience stores hanging out with the drab rotating hotdogs and other classic convenience store food.
A tip: when you visit the Columbia, as you must, order whatever you want for lunch or dinner and also get some deviled crabs to go. They reheat well!
Cuban sandwiches are also a must-try. You can get them anywhere, including all the places listed above that serve deviled crabs. They’re not fancy. The standard version is ham, roast pork, Genoa salami and Swiss cheese on Cuban bread, with mustard, mayo and pickles, heated and flattened in a press. Doesn’t sound very Cuban, does it? The story is the sandwich evolved with worker demographics in the Ybor City cigar factories, where waves of immigrants came to make cigars — and signature contributions to the local sandwich’s ingredients.
Great seafood: Oystercatchers is pricey, but the great seafood and stunning views of Tampa Bay are worth a splurge. There’s indoor and outdoor seating, and the views are great from anywhere. They also have a terrific Sunday brunch. As far as I know, they pioneered adding a shot of pineapple juice to a standard margarita, and there should be a prestigious prize for such innovation, IMO.
But for my money, the best damn seafood in Hillsborough County (which includes the City of Tampa) is in the south shore town of Ruskin at a place near the end of Shell Point Rd. called the Fish House. The food is dispensed in plastic containers from a screened-in plywood shack surrounded by splintered picnic tables. The side dishes are simple: grits, slaw, fries or beans — pick two and add an extra for less than $3. We’re talking really basic stuff, but the shrimp, scallops, oysters, fish fillets, etc., are incredibly fresh, lightly breaded and fried to sheer perfection.
Fancy steakhouses: One of the best places for steaks anywhere is the legendary Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, but be warned: it is spendy, and it’s one of the few places in Florida where a casually dressed person might be banished to the lounge rather than seated in the main dining room. (Shorts, tees and flip-flops are acceptable pretty much anywhere else, including the opera.) Also, the interior looks like a high-end French house of ill repute that was decorated by Liberace, but the service is absolutely impeccable, and Bern’s has one of the best wine collections on the planet.
Malio’s is another good place for steaks. It’s almost as expensive as Bern’s, but the experience is completely different because it’s an understated, intimate setting whereas Bern’s is more of a plutocratic bacchanalia. Malio’s also has a respectable seafood selection. The restaurant has been around forever and used to be notorious as a mob boss hangout. It moved to a new location on the river a while back; I don’t know if the dons followed. But you’ll be safe there. If there’s a mob hit, you may be traumatized by what you see, but you’ll be physically unharmed.
Diners: Goody Goody in Hyde Park is a resurrected version of a decades-old Tampa landmark that serves uniquely sauced burgers as well as standard diner fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They make a fabulous butterscotch pie.
You also can’t go wrong with Trip’s Diner — three locations in the Tampa Bay area serve all the diner classics at an affordable price.
BBQ: Big John’s Alabama BBQ is off the beaten path but well worth the trip. The family-run joint has been serving up barbequed sausage, ribs, pork, brisket, chicken, etc., since the 1960s, and their mac and cheese side is locally famous. The people who run it are extra-churchy, so prepare to be blessed!
One of my favorite things about traveling is trying new food. I avoid national chains if I can, and if someone recommends a place that looks sketchy, I’ll probably still try it if it sounds interesting, which is why I’ve had several bouts of food poisoning.
I’ve been a road-tripper all my life, and one thing I’ve noticed over the years is that as chains push into towns, there are fewer local places and more homogeneity, which makes me sad. But you can always find the local stuff if you ask around.
To that end, does anyone know of great places to eat between Atlanta and Chattanooga?