Rooster & the Till – My birthday was a couple days ago. I could choose to eat anywhere in the Tampa Bay area for my birthday dinner. I selected Rooster & the Till. Why? Everything I’ve eaten here has been one of the best dishes I’ve had in Tampa. In this latest visit, I ordered a crispy cobia collar that was so perfectly fried, juicy and tender it had me picking over every section of bone in hopes of unlocking another tasty morsel of fish. I’m a huge risotto guy, and the Middlins Risotto with lobster, fried chicken mushrooms and caramelized fennel I ordered for my entrée was one of the best risotto dishes I’ve ever eaten. And to cap off a wonderful evening, I indulged in the mocha custard with candied brioche, cherry gelee, honey roast pistachio and pistachio gelato, a dessert so flavorful, I was tempted to pick up the cocktail glass it was served in and stuff my face in with hopes of getting just one more little taste of custard on my tongue. Menu selections change regularly here, so no matter how often you dine at R&TT, you’re likely to come away having tried something completely new. And something completely delicious.
The Refinery – Eating dinner on the upstairs deck overlooking Seminole Heights is one of the best restaurant experiences in Tampa. The menu is constantly changing, so getting the same thing twice here is a rarity. The Refinery forces you to order outside your comfort zone at times, but everything I’ve had here has been memorable. A fried pork chop smothered in Cigar City Jai Alai IPA gravy on one trip might have been the best entrée I’ve ever ordered in Tampa. Likewise, a sweet corn cheesecake with burnt marshmallow and peanut butter caramel is a dessert I still pull up on Jess’ Instagram every so often and pine for longingly. The James Beard Foundation recognized Refinery chef/owner Greg Baker as a semifinalist for Best Chef South.
Ulele – If I were taking out-of-towners to only one spot in Tampa, Ulele would be the place. The best dish you can get here (heck, maybe the best dish you can get in Tampa) is the charbroiled oysters. Crusted with a coating of melted parmesan and romano cheeses, butter and garlic, this appetizer is an automatic. Get a couple orders if you really like oysters. The rest of the menu impresses as well. My favorites? Gouda Grouper, the Flank Steak featuring a unique, delicious avocado chimichurri sauce and a surprisingly-awesome Muenster Chicken. I hardly ever order chicken at a good restaurant, but the Muenster Chicken is a staple in my regular lunch routine. The location on a bend in the Hillsborough River is stunning. The surrounding area is one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods in Tampa, with the adjacent Armature Works market set to open very soon.
edison: food+drink lab –Innovation is the spirit driving this restaurant located on the other side of the Hillsborough River from downtown Tampa and across the street from the University of Tampa, hence the ‘lab’ in the name. Chef Jean Pierola is one of Tampa’s best known chefs and was the Guest Chef at a James Beard Dinner (apparently, that means you know your elbow macaroni from your fusilli Jerry). If you love a good burrata, and who doesn’t, Edison has the best one around, that creamy goodness oozing out as you cut into it. Entrees can get a bit pricy, so Jess and I like to order a couple starters and share an entrée. Skip the wine and beer and order a cocktail or two. They’re worth the extra couple dollars.
Mise en Place – When I first moved to Tampa in 2005, I asked locals their favorite restaurant. The overwhelming response I got back was Mise en Place, located next to Oxford Exchange on a swanky section of Grand Central Avenue directly across from the University of Tampa. Thirteen years later, Mise en Place still remains the gold standard by which all other Tampa restaurants are judged. Renowned chef Marty Blitz continues to produce some of the highest-quality New American cuisine around, everything from Burrata Serrano Ham and Tandoori Grilled Shrimp for an appetizer to Sous Vide Venison and Harissa Crusted Seared Tuna for dinner.
Bern’s Steak House – Chances are, if you’re familiar with one restaurant in Tampa, it’s Bern’s Steak House, as famous for how ordinary it looks on the outside (seriously, it looks like an ugly, gray warehouse) compared to the extraordinary experience waiting inside. Quite simply, Bern’s serves, in my opinion, the most mouth-watering steak you can get in Tampa. The wine list is world renowned. To call it massive would do a disservice to the word massive. The service is impeccable. Potential waiters have to train in the kitchen for six months just for the opportunity to take on tables. The dessert room is so popular, it’s not uncommon for couples out on a date to come to Bern’s just for the dessert, which is housed in a completely different section of the restaurant and requires another checking in process. If you’re in town for business and can expense your meals, there’s no better restaurant to indulge than Bern’s. And if you’ve never been, be sure to take the restaurant tour. It can lead to a long night (my first time here, the meal, the tour and dessert took a little more than three hours), but to get a behind-the-scenes look at how one of the most well-known restaurants in Tampa, nay the U.S., operates is an experience in and of itself.
Haven – Go to Haven for the cheese plates alone! A quick glance at the menu online shows 43 different cheeses, from mild and mellow options like Mimolette and Wyngaard to strong choices like Red Dragon and Pleasant Ridge Reserve. You can create your own plate from however many cheeses you choose, or let the chef select 18 for you. The rest of the menu is equally impressive. Cauliflower Carbonara is an interesting twist on an Italian classic. Jess downed the Hamachi and Avocado Toast with particular gusto. And we both fell in love with the Porcini Seared Tuna. Haven is located in the heart of SoHo, around other venerable restaurants like Bern’s and Elevage. But it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.
Ava – A hip, Italian restaurant owned by former Tampa Bay Rays and current Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Ava’s spacious outdoor seating area on busy Howard in SoHo is the preferred place to eat when weather’s nice. Ava’s Caramel Budino is my pick for the top dessert in Tampa: a squat mason jar filled with a salted caramel custard with flavors of espresso and dark chocolate, topped with a layer of actual salted caramel and whipped cream and adorned with rosemary cookies that blend perfectly with the Budino. Seriously, get this dessert!
Osteria Natalina – I could easily have included Osteria Natalina in the Hidden Gems section because of its hard-to-find location inside a South Tampa strip mall. This is mom-and-pop, authentic Italian. It’s also the best Italian in Tampa. What Osteria Natalina lacks in ambiance, it makes up for in quality of food, attention to detail, friendliness and charm. Upon sitting down, you’re immediately greeted by the owner, who runs through the menu with you and then lets you know if there’s something on the menu you don’t see, they’ll fix it for you. Can’t decide between two dishes? They’ll make half of each for you. The meatball appetizer is a must. Jess says her mouth literally waters when she thinks of them. “It dissolves in your mouth,” she says. Jess also raves about the Saccitini, little pasta pockets filled with pear and gorgonzola cheese in a gorgonzola cream sauce. My go to is the Linguini in red clam sauce, a spicy mix as good as any you’ll find anywhere in Tuscany. You can tailor the spice level to your liking or order it with a white or vodka sauce if you prefer. Osteria Natalina is all about giving you what you want. And once you eat here, you’ll want it all.
O Cocina – If you’re looking for the best Mexican food in town, O Cocina on Henderson Avenue in South Tampa is the place. This isn’t your typical dinner combo #13 with three enchiladas, refried beans and Spanish rice kind of place. This is modern Mexican with tableside Guacamole; Ceviche (the Snapper Ceviche is amazing); Pork Chops dressed in Pipian mole, toasted pepitas and Mexican street corn; and a Chili-Rubbed NY Strip topped with Mezcal smoked tomato butter. Wash it all down with an impressive selection of cocktails, tequilas, wine and whiskies (the Cocina Margarita is always a good pick).
Élevage – Located in SoHo’s Epicurean Hotel, Elevage is an offshoot of Bern’s (and located directly across the street) headed by James Beard Best Chef South Semifinalist Chad Johnson. I’ve been to Elevage twice. The first time, I ordered the risotto Cordon Bleu with butter-poached chicken, prosciutto and emmentaler. If it were socially acceptable to lick a plate clean, this dish would have prompted it. The second time I went to Elevage, I ordered the Risotto Cordon Bleu. I mean, if you find something you like, why not stick with it? The rest of the menu impresses as well, as the satisfied looks of my dinner companions can attest to. I can’t tell you though because every time I go, I’ll always order the Risotto Cordon Bleu.
On Swann – One of the newest restaurants on the Tampa Bay fine dining scene, On Swann is located in posh Hyde Park Village. The cuisine is contemporary American with a seasonal menu that focuses on local fare. Chris Ponte is the executive chef, and if you’ve ever visited his phenomenal Café Ponte in Clearwater, you know you’re in for a one-of-a-kind dining experience every time you sit at one of his tables. The menu is designed for sharing, so start off right with the cheese board and pick out a couple appetizers: the Tuna Crudo and Warm-Roasted Oysters with Sambal Butter are excellent choices. For mains, the Nduja Bolognese and Cobia standout.
Timpano’s – Four words: Black skillet Roasted Mussels. These delicious little bivalve mollusks covered in lemon, butter and sea salt are perfection when forked out of their shells; dredged along the bottom of the skillet, picking up all the char, salt and juices; and dipped in melted butter before consuming. Maybe the best single dish you can get in Tampa. True story: When my family makes their yearly visit to Tampa, Timpano’s is a must. On more than one occasion, my uncle has ordered the muscles for his entrée, after we’ve already enjoyed them as an appetizer. The last time we went, he ordered a third batch for dessert. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I can’t hate, though. They’re that good.
Oystercatchers – Full disclosure: I’ve never eaten here. I’m going in early February, but I have no first-hand experience to base my recommendation on. That being said, Oystercatchers has developed a reputation as being the best Splurge Sunday brunch you could ever want. It’s in the Grand Hyatt Hotel next to the airport on a picturesque point that juts into the bay (think great water views). It’s so popular that reservations can be difficult. I’d imagine if you’re staying at the Grand Hyatt you’d have a good chance to get a table. Otherwise, you might have to wait a while to be sat (PS: no alcohol before 11am on Sundays in Florida so mimosas stay locked away until then).
Eddie V’s, Ocean Prime, Council Oak: All high-end, expense-account, place-to-be-seen restaurants. Not everyday places. If you want to splurge, I guess go here, but there are plenty of better restaurants to splurge, like all those listed above. Don’t get me wrong, the food is great quality, just seems a tad formulaic.