Lee’s Grocery – Sometimes, I put on my real estate hat and I check out the area surrounding Lee’s Grocery in Tampa Heights and I see the next hot neighborhood: a tree-lined oasis between downtown and Seminole Heights with beautiful Victorian-style houses within walking distance of the monster Armature Works project and surrounding development on a picturesque bend of the Hillsborough River. What does any of that have to do with Lee’s Grocery? Nothing really, other than you can ponder the up-and-coming-ness of the area while chowing down on some of the tastiest wings and pizza and sipping from a surprisingly large and well-cultivated beer list. In addition to a pretty generous offering of local and well-known crafts on draft, the walls surrounding the inside are lined with beer coolers filled with some pretty decent finds (for me, a deliciously juicy Duclaw double IPA on my last visit).
Big Ray’s Fish Camp – Tampa is known for a couple foods: Cubans, deviled crab and grouper. And Big Ray’s serves maybe the best grouper sandwich in the area. It comes with either a side of fries topped with parmesan, garlic and cilantro or onion rings. I get the Oyster Po’ Boy and end up picking the fried oysters out of the sandwich and dipping them in cocktail sauce. They’re delicious. Grab a to-go box and head to nearby Ballast Point Park, where you can find of one of the area’s great fishing piers and maybe the most underrated view of downtown Tampa.
Cappy’s – Hands down, top pizza in the bay. They offer New York style and Chicago deep dish. My go to is the NY style with pepperoni and mushrooms. If we’re being honest, I probably order a pizza from here once a week. Prepare yourself: They only take cash (at least the one at my S. Tampa location) and you might have to wait a little for dine in, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. They have 5 locations: S. Tampa, St. Pete, Seminole Heights, Brandon/Riverview and Tampa Palms (the only 1 of the 5 that serves lunch).
La Casa Del Pane – Every time Jess and I go to St. Pete Beach (which is not as often as we’d like), we make it a point to hit up La Casa Del Pane for lunch. It’s a bakery, market, breakfast and lunch spot that makes the best sandwiches in the bay. They’re simple yet delicious because of the quality products used: a perfectly-crunchy, freshly-made Italian bread; olive oil and balsamic straight from the homeland and the highest-quality meats and cheeses to put between. Their Hot Capicola, Salami and Provolone sandwich is the pick for me. The perfect lunch spot if you’re at the beach.
Lolis Mexican Cravings – If you’re looking for the tacos in the Tampa Bay area, look no further. Lolis won’t win any awards for interior design, and seating is very limited. That said, the Ribeye Taco is legitimately one of the tastiest tacos I’ve had in my life. Jess says her favorite is the Fish Taco. They also serve a Chile Rellano Tamale that is outstanding. If Lolis was closer to downtown – it’s five minutes past the airport in Town N’ Country — I’d here at least once a week for lunch.
Cheese Please – A lot of times Jess and I will put our names in at Osteria Natalina for dinner and then walk the next shopping plaza over to Cheese Please, where we drink Sean Minor pinot noir and nibble on Blue Stilton cheese for 45 minutes until our table is ready. It’s charming and cozy with one of the best selections of cheeses you’ll find anywhere. I’ve put a Saint Angel triple-crème we were first introduced to at Cheese Please in Jess’ stocking each of the last two Christmases partly because she loves it but partly because I get to eat some too. The owners are some of the friendliest around. Seriously, every time we go in, it feels like we’re long-lost friends, returning home to hear of their latest adventures.
Meze 119 – Located in downtown St. Petersburg, Meze markets itself as a modern, authentic Middle Eastern vegetarian bistro. Jess and I like to come here for the hummus. I had a Scotch egg in my last visit that used falafel instead of sausage, which I enjoyed way more than I thought I would. I’m not a vegetarian, but if I were, Meze would be my spot.
Hotel Bar – I’ve yet to eat or drink here, but I have a few coworkers who tell me its top notch and everybody who’s been raves about it. Hotel Bar isn’t actually located in a hotel; it’s across Tampa Street from the Hilton. It’s more bar than restaurant. It’s tagline is: Reinventing classic hotel drinks in a modern cocktail bar setting. The draw here seems to be the hand-crafted cocktails paired with delicious bites, from the simple (Marinated Olives, Cheese and Charcuterie Boards) to the filling (Mushroom Risotto, Pasta Puttanesca), served late into the night. Hotel Bar itself is open until 3am.
Soho Sushi – It’s easy to blow right past this place as it’s tucked into the corner of a non-descript strip mall, but the amount of cars trying to squeeze into the minimal amount of parking should tell you just how good Soho Sushi is. Quite simply, this is the best sushi you can find in Tampa. The Donut Roll is my go-to: Krab salad, avocado and cream cheese, fried, and then topped with spicy mayo, eel sauce and scallion. Usually I hate cream cheese in my sushi, but for whatever reason, this one always hits the spot.
Eli’s Bar-B-Que – Okay, so Eli’s is well off the beaten path all the way in Dunedin, about a 40-minute drive from downtown Tampa. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday from 11am to 5pm, and if you get there past 2pm, there’s a good chance half the menu will be 86’d. But weekend afternoons don’t get much better than pulling up on your bike after a nice morning ride on the adjacent Pinellas Trail, grabbing the best sausage sandwich of your life and watching the traffic go by while eating at the picnic tables under the shade of the grand oak trees. Don’t forget to ride down the block and have a pint or two at the original 7venth Sun before heading home.