Taco ’Bout Our Food Scene - Guide to Greater Tampa Bay
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Taco ’Bout Our Food Scene

Taco ’Bout Our Food Scene

A rich mix of cultures and tastes will take even the snobbiest of foodies’ palates to new heights. With restaurants listed as some of the top in the country and the world, local holes-in-the-wall serving up surprisingly good eats and a unique, undeniably Florida feel, food in Greater Tampa Bay will not just check off one box — it will finish the list. 

Cannot Miss 

For a neighborhood favorite, gorgeous views and great food, Catches Waterfront Grille has got it covered. Right on the Pithlachascotee River, Catches offers a bright and enticing environment. Their outdoor tiki bar and deck, Rum River, hosts live entertainment. They specialize in all thing’s seafood, from Blue Crab ravioli to Caribbean Cobia, shellfish aficionados will be ready to catch a bite. If fish are friends, not food, do not worry. Catches Waterfront Grille has something for everyone.  

At Oxford Exchange, brunch is the most important meal of the day. The restaurant, bookstore, retail shop, afternoon tea spot and champagne bar specializes in creating great food and memorable experiences. Its two-floor indoor space hosts lounge, bar and table seating, while its outdoor, sunlit conservatory provides a beautiful breath of bay air. Its Sunday brunch offers delicious favorites such as French toast, omelets and pancakes, as well as healthy alternatives including smoked salmon and fresh salads. A popular spot for social media tags, Oxford Exchange is an absolute Tampa must-try. 

Il Ritorno, “the Return” in Italian, exemplifies this name in more ways than one. Originally named for the homecoming of Owner and Executive Chef David Benstock, this St. Petersburg-based modern Italian restaurant is big on giving back to the community. Partnering with organizations such as Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and Best Buddies, Il Ritorno provides St. Petersburg with more than just delicious meals.  

In 2019, Il Ritorno was listed in the Tampa Bay Times’ Top 10 Restaurants in Tampa Bay. Its rustic charm, combined with an elegant menu of traditional Italian fare, will have patrons returning to this restaurant at every opportunity. 

For a truly unique and culturally enriching experience in Greater Tampa Bay, check out Wat Mongkolratanaram. Sometimes referred to as the Thai Temple, this impressive landmark serves as both a casual, pop-up restaurant and a functioning Buddhist temple. Authentic Thai food such as pad Thai, curries, coconut pancakes called kanom krok and mango sticky rice is served daily, with open pavilions to select dishes from. Wat Mongkolratanaram is unlike anything else in GTB.  

For a fresh, artisan and eclectic feel, check out On Swann on the corner of, well, Swann Avenue in Tampa’s Hyde Park. Patrons to this contemporary American-style restaurant will enjoy its comfortable atmosphere and timeless design. Brunch, lunch and dinner are served with a focus on thoughtfully sourced ingredients that come to life through passion and innovation. 

“We are a community-based restaurant with a foundation of hospitality and what that word truly means — how you make someone feel,” said Joshua Brown, service manager at On Swann. “We are one team with one dream, and that dream is to bring exceptional hospitality to our community.” 

With an extensive wine and cocktail list and espresso coffee selections on top of that, On Swann covers all the bases from starter to dessert. This must-try eatery, established in 2016, is sure to become a Tampa staple, as more and more fall in love with On Swann. 

One taste that almost everyone can agree on is the warm, feel-good, homegrown flavors of classic comfort food. Datz is a connoisseur of this universal taste. For more than 10 years in St. Pete and Tampa, Datz has been creating and carrying well-known favorites with a twist, such as its unique take on eggs benedict — made with fried chicken and Belgian waffles instead of Canadian bacon and English muffins. Other tantalizing combinations include shrimp and grits with Indian spices, a BLT served on a challah bun and the rye, espresso liqueur and powdered donut cocktail.  

With many more of these original creations to be discovered, Datz distinguishes themselves by combining the old with the new, the treasured classic with the adventurous. A must-try if there ever was one, Datz is home away from home. 

Some secrets are better shared. The Chattaway might just be the best kept one of all, flying under the radar in St. Pete since 1951. This quirky restaurant has spacious outdoor seating, award-winning food and high tea with Lady Chattaway. Whether seeking a new unique place or simply a cup of Earl Grey, the Chattaway should be the talk of the ton.  

The atmosphere of this eatery is all-encompassing — 1930-style English décor graces the inside, bringing to life the genuine high tea experience. The Chattaway’s outdoor area is lush and tropical and highly reminiscent of Old-Town St. Petersburg. Finger sandwiches, petit fours and tea galore are offered in this one-of-a-kind English experience. 

Cassis is a high-end, French inspired restaurant located off Beach Drive in St. Petersburg. With an impressive menu ranging from brunch options to dinner to cocktails and desserts, this brasserie-style eatery is a mini-European food tour. Combing classic dishes such as the croque monsieur and the bouillabaisse with traditional American grub makes entrees like the Cassis burger and turkey BLT mouthwatering and new. Cassis is fusion done right.  

This blend also extends to its bakery. With sweet treats ranging from gelato to pastries to cakes and more, the Cassis Bakery is the cherry on top, or as the French say, the pièce de resistance. 

The Native history of Florida is rich and worthy of celebration, and Ulele, located on Tampa’s Riverwalk, does just that. This restaurant, pronounced you-lay-lee, is named for the Native American princess of legend and features a statue of the royal in the plaza out front. Ulele cooks many signature dishes on a 10-foot long barbacoa grill and primarily uses ingredients native to and cultivated in Florida.

Seafood such as grouper, shrimp, scallops and oysters are menu staples, providing guests a fresh taste of the Gulf Coast. Between the history, flavor and location, Ulele is certain to be a legendary experience. 

What is in a name? With Al’s Finger Licking Good Bar-B-Que, the answer is — everything. Without any further need of explanation, this restaurant in Ybor City serves fall-off-the-bone, Tennessee-style ribs, chicken, pork and beef. With each meat smoked to juicy perfection and with an abundance of choice sides and desserts, Al’s Finger Licking Good Bar-B-Que all but guarantees the food lives up to its name.  

July 22 is National Hot Dog Day. No need to mark the calendar because at Mel’s Hot Dogs on Busch Boulevard, they will be celebrating all year. A staple of Tampa since 1973, Mel’s was founded by a Chicago native in desperate need of a Chicago-style hot dog. Finding none, he decided to make his own. Today, Mel’s serves more than a dozen different hot dog varieties, including Polish sausage, a bacon cheddar dog and a veggie option as well.  

Tampa Bay’s first omakase-style restaurant, the Michelin recognized Koya opened its intimate eight-seat restaurant in 2020 to much fanfare. This tasting-menu only dining experience has been a huge hit, selling out every night. Their menu is constantly changing to highlight both tradition and new techniques. Make reservations now, those seats are bound to go fast.  


Even those who know nothing else about the restaurant scene in GTB have surely heard of Bern’s Steakhouse. Established in 1956 and family-owned ever since, Bern’s is famous for the largest collection of wine in the world, impeccably fresh ingredients and its entire floor designated for dessert in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room. 

Do not be fooled by Bern’s white, windowless façade on the exterior. Inside this restaurant is room after unique room of fine dining, elegant décor and tantalizing smells. Playing host to celebrities, athletes and even a few presidents, Bern’s is the quintessential Tampa eatery. It is one classic restaurant whose quality and experience cannot be found in many other places. 

The Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City is the pride and joy of historic Tampa Bay. Established in 1905 by Cuban immigrants, The Columbia also holds the distinction of being the oldest restaurant in Florida. 

For more than 115 years, five generations of the Hernandez and Gonzmart family have introduced and treated the area to classic Cuban food, including its famous Cuban sandwich, the crisp and flavorful 1905 salad and its refreshing tableside sangria. The Columbia does one better and provides dinner and a show, with flamenco dances in the evenings at the historic Ybor location. With several locations including in Clearwater and Sarasota, The Columbia is more than a nod or an homage to Tampa’s Cuban roots, but a cornerstone in the foundation of the city. 

For more than 30 years, Bella’s Italian Café has brought a taste of the Mediterranean to GTB. Its authentic menu exudes a wonderful homemade quality, and its quaint household setting is just as warm and inviting. Come for classic favorites such as pollo parmigiana or pasta il mare and come back for new dishes such as Pera sachet, with pear, robiola and ricotta, or salmon al Forno, served on a cedar plank. Of course, do not forget the tiramisu. Recipient of TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence, as well as the No. 1 spot on Creative Loafing’s Best Italian Restaurants in Tampa, Bella’s Italian Café has cordially extended its invitation. 

Within the famed Pink Palace, the Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach, is Maritana, an award-winning staple of fine dining with a seafood-inspired menu. The hotel itself is a landmark in the area — a palatial structure teeming with history and culture since 1928. With produce and ingredients sourced from local farms and fishermen, it does not get more exclusive than this. Maritana has been listed in USA Today’s 10 Best Restaurants, and a date night here might help reveal the reason. 

See Also

If visiting St. Pete but hoping for a more casual stop, look no further than Casita Taqueria, an instant classic. House-made corn tortillas, fresh pescado tacos and a colorful and exciting atmosphere are all to be expected at any one of the three St. Petersburg locations. Creative Loafing rated it Best of the Bay four years in a row. Casita Taqueria brings authentic Mexican food to the palate as well as a thriving classic. It is sure to leave a lasting impression on both. 

Baklava. Souvlaki. Spanakopita. Visiting Hellas Bakery and Restaurant in Tarpon Springs, visitors might think they have crash-landed on Mykonos, and they might as well have. Hellas has been a longstanding source of all things Greek cooking and baking in the area since its founding in 1970.  

Striking in its blue and white striped walls, the eatery has represented the Greek influence that Tarpon Springs is world famous for. With a full restaurant menu featuring any savory Greek classic imaginable, as well as a fresh, made-daily bakery in-house, Hellas is a classic stop that cannot be missed. 

When it comes to classics, few foods outrank the mighty grouper along the Gulf Coast — and Frenchy’s takes on the savory fish is hard to beat. This homegrown chain has five locations scattered throughout Clearwater and beyond, each offering a slightly different taste and atmosphere. With a signature Frenchy’s cocktail in one hand and a fish sandwich in the other, enjoy the sunset over the gulf any time of year. 

Mise en place is French for, “everything in its place.” The Tampa area restaurant named for this phrase could not serve as a better example. With confident and experienced Chef Marty Blitz at the helm, Mise en Place offers a painstakingly curated and well-thought-out rotating, New American style menu. 

Situated across from the University of Tampa since 1986, Mise en Place is a classic upscale bistro that greatly contributes to GTB’s culinary excellence. Wondering just who might enjoy a meal here? Take a hint from the restaurant’s website itself: For the adventurous in palate and spirit. 

Motorists going through downtown Dunedin’s Main Street might spot a large brick wall with a postcard on it. The postcard, featuring a woman surrounded by exotic birds and holding a basket of fruit, stands next to the pronouncement: Visit Mexico. This is a sure sign travelers have arrived at Casa Tina. Founded by couple Javier and Tina Marie Avila, this authentic Mexican restaurant features a full menu of fresh and healthy cultural classics, including a nutty mole, fresh fish tacos and bright, flavorful, house-made guacamole. 

Rivergate Tower, colloquially known as the Beer Can Building, is a classic Tampa landmark that holds within it another classic: Malio’s Prime Steakhouse. This restaurant, opened originally in 1969 by Malio Lavarone, is known to be a favorite of athletes and politicians, including the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.  

With an outside, cigar-friendly patio and an upper tier offering beautiful views, Malio’s provides just the right amount of ambiance to accompany a meal. Set beside the Hillsborough River and near the Tampa Museum of Art and Curtis Hixon Park, Malio’s is in the heart of downtown Tampa, as well as the hearts of residents. 

Hottest new restaurants 

Greater Tampa Bay is a growing community, adapting and changing all the time to stay fresh and exciting. Here are some recent additions to the menu of local restaurants. 

  • Dirty Laundry — a speakeasy and café in St. Pete’s Grand Central District 
  • Boulon Brasserie — Modern luxury meets innovative dining at Water Street’s new French classic restaurant.  
  • Haiku — Asian fusion restaurant in downtown Tampa 
  • 2D Café — an artistic, two-dimensional-style café and restaurant in the Grand Central District 
  • FLocalé — restaurant, bar and live music venue in Seminole Heights 
  • House of Vegano — vegan sushi restaurant in St. Pete 
  • Noble Rice — upscale Japanese restaurant in South Tampa’s Channelside District 
  • Lucky Tigre — a Filipino pop-up turned brick-and-mortar location in South Tampa 
  • Roam – brothers Christian and Joshua Jackson opened a globally inspired steak restaurant in St. Pete  
  • Good Intentions — Trendy upscale vegan option in St Petersburg 
  • Salty Donut — doughnut shop from Miami now in Hyde Park and Seminole Heights 
  • Lilac – Michelin -starred chef John Fraser opened this unforgettable restaurant at the new Tampa Edition hotel on Water Street. 
  • Pho 54 – Vietnamese and Asian-styled restaurant in Wesley Chapel 
  • Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar – a relaxing, family-friendly seafood restaurant coming Summer 2023 to Wesley Chapel  

Michelin Mentions 

Michelin came calling in 2022 as 19 restaurants in Tampa Bay received mention, six of which, are mentioned above.  

  • Cena – Italian  
  • Oak & Ola – European 
  • Steelbach – Southern 
  • Rocca – Italian 
  • Timpano – Italian-American 
  • Haven – Contemporary 
  • Elevage SoHo Kitchen & Bar – International 
  • Restaurant BT – Vietnamese 
  • Olivia – Italian 
  • Ichicoro Ramen – Japanese 
  • Bistro BT – Fusion 
  • Yummy House – Chinese 
  • Rooster and the Till – International 

By Ryan Walsh.

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