All in Tampa Bay Restaurants

0 false 18 pt 18 pt 0 0 false false false     I honestly cannot remember the last time I had ventured out to the seemingly far away lands of Citrus Park.  I suppose I’ve become all too comfortable with the sights and sounds of South Tampa and Seminole Heights.  However, after a recent pampering with fine wine and scrumptious cuisine galore, I’ve begun to sing a different tune about this underrated area of town.  I’m sure I’ve been missing out on numerous exceptional establishments all along but…after one particularly memorable wining and dining experience, I am now absolutely certain I have been mistakenly neglecting two very noteworthy Tampa gems.   Thanks to the adorably classy and quaint Napa Flair WineStore as well as the fresh and inventive Grille 54, Citrus Park will now be seeing this little foodie frequent its grounds with some serious indulging intentions. 

0 false 18 pt 18 pt 0 0 false false false      In my food-loving world, there is one cuisine that always ranks supreme: Sushi. Oh how it tempts me more often than I should say.  I simply cannot get enough of the rolled up lobster, scallop, salmon or tuna accompanied with taste-bud pleasures like cream cheese, avocado, asparagus, cucumber, roe, aioli and eel sauce…my goodness, I admire it all.  My favorite modern sushi hot spot in Tampa?  Soho Sushi…or as I like to call it, “Sushi Paradise.”  Soho Sushi sets the bar quite high for the seaweed wrapped, cylinder shaped, fish-filled rolls of heaven. Sushi daredevils, these artistic chefs love breaking old-school raw seafood rules and fusing ingredients from Italian, American and even Mexican cuisines making their sushi very progressive and also so uniquely divine.  This joint also boasts one spectacular daily happy hour from 5-7PM with BOGO house wine and beer as well as a featured selection of delicious discounted specialty rolls.

0 false 18 pt 18 pt 0 0 false false false    Ladies nights.  Birthday celebrations.  Business meeting happy hours. Romantic evenings for dates #1 or #50.   South Tampa’s Cru Cellars has got you covered.  This wine and tapas bar is darn near perfect for all of the above and more.  Easy to miss, the new-ish Tampa jewel is located on South Macdill Avenue with Datz as their friendly neighbor.  You may have driven right past the nondescript sign once.  I beg of you-do not make this mistake again.  Many of my readers may remember a blog post I wrote about Cru a while back.  After wining and dining on a few lovely occasions, I praised their culinary efforts as well as their extensive (and superb) wine list.  Consistency is crucial for big city restaurant survival and Cru is proving their greatness time and time again. 

There is a reason I cringe when the drive to the other side of the bay is discussed.  Crossing over the Howard Franklin Bridge and into the far away lands of St. Petersburg is quite the frustrating traffic trek.  Continuing onward to either St. Pete’s delightful (and tasty) downtown or over to the beautiful white sand Gulf beaches is even more bothersome. Yet, as a lover of Tampa’s cooler next-door neighbor, I can’t seem to resist the painfully annoying hour drive.  

Tapas.  You perfectly portioned components of serious smorgasbords.  How I adore you so.  With only two beloved dining destinations for the popular “small plates,” it was time to venture off to new lands.  When both Groupon and Living Social showcased the same restaurant in just one week, I knew it was meant to be.  Vizcaya Restaurante, located off of North Dale Mabry Blvd. in Carrollwood could go overlooked with the slight blink of an eye.  Such a shame, too, since I have been hearing rave reviews about this understated small Spanish eatery for months on end.  Could they possibly stand up to the praise?  Would I find a new joint to enjoy some glorious Spanish goods?  

Did my sci-fi dreams of teleportation finally become a reality?  I must have teleported to a New England city.  Boston?  Perhaps.  NYC?  Could be.  No way is this Tampa. Walking into the brand-new, much talked about, Oxford Exchange is kind of like a dream for Tampa natives and imports alike.  This dazzling and genius mix of 20th century, retro and modern eras is like nothing we have seen before in our modest metropolitan city.  A play house for adults.  An escape from the bland, usual, uninspired eateries speckled all over town.  The word is out.  With only a month and a half behind them, Oxford Exchange is definitely all the rage.  For those who have been, you understand.  For those who have yet to visit…join me in a little journey as I give you the official Oxford Exchange tour. 

        Just this past Saturday, Tampa’s premier foodie company, Tasting Tampa hosted an exciting event unlike any I’ve been to before.  A group of privileged “party animals” came together on a mission.  A mojito mission, that is.  Traveling to five fabulous Tampa Bay eateries, sipping (and slurping) on the finest mojitos the bay area has to offer, there would be one…and only one mojito ranked supreme. Imagine a pub-crawl from your glory days…but restaurants replaced the grungy bars, mojitos substituted the crappy beer and the only drinking contest at hand was the ranking of a spectacular Spanish libation.  Thank you Tasting Tampa for organizing and hosting this day of Siesta Key rum, muddled mint and lime; “Mojito Madness” was a real treat for everyone who came.  

       When a lengthy shopping spree at International Mall ignites a severe stomach growl, there is usually one dining destination on my mind.  Zen Bistro, an upscale and trendy diverse Asian and sushi hot spot, dishes out fresh rolls and bowls that shoppers simply cannot get anywhere else.  Tucked away in a corner of Bay Street, this stylish food and drink lounge sets itself apart the second one walks toward its polished wood covered exterior.  A streamlined setting with colors of mostly stark white and red with accents of bamboo, the restaurant’s cool, calm and collective interior atmosphere is fantastically modern.  

         Swanky seating and devilishly dim lighting welcomed me for a fun night of Fall feasting at the new South Tampa Carmel Café just a couple of nights ago.  Since my very first experience at the Carrollwood location this past summer, I have excitedly returned to both Tampa locations numerous times, each time, more impressed than the last. Carmel Café prides themselves in their wonderfully executed Mediterranean tapas as well as their fun and efficient iPad menu which gives customers a refreshing take on placing orders in a restaurant.  This handy device provides pictures of every menu item and complete control of the timing of menu selections.  Because they have so brilliantly set up this nifty ordering system, dishes come out fast, real fast.  Sounds pretty amazing…and it is.

 It is no wonder this Ybor City gem has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Equipped with their very own brewery, Tampa Bay Brewing Company pours some of the best bruskies in town and they don’t stop there.  Their cuisine also ranks supreme with their tasty beer expertly cooked into almost all of their delicious dishes.  Truthfully, I've never had "bar food" quite like the fantastic fare they serve their loyal (and new) customers.  I can think of a few Tampa sports bars who could learn a thing or two from these peeps. 

       I absolutely love quirky and quaint hole in the wall diners...especially those that serve consistently drool-worthy breakfast classics and wonderfully executed breakfast inventions.  Pinky's Diner on Bay to Bay in the heart of Palmaceia is a South Tampa gem that delivers delicious diner breakfasts, every time, guaranteed. 

Just like anyone, I love nothing more than wining and dining at 5-star restaurants where truffle oil, Carpaccio and foie gras are king.  However, I am also the first female to pull over in no man’s land for delicious street fare goods.  I have no reservations when it comes to entering a rundown dive where the food is deemed godly.  Furthermore, I have no serious problem with the absence of décor and the presence of drab white walls, stained and torn cushion-top chairs and mismatched utensils so long as the food is incredible.  Recently, I rounded up my favorite foodies and visited the one and only, Yummy House.  My brother had just been to China last September and for some time was raving about the authenticity of Yummy House’s stir-fry, noodles and hotpots.  I had also heard great things from many other reputable food lovers who dropped their jaws and judged me when I admitted I hadn’t been there yet.  It was finally time to see what this Yummy House place was all about.  

When I ask my friends to leave the comfort of South Tampa, there better be good reason. If it’s to venture off to St. Pete Beach on a sunny day, no convincing powers are necessary. If it’s a fifteen-minute drive north of Kennedy Blvd. for a bite to eat, I might as well be pulling teeth. That is, until, Seminole Heights began turning up fantastic, top-notch eateries just a couple of years ago. Gaining continuous city wide recognition, a couple of the new powerhouse “players” in the Tampa culinary scene are planted sturdily and successfully in this up and coming “hipster” part of town. Ella’s Americana Folk ArtCafé is one of the two establishments with rave reviews coming out the wazoo and it’s really no wonder why.

I am no stranger to any restaurant on South Howard Avenue.  I’ve been to them all…some I’ve had the absolute pleasure in dining at numerous times; others, I’ve written off as mediocre fare with dishes I could easily whip out at home.  To be perfectly honest, the Ciccio Restaurant Group eateries have fallen somewhere in the middle of the long line of exceptional and poor Soho joints.  Never having been displeased, yet never overly impressed, Ciccio’s, Lime, Lodge and Daily Eats are establishments I’ve frequented less and less as I’ve become more and more cultured and well-versed in the art of pleasing my palate.  However, when recently offered a generous invitation to dine at my favorite of the four, I immediately accepted.  Ciccio’s/Water has always had the potential-that's never been an issue.  Inventive culinary efforts, a young, sexy and outgoing staff and true to “Soho style” hip ambiance all exist in this trendy colorful bistro.  I was feeling quite stoked to see if they would rise to the occasion and really blow my little socks off. 

I would have never given this restaurant a chance. Modern Mediterranean fare…right up my alley. A Mediterranean eatery nestled in an unsightly shopping center next to a Chuck E. Cheese of all places…definitely not my scene. Wait a second. Don’t let me lose you yet. Thank goodness I accepted the very generous invitation to Carmel Café! This is a restaurant that deserves serious acclaim for its culinary efforts, spectacular service and esthetically appealing atmosphere. I had the absolute pleasure to wine and dine at the Carrollwood location but this one of a kind dining experience also has locations in Sarasota and Countryside. Oh and they are currently building a flagship location in: drum roll please…South Tampa.

Very few restaurants leave me feeling jaw-dropped impressed.  For this to happen, my culinary experience must be exquisitely executed-to every minute detail from the moment I step into a restaurant to the second I leave.  Sure, with Tampa’s ever growing and evolving culinary scene, I have been fortunate to wine and dine at some exceptional establishments.  However, no Tampa restaurant has left such an outstanding impression as Pelagia Trattoria.  

This is no ordinary wine bar. It is anything but ordinary with its exceptional montage of creative cuisines expertly paired with fantastic wines from their massive selection of old and new. I am no wine expert so although I thoroughly enjoy sipping it, I will not even attempt to review it. Cru Cellars is South Tampa’s newest and best-hidden secret. Although located in a prime location on South Macdill with a clear street view and a large sign, Cru Cellars appears as a mere wine market. Up until a couple of months ago, like many, I too was oblivious to the dimly lit, posh lounge nestled discreetly in the back of the market. This little secret has gradually been leaked to more and more wine and food-lovers alike who have been steadily making their way to wine and dine at this classy and quaint eatery. Cru Cellars has only recently opened up their kitchen, enabling them to be part of Tampa’s ever-growing culinary community. Word of mouth has worked well for this up and coming food and wine gem and it seems they are responding well to the recent buzz. Having visited the establishment twice now, both times a packed house, the ambiance, service and fare have been satisfyingly superb.

Oh, Dads. Funny creatures aren’t they? They’ve annoyed us with their lectures, embarrassed us with their silly sayings and cheesy jokes and even frustrated us with their pride. They’ve also shown us the ropes of life, supported our ventures every step of the way and have loved us even when we haven’t deserved any love at all. Their day is upon us once again, the day we must show them just how much we appreciate their kind hearted ways, fatherly protection and even their toleration of us as trouble-making teens. Here’s to the old dads, the new dads and the dads still pretending to be young. Here’s to my Dad, king of all dads.

Cinco De Mayo is officially upon us and I for one; am ecstatic.  Sure, I indulge in my fair share of Mexican cuisine a good 200 days out of the year but on this day, those Taco Bus tacos, Miguel’s margaritas and Estella’s enchiladas just taste that much more delicious. This is a holiday that for Americans-with no Mexican heritage, means just one thing; okay, make that two.  Good grubbing and sweet sipping. Spicy and saucy concoctions-classics and reinventions- I like it all.  Tampa has quite the array of taco joints, unfussy fiesta hot-spots and upscale eateries-all catering to the Mexican loving palates. I’ve got a little bit of everything for my fellow burrito, chile relleno and enchilada enthusiasts.  From the casual "grab and go's" to the delicious date night destinations; they all can be found in my top 10 Tampa Mexican spots.

I have to admit, I was quite livid when my favorite Tampa BBQ restaurant, “Smoke” had a sign on their door: “Gone for the Summer” for 10 months straight. What in God’s name were these successful South Tampa restaurant owners thinking?  What could possibly top Smoke, an “upscale” but insanely delicious BBQ eatery?  My questions linger no more.  Boca, the newest South Tampa foodie hot spot tops Smoke, hands (and forks) down.  The brains behind Boca who also own the ever so popular Ceviche and the sexy and swanky Circo’s Speakeasy knew exactly what they were doing with this innovative twist on Tampa food. Boca opened up just a few months ago and immediately caught my eye. The words “organic” and “local” inscribed on the building’s exterior shed bright light on Tampa’s very slowly evolving culinary community.  Farm to fork cuisine where one can savor the unity of healthy and delicious is finally publicly upon the trendy South Tampa Hyde Park district.  Halleluiah, it is about time.