Find this place and taste the 21st century: simple, warm and exciting. Retro graphic paintings, lacquer red barroom and late-night munchies are precious rarities to be sure, but stay for John Shield's exquisite cooking. Start with the best salad in town, greens with a poached egg and shavings of Serrano ham, or indulge in squab seasoned with a no-fear combination of sage and grapes, or perfectly crusted tilefish. Finish with the "coffee and doughnuts" homage to Napa Valley's famed French Laundry.
Add the area's most genuine service, a smart wine list and a lively crowd of artists, pool players and foodies of all ages, and you'll want to stay all night.
BEST COOKING, BAKING UNDER $10 ANYWHERE
2821 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 902-8828.
Fabulous artisanal bread, great lunches and the best counter service is more than enough. Yet every week, Kevin K adds something: a fig prosciutto sandwich, squash soup, a pizza with salmon egg salad and caviar, and last I checked, lollipop pork chops. Join the crowd and find what's likely to be the best food of your week at any price.
BEST ITALIAN, NORTH, SOUTH, WHITE TABLECLOTH OR RED-CHECKED
3215 S MacDill Ave., Suite B, Tampa; (813) 832-9327.
Spartaco Giolito tries to stick to his roots in Rimini, the best of Emilia Romagna plus a love of seafood. There's nothing formal in the setting, but big shrimp, handmade pasta, mixed grills and personalized service are luxury enough.
BEST NEIGHBORHOOD ITALIAN WITH LOBSTER TIRAMISU
D'amico Pasta Grill
11002 Fourth Street N, St. Petersburg; (727) 577-9191.
Two Guys Who Were Chefs at Twice the Prices have cast their lots with pizzas, calzones, fettuccine Alfredo and linguini with clam sauce. Ralph Sitero and Steve Cook make them fresh and right without stinting. They also set new standards for antipasto, panna cotta and cannoli.
BEST UPSTAGING BY THE NEW GENERATION
2208 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-2233.
A block down the street from the venerable Bern's Steak House, its wild-eyed offspring is where Jeanie Pierola has filled bread baskets with harissa and kalamatas, stacked up new-age dim sum and patented her Global Cuisine. Behind the galangal, truffles, macadamia and mint, the kitchen does the basics -- fish, risotto, killer desserts and even beef -- handsomely. Wine, too, is up to the parent's standards, a smaller list but just as smart.
BEST REASON FOR LOCALS TO EAT IN A HOTEL
Sheraton Sand Key Resort, 1160 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater Beach; (727) 595-1611.
While tourists go for the buffet, we know -- or should -- that the unsung chefs here crank out the most creative seasonal fare on the beaches. Sea bass is done up with fennel and lentils, and filet mignon gets a silky corn sauce. Do nibble around the edges; the house pates, souffles and martinis all have the distinct style of John Harris and team.
BEST IMITATION OF CHINATOWN
301 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-1191.
With dim sum carts rolling daily, live fish in tanks next to the kitchen and Peking duck on demand (no 24-hour waiting), this is as Chinese as it gets short of Chinatown on either coast. It combines the fresh supplies of the vast Oceanic grocery with white table cloths, blond wood and slick lines.
BEST TASTE OF HAWAII AND FRANCE WITHOUT JET LAG
4342 W Boy Scout Blvd., Tampa; (813) 873-7697.
So it's not local, but we can be glad such a chain landed here. The islands' celebrity chef paired with Outback to give its hometown a delicious lesson in modern cooking: great fish from opakapaka to sturgeon, vibrant Asian spices, a radical wine list. It's smoothed out by aloha service, sauces made from classic French technique and a worldwide pantry of ginger, stout, poppy seed, nam pla and more. Rice never tasted so good.
BEST PACIFIC RIM SHOTS OFF THE GULF
211 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-5235.
Off the main drag, Peter Tanhnavong gives downtown slices of St. Petersburg's secret hip side as sharp as the sushi and sashimi and as rare as Hawaiian nairagi. From smoked beef tataki to crab cakes and the dangerous chocolate lava cake, it's beautiful food you want to eat. Service is equally smooth.
BEST INTERSECTION OF CLASSIC FRENCH CUISINE AND U.S. 19
31876 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor; (727) 784-1881.
The plainness of the name underscores that French cooking at its best is simple food done well, like a steak with mashed potatoes enriched with creme fraiche. Jack's delivers bouillabaisse, poached pears, chocolate pate, good soups and slick sauces, and it's not even on a charming country road.
MOST IMPROVED DINING: MIDDLE EASTERN
2832 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 805-7977.
Hummus, kebabs, yogurt and such we've had, but never as refined as they've been installed in this handsome restaurant in a tony shopping/dining district. Homemade yogurt, labneh, fava beans, fattouch salad, grape leaves and lamb get the first-rate presentation they deserve on the plate and in this minimalist jewel box of a restaurant.
BEST NEW RESTAURANT OF 2003 -- AND THE BEST MID PINELLAS HAS TASTED IN YEARS
13505 Icot Blvd., Suite 214, Largo; (727) 538-5768.
Ten years after Chris Ponte left Clearwater's Pepper Mill for the bright lights and stockpots of the best of Paris and New York, he has returned with a triumph you can taste. The room is spare and suave, the wines sophisticated and the cooking smooth. Other menus may have coconut shrimp, sesame tuna and lacquered salmon, but not with such grace and flavor. Ponte's walnut-crusted lamb with butternut squash, truffled mushroom soup, roasted beet salad and fig tarts are specialties.
BEST FRENCH BISTRO, BLACKBOARD AND ALL
796 Indian Rocks Road, Belleair Bluffs; (727) 585-9777.
Peter Leonavicius and Dominique Christini have painted their bistro sunshine yellow but kept the essentials: open all day long for coffee, pastries, sandwiches, crepes, pastes and heartier daily fare. Lamb shanks, duck confit, stuffed chicken and French sausages are always on hand; steak au poivre and coq au vin are there when you're lucky. The best of the wines are from Christini's southern France.
BEST MONUMENT TO THE GROUPER SANDWICH
13203 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach; (727) 392-9399.
This is the little sandwich place that could. The grouper is big and boat-fresh, cooked in front of you with big tomatoes, great fries and equally warm service. If we ever need to ration grouper, this place stays, screen doors and all.
THE CAL RIPKEN AWARD FOR CONSTANTLY CHANGING MENUS
Mise en Place
442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 254-5373.
Menus that change with the chef's ingredients and whims daily or weekly were rare when Marty Blitz started 15 years ago, and they still are. Yet, through thick and thin, his imagination has nevered flagged. The slim set can count on spa fish with grilled vegetables and salads of couscous and who-knows; carnivores rely on the mixed grill. The rest of us take wicked pleasure in two dozen starters and entrees that weren't there before: tuna with charred tomatoes, vanilla-rubbed scallops, duck with cactus and zinfandel, with a jungle of fruits, veggies and grains in a world of constructions. Latest sighting: orzotto.
BEST RESTAURANT IN A TAKE-HOME BAG
The Ravioli Company
2202 W Platt St., Tampa; (813) 254-2051.
Two of our best culinary talents, chef Dwight Otis and pasta diva Lauren Otis, don't really have a restaurant, just a few seats outside. But it's still a gourmet destination. If you can boil water, take home her lobster ravioli or lemongrass linguine cut to order. If you can't, get his sirloin lasagne. Call ahead -- and bring a cooler.
BEST CUBAN FOOD YOU CAN DANCE TO
Pipo's Latin Cafe
238 E Davis Blvd., Tampa; (813) 258-8100.
A steam table at any Pipo's in town has a marathon of juicy roast pork; the oven never stops. Pipo's latest spot adds outdoor dining and drinking in the evening brisas at the center of Davis Islands and on weekends dancing under the stars to the best Latin band this side of Buena Vista Social Club.
BEST SEAFOOD IN THE SUBURBS
3253 Tampa Road, Palm Harbor; (727) 771-1800. Contemporary decor, a small but smart wine list and a local catch of amberjack, hog snapper and such make Mystic stand out in North Pinellas. Yet, you can still depend on bouillabaisse, lobster and sherried fish chowder from veteran restaurateur Eugen Fuhrman.
BEST OF MANY REASONS TO EAT REAL MEXICAN FOOD
812 Court St., Clearwater; (727) 443-5892.
This grocery squeezes in a few booths and folding chairs between aisles of salsa and norteno CDs, and its tacos are overstuffed with authentic flavor, too. You can get tacos packed with lamb, chicken, chorizo and all kinds of beef and pork, plus stews and sopas on weekends. Stop here or at any of the taquerias, bakeries and butcher shops feeding our booming Mexican community in Clearwater and beyond. You won't want the other stuff again.
AS CLOSE TO NEW YORK AS YOU DESERVE
2800 Alt. U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor; (727) 789-5574.
477 N Ashley Drive, Tampa; (813) 222-3455.
You want clatter, clutter and kvetching, you'll get it here. And monstrous corned beef and pastrami, chopped beef, big bowls of matzo ball soup and a case full of fresh pastries you shouldn't think of touching. It all moves faster than the A train, especially at Lucky Dill's newest stop in downtown Tampa. You want better? Not in this town.
MOST UNLIKELY HOME FOR A BISTRO
8595 Seminole Blvd., Seminole; (727) 399-1800.
Yet, after almost four years, smart casual food -- oyster stews, Cuban Reubens, lavash and hummus, steaks with chimichurri -- are at home in this forlorn stretch. Frank Chivas and chef James Shields have a place where service is sharp, prices easy and wines inviting. Locals stop in lunch, dinner, inside, outside all day. Plus, the fries are crisp enough to call French.
BEST FRESHNESS IN FISH -- AND IDEAS
1519 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 596-2477.
The most unassuming place on the beach has the most imaginative chef in Michael Garcia. Have your beer and Buffalo shrimp, grouper sandwich linguini and clams, or go way beyond. Check the blackboard for wahoo with a banana crust or new tricks with amberjack. There's always good gumbo, ceviche, octopus with feta, Jamaican jerk seafood in foil, and Parmesan mahi and black bean salsa. Fisherfolk eat here; so should you.
BEST PRIX FIXE, LEAST PRETENSE BARGAIN
321 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 596-5439.
Continental cooking survives on the beach with charm in this intimate restaurant, where the Jacksons still cook with cognac and brioche, like dinner with your aunt the gourmet. Make reservations, bring cash and your own wine, and $35 buys three courses of goodies such as duck confit, lamb chops and pork encroute, rare treats of lamb kidneys and sweetbreads, or heriloom butter pie from Canada.
BEST STIR FRY OF ART AND HOME COOKING
Green Springs Cafe and Gathering Place
122 Third Ave. N, Safety Harbor; (727) 669-6762.
An artsy small town deserves an art restaurant. Paul Kapsalis' cooking -- old Greek pizza, roasted chickens, salmon-lobster "sacks," thick soups and cobblers -- are made with care, not fuss. They show as much warmth and whimsy as the big green dragonfly bike rack out front and the rest of the art.
BEST STEAKHOUSE WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT
Salt Rock Grill
19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores; (727) 593-7625.
You could come for seafood, but high fliers and smart snowbirds come for beef steaks. Even the meatloaf stacked with onion rings wows you. That 1,200-degree fire pit has as much flash as the broad view of the Intracoastal Waterway and the wildest modern design on the southern beaches. Look for bone-in cuts and pluck grilled corn, chimichurri sauce, lobster tails and upside down apple pie from the sides. The wine list is long, fair and supported by a see-through cellar; the bar stocks five-star rums, two dozen single malts and cognacs up to $125 a pour.
BEST REWARD FOR AN UNDERGROUND GOURMET
2880 34th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 522-6623. If you like to eat with fingers, explore endless menus, frequent dreary strip centers and save money, Ben Thanh has a banquet for you. Here the fresh, playful flavors of Vietnam go well beyond pho soups and bun salads. Glazed quail, veal, frog legs and catfish stew have spark, salt, sour and sweetness. Plus, there's a playground of appetizers wrapped in leaves, rice noodles and crepes. Try something new.
BEST RESTAURANT FOR PINELLAS TRAIL RUNNERS IN BLACK TIE
315 Main St., Dunedin; (727) 734-3463.
This intimate room feels like a snug fit of gray flannel. The china is pastel depression glass, but the food is fresh and modern. Mark Hrycko indulges in Asian and Italian flavors while keeping classics from duck to calves liver in polished sauces. Count on personal service. And don't miss the black ice cream.
MOST STYLE ON A BUDGET
3324 Gandy Blvd., Tampa; (813) 831-9254.
This is the home base of B.T. Nguyen, a one-woman powerhouse of style who has put flair and matching flavor on our Asian menus. Here it's a black and white boite where French and Vietnamese dishes wear gourmet dress, from lobster in Dubonnet to canh cua tom. She also does earthy Pan Asian tapas in a feng shui triumph at Yellow Door and will soon offer her take on a staple at Noodle Lounge.
BEST REASONS TO STAND IN LINE IN GULFPORT
Backfin Blue Cafe
2913 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 343-2583.
The first would be the namesake crab as Harold Russell fashions it into crab cakes, chowder and crab anything-else. The second would be prime beef more than an inch thick for the less crabby among your party. Other charms include meatloaf, fine vegetables and the best eatin' front porch in Little Bohemia by the Bay.
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