By December, we could scarcely moisten a hanky. After Harambe and David Bowie, the Disney alligator attack and the Orlando Pulse shooting, even Carrie Fisher and her mom got short shrift. We were emotionally desiccated. Mariah Carey’s horrific New Year’s Eve blooper bonanza prompted only a shrugging: “Eh, it’s 2016 — what do you expect?”
The news wasn’t much better with the Tampa Bay restaurant scene. Some folks will stop me right there and say, “Wait, it was a huge year for restaurants. I count at least a dozen new ones in downtown St. Petersburg alone.” Those folks are not precisely wrong. But there’s also this: Our area’s most anticipated restaurant opening was Goody Goody in August, its POX burger $4.95, $5.50 if you spring for cheese.
Yes, there were many dozen openings in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, many of them pizzerias (two on the same block in St. Pete) and purveyors of wings, burgers, tacos, sandwiches or Asian noodles. What became scarcer this year: sit-down restaurants, high-end restaurants, special-occasion restaurants or the kind of ambitious establishments that elevate our status on the national culinary stage. Some of our most notable restaurants refocused their efforts on more casual and affordable fare (the Refinery), others closed entirely (Pearl in the Grove) and still others retooled to accommodate the growing enthusiasm for grab-and-go and delivery (BT to Go and Bistro BT).
Tampa Bay is not alone. This circling-the-wagons conservatism is happening nationally. If the restaurant bubble hasn’t burst, it is getting mighty tenuous. Industry types say it’s a perfect storm. Too many restaurant openings has meant more competition for qualified workers and thus higher wages, coupled with 21 states and 22 cities raising minimum wages in 2016. Rents have risen at the same time restaurateurs have been required to provide health care. And behind it all, unwavering, is the dining public’s quest for a bargain.
The number of independent restaurants in the country dropped by 3 percent in 2016, according to the research firm NPD Group. That number is likely to rise in 2017. And so, this year, let us celebrate what we do have in abundance. Let us dive deep into the very good work being done by Tampa Bay restaurants at more modest price points — all those pizzas, wings, burgers, tacos, sandwiches and Asian noodles. What follows is Tampa Bay’s Top 50 Restaurants: Cheap Eats Edition, where a delicious meal may be had for about $10.
Goody Goody didn’t rise to my Top 3 this year, but it is perhaps the only burger I consumed in 2016 sized sensibly enough to make me immediately think of ordering a second. Here are the Top 3.
BurgerFi offers all-natural burgers, "green" construction and ridiculously good milkshakes. [BurgerFi]
Post SoHo Square, 714 S Howard Ave., Tampa.| 813-440-2283
| 2910 Little Road, New Port Richey.| 727-375-7111 | burgerfi.com
If you’re talking strictly beef quality, there are two chains that participate in a “never ever program,” meaning their beef has never been exposed to steroids, antibiotics, growth hormones, chemicals or additives. One is Shake Shack, said to be scouting Tampa locations, but for now you have to head to Orlando to sample the goods. So that leaves BurgerFi, with one outpost in South Tampa and another in New Port Richey. Burgers get fancy here pretty quick with wagyu and brisket, but the regular cheeseburger ($6.97), the BurgerFi logo branded dramatically into its bun, is sumptuous. Fries, skin on, are fab — no need to gild the lily with Cajun or herby-cheesy sprinkles. Plus, there’s decent beer and wine.
Smashburger burgers are thin with a nice crust, served on a buttered, toasted bun. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Sam Sifton at the New York Times recently wrote a burger tutorial for what he called “tavern-style” versus “diner-style” burgers. I don’t know if I concur with his distinction exactly, but I do appreciate a “diner-style” crisp-edged burger that is essentially a pile of seasoned ground beef squished into submission (I’m told the smashing is a beloved Midwest technique). We have exactly one outpost of Denver’s iconic Smashburger brand, this one opened in November by franchisee Craig Tengler, who also owns the one in Sarasota. If you like a drippy, fat, rare burger, this is not for you. These are thin with a nice crust to them and are served on a buttered, toasted bun ($5.99 to $7). Veggie frites provide a welcome novelty, as do fried pickle chips, but the thin-cut fries tossed with rosemary and garlic shouldn’t be missed. Shakes are thick and satisfying, arriving in fluted, footed glasses with sweaty metal sidecars. Kudos to their care with food allergies.
The Lithuanian eatery’s best burger is a pastrami burger ($11.99), with a glossy soft toasted brioche bun upon which a bouncy angus patty sits under loose shingles of housemade pastrami. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2016)]
Name your favorite Lithuanian food. You’ve got bubkes, right? In 2013, an American-style burger restaurant called Drama Burger opened and flourished in Vilnius, Lithuania, enough so that it spawned more. And in 2016, Simas Slabaciauskas and his co-owners debuted a first in the United States. These are high-concept burgers (think chicken tikka masala burger, or chorizo burger with tomato confit), mostly hovering around $8.99 The absolute acme is just above our price point at $11.99, but it’s eminently sharable, so I’m counting it: The pastrami burger features a glossy soft toasted brioche bun upon which a bouncy angus patty sits under loose shingles of housemade pastrami. Soft but not stringy, with a discernible smokiness, its preparation takes about a week with marinating, cold smoking and boiling gently for days to get the texture right. The sultry tango of the two meats is so captivating you hardly notice the red onion, pickles, lettuce or swipe of housemade mayo, but they’re good, too.
Portillo’s: The Chicago-style all-the-way dog ($3.19) has all the fixings: celery salt, chopped onion, tomato, pickle spear, sport peppers, mustard and crazy-green relish. [MONICA HERNDON | Times (2016)]
1748 W Brandon Blvd., Brandon.| 813-210-8190
| 2102 E Fowler Ave., Tampa.| 813-540-9001 | portillos.com
Cubs fans, still basking, can be found hunched over swaths of waxed paper (keeps the Zobrist jersey splotch-free) dispatching Maxwell Street polishes, Italian beef and classic Chicago dogs dragged through the garden. Just about all of the building blocks of this chain are imported from the Windy City (in fact, Chi-town transplants and snowbirds have been ordering Portillo’s care packages for years). The first Florida outposts opened in April in Brandon and in September in Tampa, both huge and sprawling with a loosely retro Prohibition-era vibe. The all-the-way dog ($3.19) is a classic: snappy casing, cushiony poppy seed-flecked bun with all the fixings — celery salt, chopped onion, tomato, pickle spear, sport peppers, mustard, crazy-green relish. Post-dog, it’s time for a slice of old-timey chocolate layer cake or a chocolate shake (but the chocolate cake shake, why?).
People wait in line outside of Coney Island Sandwich Shop during its 90th anniversary celebration on Nov. 19. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
250 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg.| 727-822-4493
Pretty spry for a nonagenarian. St. Petersburg’s top dog turned 90 in November, and the Barlas family celebrated by fleetingly rolling back prices on chili dogs and fountain drinks to 90 cents. Here’s where things get confusing. Nathan’s originated at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues on Coney Island in 1916, just 10 years before this Coney Island got its start. So you’re thinking this is St. Pete’s outpost of Coney Island-style dogs. Nope. It’s Michigan-style dogs with coney sauce ($2.50). The style got its start in the Greek- and Macedonian-owned diners of the Detroit area: hot dogs smothered in seasoned ground beef (no beans), plus mustard and onions. The St. Pete stalwart, the oldest restaurant in the ’Burg, traditionally does one stripe of mustard, but they’ll go heavy if you ask (but no, shudder, ketchup)..
Hot Dogs on Main’s skinless all-beef Vienna franks get several variations, including the pictured Chicago-style dog. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
505 Main St., Dunedin.| 727-408-5103
Susan Norton has been at it for six years, tinkering with just about every wiener idiom there is, teaching dogs some new tricks along the way. She starts with skinless all-beef Vienna franks (there are veggie and organic turkey options, too), and then starts riffing ($3 to $6). This holiday season there was a Thanksgiving-inspired dog topped with stuffing, whipped cream cheese and housemade cranberry chutney, and a big seller these days is the Dunedin dog with bacon, blue cheese dressing and crumbles, Buffalo sauce, cole slaw and a sprinkle of celery salt. A personal chef by trade, Norton also offers Italian beef and sausage sandwiches and makes a mean root beer float.
Bodega’s Cuban ($8) is crisply pressed with roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mayo. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
George and Debbie Sayegh were ahead of the curve in the EDGE District. Now it’s all tra-la-la and foot traffic, but when they debuted their walk-up, mostly outdoor cafe, I wondered how a paucity of pedestrians and a superabundance of summer storms might affect business. Their lechon and Cuban sandwiches, pollo asado and café con leche kept them in the game and in 2016 they expanded into the former space of Creative Clay and added more indoor seating and a juice bar. Their Cuban ($8) is a thing of beauty, crisply pressed and filled with roasted pork, ham, gooey Swiss, pickles and a swipe of mayo. But what’s this? In the brutal Miami/Tampa Cuban sandwich war, Tampa style frequently gets the nod for its addition of Genoa salami. No salami here, and sacré bleu, where’s the yellow mustard?
Brocato’s Sandwich Shop’s Cuban sandwich is traditional perfection. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
The traditionalist may prefer this Tampa landmark, but one of its charms is lost on me. Wise folks assert that the Brocato’s devil crab is the best around. It’s a culinary oddity said to have gotten its start in 1920 when Cuban cigar factory workers in Ybor City went on strike. To rustle up cash, some started selling crab croquettes on the street, blue crab sauteed with a Cuban-style sofrito and breaded with day-old Cuban bread, shaped into taper-ended spheres and deep fried. Ever leave a Nerf football in the attic for 10 years? It’s like that, only much heavier. Never mind, because the Brocato’s Cuban sandwich I wholeheartedly endorse, which you can try as part of “the Baby of the Family” to get the lay of the land: tiny sandwich, tiny devil crab, mini stuffed potato and choice of yellow rice or Spanish bean soup for $7.99. They had a heap of health code violations in 2016, so let’s hope they’ve tightened up.
Inside The Box Cafe’s spicy tuna melt comes in under $7. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
505 N Tampa St., Tampa.| 813-227-9248
| 1715 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa.| 813-288-0900 | Itbcafe.org
In a perfect world, Tampa Bay’s top sandwiches category would be between the two megas: Cuban versus grouper, a.k.a. King Kong versus Godzilla with carbs. Sadly, the area’s best grouper sammies are above our price point (Big Ray’s Fish Camp’s is $14, Skipper’s Smokehouse’s grouper reuben is $12.99, but the Tavern at Bayboro’s is a clean $10). So the third entry in our category is this one, the brainchild of Cliff Barsi, with two locations now. Much of the business is corporate catering and grab-and-go boxed lunches at the airport, but there’s sit-down at both locations for really well-executed sandwiches, salads and sides. Create your own sandwich for $5.99 or specialty sandwiches are under $7 (spicy tuna melt or grilled veggies with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette). Half of your money goes to feed someone in need at Metropolitan Ministries, and the kitchen workers in the culinary arts program are learning valuable job skills to get them out of the cycle of poverty. A win-win-win with good sandwiches — and excellent mini cheesecakes for dessert.
The Flying Pig, with roasted turkey, bacon, pickles, gouda and white bread, pairs well with a cup of classic tomato soup at Tom + Chee. [EVE EDELHEIT I Times (2015)]
Sick day from childhood: ginger ale and The Price Is Right, grilled cheese and tomato soup if my stomach was cooperative. Those last two were the perfect pair, warm and nurturing, the gooey 'wich rendered irresistible after a quick dunk. Grilled cheese has become big business (Central Melt, Kings Street Food Counter and others), but it also makes sense in a chain quick-serve version. Tom + Chee is a Cincinnati-based fast-casual grilled cheese and tomato soup dynamic duo made famous on Shark Tank. These are less "artisanal" and more straightforward and family-friendly, most concoctions starting off with hearty square white bread (or, um, on a glazed doughnut). There are around 20 sandwich options, a number of them "crunchy," which means potato chips have been implicated in the sandwich innards. Sound odd? The barbecue bacon grilled cheese ($6.45) is surprisingly addictive, oozing American cheese but with textural interest from barbecue chips and little clods of sturdy bacon.
Capital Tacos is consistently ranked in the area’s best for its choose-your-filling tacos ($3.50). [Times file (2015)]
6765 Land O’Lakes Blvd., Land O’Lakes.| 813-501-4976
| 27209 State Road 56, Wesley Chapel.| 813-973-3777 | capitaltacos.com
Tacos were the story in 2016: Taco Tuesdays proliferated; American casual restaurants appended short, loosely Mexican taco lineups; and Mexican restaurants opened at a brisk clip. Through it all, Bobby and Kristel Heskett, taco royalty, remained steady. Bobby grew up in his parents’ Pancho’s Villa restaurant in San Antonio and in 2013 peeled off to start his own place. In 2015, Capital Tacos was ranked the third-best taco place in the United States by Business Insider, and Yelp consistently puts it near the top restaurant in the area. At the end of 2015, Bobby opened a second location in Wesley Chapel. The new location has a bit more space, but there’s a family resemblance with Heskett-made furniture fashioned from packing pallets, craft sodas and a whole lot of funky charm (bonus: This location also has pinball machines). Choose your filling (in order of excellence: Federale, Augari, Austinite, Ranger, Ace Hi Carnitas), then pick whether you want it as a taco ($3.50); burrito, nachos, salad or bowl ($8.75); or monster wet burrito ($10.50).
At Mexico Lindo, a classic Mexican grocery/cafe hybrid, tacos are just $1.89 each. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2012)]
I’m a bigger fan of the Pinellas Park location, with its pumpkin-orange walls, wall-sized menu and small white board of “especiales,” but both locations are solid examples of the classic Mexican grocery/cafe hybrid. Not much atmosphere and only about eight tables, this is where you grab a Jarritos soda or Jumex juice from the case and stand at the counter wrestling with your conscience about how many tacos to order (at $1.89 each, your conscience usually convinces you three is right). The al pastor and carne asada are great, but my favorite is carnitas, really Mexico’s answer to confit, the pork shoulder cooked slow and then fried in its own fat. House gorditas are also notable, and the Clearwater location’s bakery makes nice concha and other pan dulces.
Meats like chili-pineapple pork or chipotle-fired shredded chicken are generously portioned at Acapulco Mexican Grocery. [Times file (2012)]
1001 N MacDill Ave., Suite E, Tampa.| 813-873-3665
Acapulco has a whole wall of pork rinds. It has snack food and canned goods and a small produce case. You might not even see the cafe in back. And that would be a shame. Keep walking and on a Saturday you will find a whole room full of Spanish-speaking people not speaking and leaning over wide bowls of menudo. I’ve eaten tacos at several dozen chichi restaurants this year (I still crave the roasted cauliflower taco topped with zingy romesco and toasted almonds at Bartaco in Hyde Park Village), but almost none compare to the simple tacos ($1.75 and $2) and sopes (three for $8) here. The sopes are like little crispy masa pizzas on which to heap lengua (beef tongue) or buche (beef stomach). Spring for an extra 25 cents to double the tortilla on your tacos, because the two-ply seems better equipped to handle the generous serving of meat, whether it’s the chili-pineapple-inflected pork or the sultry chipotle-fired shredded chicken. The house red and green hot sauces are killer.
Ichicoro Ramen serves noodles in a variety of homemade broths in Seminole Heights. [LARA CERRI | Times (2015) ]
Noel Cruz and his band of merry men taught us ramen. Many of us were newbs and had only eaten the bowl of sadness that is Top Ramen. Opened at the end of 2015, the Seminole Heights restaurant Ichicoro Ramen is still packed, people willing to wait hours to slurp down spicy abura soba or shoyu in minutes. The champon, with its fatty braised pork and heads-on gulf shrimp, is out of our price range, but the chicken-based shoyu ($12) and miso-based veggie version ($11) come close, plus there are plenty of nonramen dishes that hit under $10 (like the hilarious but delicious CuBaoNo, Ichicoro’s spin on a Cuban, trademarked no less). After adding lunch and brunch last year, they announced their intention to open a second location in the ambitious Tampa Heights project, in the 68,000-square-foot old red brick Tampa Armature Works building, and Cruz debuted C. 1949, a Florida craft-beer driven bar also in Seminole Heights.
The special pho, with rare sliced beef, brisket, tendon, tripe and meatballs, is $7 for a huge bowl at Saigon Deli. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
3962 W Waters Ave., Tampa.| 813-887-3888
They are not going to hold your hand or tell you precisely how to navigate the ordering system. They will not explicate the countertop’s plastic tubs of che bap (warm soup-pudding with corn and tapioca, coconut milk and vanilla and little strands of chewy seaweed and tiny reddish beans — order it). That said, Lam Le’s no-frills dining room has had an avid following among the banh mi cognoscenti since 2005. These sandwiches are still $3, a bargain that is only outshone by the house pho lineup. The special pho, crowded with rare sliced beef, brisket, tendon, tripe and meatballs, is $7 for a huge bowl, the one with just wafer-thin slices of beef round among the noodles is $6 (to which you add your own avalanche of Thai basil, bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno, Sriracha and hoisin). If huge isn’t huge enough, you can make your pho silly-big for an additional $2. At meal’s end you’ll have enough jingle in your pocket to grab a to-go cup of Vietnamese coffee, bitter and lush with condensed milk and lots of crushed ice.
Stone Soup Company has soups from French onion, pictured, to harder-to-find matzo ball soup. [Times file (2010)]
Readers call me every year to ask where they can order these things: frogs’ legs, liver and onions, prime rib and matzo ball soup — all items formerly ubiquitous and now scarce. I am not mourning liver’s passing, but matzo balls should not go the way of the dodo. This quirky Ybor City spot is a soup generalist, its owner Ilya Goldberg a bit like the Soup Nazi (according to Yelp, he has been known to bar kvetching patrons for a period of one year), and he makes a solid matzo ball soup, good broth but a bit sturdy of ball. The best offerings are a bacon-cheese-potato rib-sticker and a smoked sausage and Spanish bean concoction, and there is also a mighty respectable Cuban sandwich on offer. Most soups are offered as bowls ($5.50 to $6.50), cups or quarts, and Goldberg says for every cup of soup sold he donates a cup to local homeless shelters (shades of the old stone soup folktale here). The space is inviting, brick walls covered with local artists’ work and tabletops festooned with miniature Chevy and Caddy hoods and fenders.
Customers fill Karma Juice Bar & Eatery in St. Petersburg at lunch. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES (2015)]
209 First St. NE, St. Petersburg.| 727-433-4984
In lurid greens, reds and oranges, Tampa Bay is swimming in ambitious cold-pressed juice bars (and their solid corollary, acai bowls). This one was opened by Josie Barber in 2015, with a clean aesthetic, lots of white subway tile and heaps of fruit and veg ready for high-tech juicers to get squishing. Service can be pokey and, as with most real juice bars, juices ($8 to $10) and smoothies ($7 to $14) can set you back a bit. My favorite is the Rocket Power, all razzle-dazzle but balanced with pineapple, green apple and lime giving fruity tartness and cucumber and spinach adding grassiness and earthy depth. And I’ve been trying to copy their avocado toast at home: crunchy whole wheat piled with nutty avocado, a big squeeze of lemon, swirl of olive oil, cracked black pepper and a sizzle of red pepper flakes. The Brainiac is their best acai bowl, but I must admit one thing: the way chia seeds gel in your teeth (they can absorb nine times their own weight in water) creeps me out and makes me hum the Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia jingle
Urban Juice’s 50 Shades of Green has kale, spinach, romaine, cuke, apple, lemon, ginger, mint, maybe some light bondage. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Todd Lax and Kevin Kenny’s downtown spot has the coolest vibe of any juice bar around, reading more like a funky club with its pool table, tufted banquettes and dramatic multi-cord light fixture, plus a solid beer list and an array of sake-based cocktails. I’ve not been a fan of what they call “farm-to-table bowls” because the price seems too steep for the rice, quinoa, veggies, etc. that you get, but their bottled juices — divided into the categories green, root, citrus, fruit and berry, and alterna-milks — are well-conceived and fairly priced at $8.95. (Seriously, it takes a lot of kale and spinach to yield 14 ounces of juice.) The 50 Shades of Green is killer (and I hated the book): kale, spinach, romaine, cuke, apple, lemon, ginger, mint, maybe some light bondage. And root vegetable options are satisfying, but no white T-shirts.
Kelly Lessem mixes a fresh batch of juice at Squeeze Juice Works. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2013)]
675 30th Ave. N, St. Petersburg.| 727-821-1095
| 226 S Boulevard, Tampa.| 813-402-2837 | squeezejuiceworks.com
Opened in 2013 back when we were still skittish about liquid kale and a “cleanse” meant something you did in the shower, Squeeze has emerged as a local juice heavyweight, with an original location in St. Petersburg and a second in South Tampa, both conveniently located near yoga studios (but no way are all the yoga-panted women in Squeeze fresh from class). Kelly Lessem and partners Amy Losoya, Mike Indrigo and Shawn Indrigo have grown the business by making small batches of glass-bottled 16-ounce juices, shots, a small food menu and three varieties of cleanses. A single day of the classic cleanse is five 16-ounce bottles of “living juice” tailored to your preferences and goals , but there’s no reason you can’t ease in with a delicious bottle of Wat (coconut water, cucumber, spinach, cilantro, lemongrass and lime) for $8.99. Kids have bought into the juicing craze and can be seen whittling their college funds and slugging back 8-ounce Lil’ Chuggers, even the kale ones.
The curried coconut whole wings are glossed with red curry coconut and served with a side of cucumber mint yogurt. [Times file (2013)]
Xuan “Sing” Hurt and team seem always to be in motion, always with a next project on the horizon. Last year it was expanding into the defunct Five Guys space next door, and in 2017 it will be a new concept in the Hall on Franklin, a chef-driven food hall expected to open in the fall in the historic Farris Building at 1701 N Franklin St. Hurt’s flagship Anise Global Gastrobar is still one of the prettiest restaurants in Tampa, with a great cocktail list and a roundup of affordable Asian-fusion noshes. The curried coconut wings remain one of my favorite dishes: three whole wings (meaning the drum and the flat are still attached, pterodactyl-style) glossed with a red curry coconut and served with a side of cucumber mint yogurt ($8.50). If you are temperamentally lazy, you can have the same set up, boneless, in one of the house Stinky Bunz ($4), but either way you need to pair it with an order of the truffled tater tots with lemon creme fraiche ($6.50), guilt-free if you’ve just come from Sunday yoga in Curtis Hixon Park across the street.
Hampton Station’s wings ($8.99 for eight) are extra crispy with lots of flavor options. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Order-at-the-bar pizza, wings and craft beer in an old 1960s gas station with indoor-outdoor seating and assigned superhero action figures so your food can find you. Sounds suitably Seminole Heights, eh? An alum of the Independent, Tigi Tailor opened this casual spot in 2015. There are a couple of TVs (one for sports, one for classic movies), great B-movie posters, a soundtrack of old-school hip-hop and R&B, and frequently a retinue of well-behaved dogs on the patio caucusing about either pizza crusts and/or world domination. The pizza is a little puffy for my tastes, but the wings ($8.99 for eight) are fab, extra crispy with lots of flavor options, from garlic Parmesan to Thai peanut and mango habanero. They come hot, juicy and no-frills in a waxed paper-lined basket with either blue cheese or ranch and a passel of bendy celery sticks, perfect with something from the far-reaching beer list ($5 drafts, $4 on happy hour until 6 p.m.).
Better Byrd’s wings, roasted or fried, stand out at the chicken-and-doughnuts spot. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
The Ciccio Restaurant Group is a titan in the affordable food arena. In 2016, everyone in St. Pete waited (and waited) breathlessly for Fresh Kitchen and Daily Eats to open on Fourth Street. Fresh Kitchen was such a monster hit, it seems, that the city didn’t think there was adequate parking for an adjacent Daily Eats. So Better Byrd was substituted. No hardship there. In many ways it represents a departure for a group that has built its brand largely on health-forward menu trends (they were early to jump on low-carb, customizable bowls and gentle ways to make us step away from the fries). It’s an attractive quick-serve concept, with a second Tampa location being scouted, at the core of which is fried or roasted chicken and doughnuts. Be still my arteries, although it somehow still registers as wholesome, with hormone- and antibiotic-free chickens and eggs and lots of clean-tasting veggies like brussels sprouts and grains like quinoa. The bowls are a reprisal of what they’ve done elsewhere, but the wings, roasted or fried, stand out (three for $4, six for $7). Try the green Buffalo or queso Sriracha sauces.
Among Trip’s Diner’s popular menu items is the meatloaf. [Trip's Diner]
2339 Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg.| 727-498-8980
| 10555 Park Blvd., Seminole.| 727-623-0907 | tripsdiner.com
Gordon Stevenson hit it just right. In 2012, he took over the space vacated by beloved but crusty diner Dave’s, kitted it out with wonderful Burgert Brothers black-and-white historic photos of St. Petersburg and opened a classic nostalgic diner called Trip’s (named for his triplets John, Will and Libby). It immediately took, bed-headed folks rolling out on the weekend for sturdy, egg-centric breakfast fare, sassy waitresses and bottomless coffee. He followed up with a second location in Seminole in 2014, and soon opens a third in a former bar and liquor store in Seminole Heights. These are cozy-booth, jukebox, breakfast-all-day kinds of places, where meatloaf and cheese grits are in order and eggs Benedict will only set you back $7.59. Pancakes, which Trip’s call hubcakes because of their hubcap-like size, have been more effective than Lunesta in clinical trials.
Joe’s New York Diner featrures an all-day breakfast menu and fat-stacked sandwiches. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
11701 N Florida Ave., Tampa.| 813-933-2952
I was going to include “24 hours” as a category, but the competition was so wan that I punted. Tampa Bay residents, evidently, don’t require hash browns and over-easies at 4 a.m. Yet this newcomer, an old-school 1950s-style diner that seems too well worn to have opened in October, features breakfast all hours of the day. In a location that used to be Boston Grill, it possesses the kind of “what-can-I-get-you-hon” fast-talking waitresses, checkered floors and fat-stacked Reuben sandwiches that seem increasingly rare. This is the seventh diner for owner Moe Hassan (he most recently had Papa’s in Clearwater), and he’s imported a chef with 45 years of diner experience in New York. For breakfast, a passel of skillets ($9.95) seem to be the top sellers, the “kitchen sink” version true to its name with ham, sausage, bacon and a whole lot of veggies lurking in the eggs, which are set down atop seasoned home fries and accompanied by a choice of toast, muffin or biscuit.
A burned-out Porsche 911 is bolted to the wall at the second location of Banyan Cafe and Catering. [LARA CERRI | Times]
689 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg.| 727-896-6100
| 701 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.| 727-896-6600 | banyancoffee.com
In St. Petersburg, Metro Diner’s opening on Fourth Street was big news in 2016, the 13th in the chain born in Jacksonville in 1992. But in certain circles, Banyan remains the much-fetishized place to camp out over breakfast sandwiches, homey soups and buttery scones. (Times staffers have been known to gratefully thank owner Erica Allums in book acknowledgements.) There’s the original location up on M.L.K. with its cheery Fiestaware plates (I’m told if you get purple it means they don’t like you), rich Colonial coffee and fat breakfast burritos ($7.50-$8.50). But in March, Banyan launched a second location in the Morean Arts Center where Spice Routes Cafe used to be. The space is funky-artsy, with half of a Porsche 911 mounted on the wall and a 1960s-era Columbia Firebolt bicycle on another. Some might say this is a coffeehouse, but what puts both locations in diner territory is their easy conviviality and the likelihood that staff will remember what you like and/or give you a hard time.
Ohana Cafe’s Da Kine Bowl is filled with brown basmati rice, organic black beans, a scrambled egg with cilantro and a homemade lomi lomi. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
1452 Main St., Dunedin. 727-314-4277| theohanacafe.com
So many brunch stalwarts deserve praise (Datz, Ella’s, Pinky’s, plus the swanky buffets at places like Island Way Grill), but Dunedin, a brunch town, demands its due. It boasts about a dozen places that get swamped on Sundays, and increasingly one of them is Ohana. Owner Teresa Pablo relocated from Ozona in February 2016. That boho little town seemed the perfect fit for her, with her New Age compound housing a yoga studio, holistic wellness center and doctor of metaphysics. Well, her new digs suit her ebullient, healthy, Hawaiian-inflected style, with enough room to expand the menu with the help of her kitchen crew, Colby Perrone and partner Phillipe Dominguez. Vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free-ers and paleo folks will all find solace here. I’m a big fan of her loco moco bowls, a classic Hawaiian dish popularized in the 1940s (hers is brown basmati topped with all manner of proteins and veggies under a lava flow of delicious brown gravy), which is probably why at brunch I was smitten by the Da Kine bowl ($9.99), brown rice topped with organic black beans, organic scrambled eggs, chopped tomato, avo and cilantro. If pancakes are your jam, Ohana makes a terrific macadamia nut sauce
The temple’s Sunday market offers include Mango sticky rice, which is creamy, salty, sweet and tart at once. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Visiting this place is my second favorite thing to do with out-of-towners (the first being to nonchalantly glide by gators in a kayak). Wat Mongkolratanaram is a melting pot unlike any other dining experience in the area. Hipsters and fresh-from-church families, Thai folks and non, all clutching cash and queuing up while the burnished gilding of the extravagant temple, the sun-warmed picnic tables on the bank of the Palm River and the profusion of perfect orchids make everyone feel suitably meditative. The market is open 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a fundraiser put together by parishioners and community members, with stations that command different levels of devotion. People are preternaturally patient for the brothy noodle soups and the tiny coconut custards. Me? I’ll snake in and grab a sticky rice with mango ($5) (a dish teetering on the knife edge of perfection, creamy, salty, sweet and tart at once), whichever curry is spiciest (different cooks means there is variation week to week), green papaya salad and sweet soy glazed chicken-on-a-sticken.
Noble Crust’s brunch entrees, like the chicken and waffles, come with a free mimosa. [LARA CERRI | Times (2016)]
8300 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-329-6041| noble-crust.com
This spring they’ll open a second location at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, and their partnership with Fat Beet Farm on Hillsborough Avenue should be paying delicious dividends. Many brunch items at Noble are a bit above our price point, but the loaded house Bloody Mary (bacon swizzle!) eats like a meal and entrees come with a free mimosa, so I’m counting it. There’s hardly a bad seat in the house, from the communal hightops to the broad bar seating and the 800-square-foot patio with its retractable roof, and the restaurant has an uncanny ability to hire servers who are both personable and knowledgeable. The bargain hunter may want to adopt a piecemeal approach — those lemon ricotta pancakes are stellar but steep at $13.50 — cobbling together a meal of the four-cheese grits ($4) and maple chicken sausage ($4), or the biscuits and gravy ($5) lightened up with a small apple fennel salad ($4). Still, the baby kale with the soft-cooked egg ($8.50 for half) is one of the best salads going right now.
This is a category that once didn’t exist. Driven by consumers’ increasing desire for good, wholesome and portable food that can be consumed while Netflix bingeing, a number of restaurateurs have added grab-and-go cases or launched new to-go concepts entirely.
BT to Go’s Back Street Banh Mi is a baguette filled with pork terrine, cucumber, pickled radish, carrot, shallots, cilantro, onions and soy sauce aioli. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times (2015)]
BT Nguyen opened her seventh and eighth restaurants last year, both offshoots of her flagship upscale Restaurant BT. BT to Go, at the northern end of Bayshore Plaza, is a boon to busy South Tampa families. And nearby Bistro BT is a lovely little casual French-Vietnamese bistro for when you don’t feel like the full splurge that is Restaurant BT. That said, some of the fancy restaurant’s most beloved dishes are right there on the brief one-page menu at to Go: chili chicken salad ($7.95 small, $11.95 large), vegetarian pumpkin soup with coconut milk and peanuts ($8.95 per pint). The bulk of the menu is available pre-prepared, stacked up in a shiny refrigerator case in black-and-clear plastic containers with white labels, most of the portions very ample for one person’s dinner and many of the ingredients organic, sustainably raised and locally sourced.
Fresh Kitchen’s customizable meals-in-a-bowl are $9.95 with two bases, two veggies and two proteins. [Times file (2014)]
1350 S Howard Ave., Tampa.| 813-280-0515
| 4447 Fourth St. N, No. 2, St. Petersburg.| 727-835-8991 | eatfreshkitchen.com
I run early in the morning, returning from Bayshore Boulevard along S Howard Avenue and past Fresh Kitchen, which seems always, gloriously, to be grilling a mountain of their steak or citrus chicken in preparation for the lunchtime hordes. I think I run faster. The Ciccio Restaurant Group has had a big hit with this one, building on its growing repertoire for healthy, customizable meals-in-a-bowl. Called FK for short (pronunciations vary), the Tampa location started with preset “chef’s specials,” but now, with a second location in St. Pete, focuses mostly on a wholly point-and-choose strategy. There are warm bases (brown rice) and cold bases (kale, sweet potato noodles), veggies (roasted brussels or cauliflower), proteins (baked almond chicken, chia seed teriyaki tofu), sauces (creamy white ginger, coconut sriracha) and add-ons. Have at it. Two bases, two veggies and two proteins are $9.95, but if you add in one of the impossibly delicious cold-pressed juices, you just busted the bank big time. Parking at either location may make you say FK in a certain way.
Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu is the only spot in this area to house-make seven kinds of pressed tofu, including this chili lemongrass tofu. [Times file (2016)]
This was my favorite opening of 2016. I went right when it debuted to learn from co-owner Thomas Mang and tofu impresario Michael Nguyen just how it’s done. And it’s not easy. Nowhere else in our area makes its own tofu. In this case, they make seven kinds of pressed tofu as well as a che dau hu, a soft soybean custard with ginger honey syrup. This ambitious newcomer is part attractive sit-down restaurant, part grab-and-go of traditional Vietnamese ingredients (sua dau nanh, a fresh soy milk; cha bo and cha lua, the Vietnamese patelike sausages you find in banh mi sandwiches) and part order-at-the-counter boba teas, milk slushes and novelty drinks with pearl jellies at the bottom. Word to the wise: If you’re having a party and you want to put out a spread that gets the neighbors twitterpated, Thinh An will hook you up with Vietnamese sausage-filled pastries called banh pate so, steamed minced pork rice dumplings, summer rolls with peanut sauce and (this is imperative) fried lemongrass tofu cubes, pretty much everything under $10.
Maggie Loflin’s food truck showcases a healthy spin on Greek, Moroccan and Spanish dishes. [SCOTT KEELER | Times (2013)]
Maggie Loflin is one of the elder statesmen of Tampa Bay food trucks. She was there in 2011 when we were still head-scratching because all we knew was 1980s-style roach coaches, there when food trucks exploded and every street fair and bar mitzvah featured some comestibles on wheels, and still there when the mania simmered down and Craigslist began filling back up with slightly used mobile eateries. Starting as a regular at St. Pete’s Saturday Morning Market, she’s participated in the world’s largest rallies and she seems invested in helping fledging food truckers get established and in pushing St. Pete officials to loosen restrictions on mobile vendors. Her truck showcases healthy spins on Greek, Moroccan and Spanish dishes, with a much-prized Greek salad, Mediterranean deviled eggs and hand-ground gyro, of which the best item may be the crabby gyro (recently spotted for $12).
Twisted Iron food truck’s specialty is “waffle sandwich food” like a waffle burger, Philly cheesesteak waffle or French onion grilled cheese. [Courtesy of Twisted Iron]
With a second truck called the Twisted Indian (Indian fusion), the Iron sets up shop at 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays at Coppertail Brewing Co. in Ybor. Otherwise, follow at facebook.com/thetwistediron.
It’s impossible to discuss Tampa Bay food truck culture without talking about Rene Valenzuela and his ever-expanding Taco Bus empire. He’s been featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on Food Network and Adam Richman’s Man v. Food on the Travel Channel, and has routinely made the nation’s lists of top food trucks. Giving credit where it is due, there are other trucks that also merit love. I’ve been a fan of Renny’s Oki Doki, but alas he’s just sold his truck. Twisted Iron has come on strong since its debut in 2014, with its array of “waffle sandwich food.” There are the obvious crowd pleasers (Nutella and banana waffle), but they think outside of breakfast with a barbecue bacon cheeseburger waffle burger, Philly cheesesteak waffle or French onion grilled cheese (most around $11). It’s shock-and-awe food, more state fair than brick-and-mortar restaurant, but get this: Owners Elaine Thompson and Lokesh Vale graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. That’s serious credentials.
Lines tend to be long at Michelle Faedo’s on the Go food truck. Menu includes empanadas, pictured, devil crab, meat-stuffed potatoes, and Cuban sandwiches.
Michelle and her husband, Robert, started a store on 15th Street in Ybor City in 2003, building a following for their devil crab and Cuban sandwiches. In 2011, they closed (in fact, Taco Bus’ Valenzuela bought their space as a warehouse facility) and took their show on the road — but not before the New York Times swanned in and extolled the virtues of their devil crab. The truck offers a couple styles of Cubans (for which Michelle has won major competitions), pressed aggressively and given a little gloss of herb butter, and there’s a smaller version called the Cubanito that may be the best deal at $5.50. No one is walking away hungry with the rib-sticking meat-stuffed potatoes, empanadas and, yes, devil crab. Lines can be long and the truck moves around quite a bit, zipping from Brandon, then over to Gaslight Park, then up to New Tampa.
Eddie & Sam's owner Mike Sarmat slices a pie during the lunch hour. [Times (2010)]
203 E Twiggs St., Tampa.| 813-229-8500
I heard Clemson and Alabama fans ate Eddie & Sam’s clean out of ’za during the college football championships. You might say that this isn’t only New York-style pizza, it’s New York pizza. They’re importing New York City flour, yeast, sauce and cheese. And every couple of months, a truck pulls up to the corner of Tampa and Twiggs streets and unloads more than 1,000 gallons of New York water. (Technical point: It’s Catskills water, but that’s where NYC gets it from.) This is our tops for by-the-slice (roughly $3), the kind you fold in half longitudinally while watching for the creeping orange grease that may run elbow-ward. Thin, pliable crust but with the right chewy tooth-resistance, precooked pies are lined up in the window. Pick the one that’s emerged from the oven’s maw most recently (slices can be topped with extra accoutrements and stuck back in). An expansion a few years back added a little polish, but this is still ideally to-go. Oh, and there’s a real Eddie, but the Sam in question is as in Uncle, who pockets some of the profits.
Chef Greg Seymour of Pizzeria Gregario makes a point of using local ingredients, but the pizza isn’t intimidatingly fancy. [JIM DAMASKE | Times (2015)]
400 Second St. N, Safety Harbor. 727-386-4107| pizzeriagregario.com
What Greg Seymour is doing bears no resemblance to Domino’s mad scientist abominations. He texts me pictures of bags of artisanal small-batch flour with the mill date and farm name on the bags (he’s trying to avoid the herbicide glyphosate). He makes field trips to the farmer growing his produce, collaborates with other farmers in the growth and care of the pigs he buys, and makes his own mozzarella with local curds. He’s a pizza zealot, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything overly fancy or rarefied about his little Safety Harbor spot. No reservations, order at the counter, local craft beer and a handful of California wines (but no soda; it doesn’t pass muster for Seymour), and 12-inch pies with perfect blistery sourdough crusts. Most hover around $17, not cheap but easily split between two people and a steal given that Seymour is a pizza pro. He manned the oven at Tra Vigne’s pizza place next door to the fabled flagship restaurant in St. Helena, Calif.
Lee’s Grocery’s pizza is thin, but not cracker-thin, with a fatly puffed crust. They range from $8 to about $20. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Named for a Tampa Heights grocery store that began operating here in 1884 (one that in the 1990s developed an unfortunate reputation as a magnet for drug-users and nefarious loiterers), Lee’s has built its reputation on the breadth of its craft beer case and taps, as well as its easy-going neighborhood feel. Decor leans heavily on album covers and music posters from the 1980s, and the pizza names follow suit: The Don’t Stand So Close to Me is a ricotta base with moz, artichoke, black olive, mushroom, red onion and garlic (these last two may explain the Police’s admonition), and the Message is Lee’s version of a margherita, somehow with the benediction of Grandmaster Flash. Thin, but not cracker-thin, with a fatly puffed cornicione (the poofy rim around the edge), pizzas range from $8 to about $20 and the outdoor patio is especially convivial for kids and canines.
Two years ago, many of us didn’t know how to pronounce “charcuterie,” and wooden cutting boards stayed mostly in the kitchen. These days, cheese and charcuterie boards are so common that some restaurants are phasing them back out (alas, Rooster & the Till) so as to not seem trendy. These dishes, while pricey, are meant to be shared.
The Farm is practically in its own ZIP code, with a variety of cheeses, meats, pates and mousses.[LARA CERRI | Times]
1501 W Swann Ave., Tampa. 813-251-0110| onswann.com
On Swann, a dynamic collaboration between Cafe Ponte’s Chris Ponte; his wife Michelle Ponte; former Outback Steakhouse execs Trudy Cooper and Chris Arreola; and former Bonefish Grill president John Cooper that opened in June 2016, fired on all cylinders from Day 1. Decor is eclectic and charming, servers could be described the same way, and the sprawling New American menu speaks to current preoccupations without ever spooking the horses. They offer a quartet of boards, including cheese-only; one of housemade pates, rillettes and mousses; another with a selection of cured meats; and the final, the Mac Daddy called the Farm, which includes a selection of all of the above with a rococo array of accouterments (I dare you not to Instagram the purple pickled cauliflower). Sharable boards run a substantial $18 to $32, although the Farm practically has its own ZIP code.
Haven’s glass cheese cellar, visible from the dining room, stores more than a hundred cheeses. [MONICA HERNDON | TIMES]
When I was younger and dumber I covered the Napa, Sonoma and Monterey wine auctions and always vowed “to taste everything!” The worst, though, was a similar commitment to methodically work my way through every offering at an American farmstead cheese competition. Sweaty and shaking, I was swiftly thrown into a kind of dissociative fugue by this superabundance of goat, sheep and cow’s milk fromages. I have to remind myself of this every time I go to Haven, which has hands down Tampa Bay’s most ambitious cheese program. The apogee is the 18-cheese Cheese Monger Plate, all perfectly ripe and identified with little tags, but it’s $47. It’s easily enough cheese for four or more people, but still. The bargain hunter will head over between 5 and 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday for happy hour, during which there are $6 bar bites (one is usually a trio of cheeses, another charcuterie, both housemade and imported), $5 glasses of wine, $4 cocktails (many drawing from the restaurant’s encyclopedic collection of bourbons and ryes), $5 beers and $2 raw oysters.
With the Annata Wine Bar’s charcuterie plate, you can pick three, five or seven different meats and cheeses to be plated with an assortment of nuts, fruits and olives. [Times file (2014)]
300 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. 727-851-9582| annatawine.com
Mazzaro’s has been our go-to for retail cheese and charcuterie for ages (although Locale Market has made incursions and Whole Foods has really stepped up its cheese game recently). So when Mazzaro’s Mary and Kurt Cuccaro opened Annata in 2014, it was a foregone conclusion that it would stand alone as a big cheese (how’s that for butchering two idioms at once?). Other restaurants swiftly followed suit, and Annata’s prices have inched up slightly (pick three for $14, five for $20, seven for $27), but it remains a shining example of how to prettily array speck, bresaola and nduja with cheeses — there’s always something splintery and crystalline, something oozingly gooey, something firm and sliceable — along with sophisticated fillips like good olives, cornichons, marcona almonds and a slab of quince paste. The crumbly Grana Padano Riserva and silky/fudgy Délice de Bourgogne have been stalwarts on the list but the rest rotates (right now head for the cakey Catalan Garrotxa, a cheese back from near extinction).
On the Hotel Bar’s menu is lamb tenderloin tartare with black mustard seed, artisan rye crostini and coriander aioli. [LARA CERRI | Times]
What a cheaty category. My original intent was to round up the best gastropubs, which of course prompts the question of what that means. I see it as someplace that’s foremost a drinking establishment but that offers refined or ambitious food. Leslie Shirah, longtime owner of Fly Bar and co-owner with Mark Culbreath of the brand new Hotel Bar, insisted this concept was the opposite of a gastropub. Not in a hotel, it’s modeled after classic hotel bars, with Fly Bar mixologist extraordinaire Daniel Guess recreating signature cocktails from hotels around the world, some dating back to the 1890s. With a pressed tin ceiling, lusciously lit booze library (complete with movable library ladder), marble-top bar and antique-looking crystal chandelier, this is currently one of the coolest hangouts in Tampa, one that serves a full menu of very sophisticated fare until 2 a.m. Along with your Sazerac or Vieux Carré, you can have a bread plate of one of the greatest sourdoughs in our area (courtesy of Jamison B. Breadhouse Bakes in Ybor City; $5) or a salad of local arugula and shaves of manchego with strawberries and black pepper candied walnuts ($10). For a bit more, there’s the sensuous lamb tenderloin tartare with black mustard seed, a little pool of coriander aioli and crisp rye toasts ($15).
Little Lamb Gastropub, a tiny 38-seat eatery, has a one-page lunch or dinner menu, including chicken wings. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
James Renew opened this edgy newcomer in December in an unlikely strip mall, having returned stateside after a stint in Sydney, Australia. It’s got a no-frills charm, with just 38 seats if you count the long concrete bar, a rough-hewn idiom that would signal hipster hangout in most of the country’s urban centers. There’s a one-page lunch menu and equally brief dinner menu, the latter divided into “small plates,” “pub grub,” “salads” and “mains,” many dishes playing to our more sybaritic impulses. How about a paper cone of chicharones ($5), salty, super crispy and airy, served with spicy mayo; or a very solid spin on poutine ($9), the sturdy fries standing up to the avalanche of bouncy cheese curds, gravy and flurry of chives? What makes this little lamb bleet (couldn’t help it) the competition is a secret weapon: pastry chef Kyrie Rotolo. Her desserts ($6 to $7) have a sophisticated understanding of balance: salty meets sweet, creamy sidles up against crunchy.
Red Door Wine Market’s Breakfast for Dinner has a waffle, fried egg, pork belly and crunchy apple-kale slaw for $12. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
It’s a weird time to recommend this place because it’s in the midst of a major porch renovation project that has been fairly disruptive, sometimes resulting in flustered service or the restaurant running out of something. This too shall pass. Owner Richard DeAngelis has a hip sensibility and deep wine knowledge, offering live music some nights and a vibe like a California wine tasting room. It seems way before its time for Lakeland, opened in 2009 in the Lake Morton Historic District, with a menu that reads like big-city gastropub anchors. Poutine with chicken gravy and cheese curds ($9) can be augmented with all manner of decadence, from pork belly to deep fried brussels sprouts (which themselves are offered as a come-hither assemblage with horseradish aioli, pork bits and candied pecans for $9). Chef Jason Boniface will straight-up serve you Breakfast for Dinner (waffle, fried egg, pork belly and crunchy apple-kale slaw for $12) and offers a deep disincentive to cook at home: A “hoodie dinner” to go, Tuesday to Thursday, includes salad, entree, dessert and a bottle of wine for two for $34.99.
Kim Yelvington places finishing decorations on a dessert in her shop, Chocolate Pi. [Times file (2005)]
1205 S Howard Ave., Tampa. 813-831-2195| sweetchocolatepi.com
Kim Yelvington has had a long run in Tampa. She had a stunning cake and pastry shop called Chocolate Pi in South Tampa long before there was a critical mass of “foodie” destinations. She took over as the dessert impresario at Bern’s Steak House and more recently with her daughter Jade reintroduced her Chocolate Pi shop in the Epicurean Hotel. Next up she debuts a second shop in the Heights Public Market, a 43-acre redevelopment project around the historic Armature Works building that will also include outposts of Ava, Ichicoro Ramen and other Tampa notables. Although parking can be rough (there are some designated self-park spots, but otherwise it’s $5 valet), the shop at the Epicurean is a charmer, with a range of sophisticated macarons, bonbons and marshmallows; layer cakes, mousse cakes and cupcakes; ice creams and coffee drinks (sweets $2-$10). Fancy boxes secured with festive tapes make any Chocolate Pi package feel like an elegant hostess gift, and Yelvington’s custom birthday and wedding cakes would prompt cold sweat in any Cake Wars contestant.
Sprinkles Cupcakes are $3.75 inside, but the real draw is an ATM dispenser where they’re $4.55. [SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2016)]
I’m going to call it: 2016 was the year the cupcake died. Or at least got a nasty, rattly cough. Of the dozen or so cupcake shops I’ve written about in the past few years, Enjoi Sweets, Frostings, Patti-Kakes and Glorified Cupcakes have closed their brick-and-mortar shops, while others have changed hands, broadened their concepts or dropped locations. But we are not out of love with snowy buttercream and pink icing rosettes entirely. Sprinkles opened last April in the newly reinvigorated Hyde Park Village, its girly pink interior and playful polka-dot wall art (complete with essential truths like “a party without cupcakes is just a meeting”) drawing legions of South Tampa sweets seekers. But something was missing. Its signature cupcake ATM arrived in November and immediately took off, folks willing to pony up the 75-cent premium to receive their treat from the wall a la the Horn & Hardart’s automat craze of the 1940s (ATM cupcakes are $4.55, inside they are $3.75). Best flavors? Banana peanut butter and chai.
(Swah-rey)’s mini cakes are only $1, but for 50 cents to $3 more, you can take it upscale with what they call a “hook up,” where the mini hovers at the lip of the shot glass of your beverage choice (beer, wine, milk or espresso). [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
2105 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-767-0523| swah-rey.com
It’s like the French word soirée, only more designed to give Times editors fits. Leslie-Ann and Gregg Ciccone opened this dessert bar at the end of 2015. New to St. Pete, they fairly swiftly showed themselves to be strong community partners, sponsoring charity fundraisers and local events (Chelsea Clinton spoke from here on behalf of her mom) and equipping their shop with modern essentials like free Wi-Fi, USB ports and plugs, and “pupcakes” for the dogs, who are resoundingly welcome. Two-bite mini cakes are only $1, but then for 50 cents to $3 more, you can take it upscale with what they call a “hook up,” where the mini hovers at the lip of the shot glass of your beverage choice (they offer draft beers, wines, teas and intensely good Kahwa coffees made on a very fancy-looking espresso machine). Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land with the minis, you can throttle up with a full-sized dessert, paying special attention to the coconut cake, carrot and red velvet.
Buddy Brew, the original roastery and coffee bar on Kennedy, styles a pretty cappuccino and taught us the glories of a great pour-over. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
2020 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.| 813-258-2739
| 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.| 813-253-0222 | buddybrew.com
What a run we’ve had with micro-roasters and gonzo coffee artisans the past couple years. Much the way microbreweries are often hobbyists turned pro, people go bananas over the beans, start to roast and tinker at home, then set their sights on sharing a passion with us hoi polloi. There’s Patriot in Lakeland; the Blind Tiger, Zeal, Birds of a Feather, Commune + Co. and King State in Tampa; BGG in Port Richey and I could keep going. But on the Tampa side of the bay, these guys were the granddaddy. David and Susan Ward have continued their caffeinated world takeover apace. From their original roastery and coffee bar on Kennedy, they opened a glamorous outpost in the Oxford Exchange, launched a mobile unit, another location in Sarasota and one in Hyde Park Village, with a healthy wholesale business and other projects on the horizon (Tampa International Airport, etc.). They taught us the glories of a great pour-over ($4.82) and have improved postprandial options in loads of local restaurants. Also, love their avocado toast ($7.76).
Kahwa focuses on blends rather than single-origin coffees.
204 Second Ave. S, St. Petersburg.| 727-821-1942
| For other locations, see website.| kahwacoffee.com
And on the Pinellas side, Kahwa is the 900-pound gorilla. It began as a wholesaler in 2006, quickly adding enough high-profile accounts that the owners embarked on retail ventures. The Kahwa focus is on blends rather than single-origin coffees, with a new Belleair Bluffs outpost (its 10th) joining those in St. Petersburg (a downtown north, south and a drive-through), Bradenton, Sarasota and Tampa. They have a knockout medium dark roast drip coffee blend called Sirocco ($13.99 for 12 ounces of ground coffee), and in 2016 they added 32-ounce take-home cold-brew growlers to their lineup and partnered with HSN to sell their products nationally. Diehard Kahwa junkies tout the 50-cent refills (for in-house orders only) and swear by using the app for easy, swift payment, plus you get $3 off your first beverage and every purchase builds toward future discounts. During warm-weather months, the lavender vanilla latte is pure luxury.
TeBella Tea Co. is the go-to local tea spot, specializing in fair trade and organic loose leaf teas and accessories. [LARA CERRI | Times]
227 Davis Blvd. E, Tampa.| 813-254-1212
| For other locations serving TeBella tea, see website.| tebellatea.com
While macro- and micro-coffee roasters have proliferated in the past couple years, Abigail St. Clair’s TeBella stands as the lodestar for fledgling tea shops in Florida. It started in 2010 as a small but edgy shop on Davis Islands specializing in fair trade and organic loose leaf teas and accessories, going on to add a cool tea counter inside Oxford Exchange (where they offer afternoon tea 3 to 5 p.m. Friday-Sunday, $18-$22 a person), another outpost at Station House in St. Petersburg and booths at a number of the area’s outdoor markets. What distinguishes St. Clair, beyond the outrageously good bourbon breakfast tea ($3.50 per ounce, $4.01 per cup), is her clear commitment to collaborating with other local businesses. Mixologists have incorporated TeBella teas in edgy cocktails, craft breweries like 7venth Sun have infused brews with TeBella teas and you’ll find her products on offer from Kahwa to Locale Market to the Hyppo ice pops shops (a new one just debuted in Hyde Park Village). Next up, a tea bar inside the Cafe at Mise en Place inside Tampa International Airport later this year.
Kaleisia Tea Lounge, which has been around since 2005, is a popular hangout among USF students.
Feel like seeing University of South Florida students in their natural habitat? It’s here among the 100 types of tea, the free Wi-Fi like a soothing balm. They sprawl on couches, studying or not (there are board games if Candy Crush has lost its allure), contemplating whether a dirty chai or chia seed boba will power them more effectively to glory. Its name a combination of kaleidoscope and Asia, it’s been here since 2005 with a changing array of local artists’ work on the walls and a serene no-shoes, paper-walled Japanese tea room open to the public and available for tea workshops or parties. The allures of the vegan chocolate matcha cupcakes elude me, but it’s a hoot to pick a loose tea from the wall and have them brew it for you ($2.75 hot) and the preset trays of vegan dishes ($12) are wholesome and increasingly appealing.