Whether you're in Tampa for a political convention, a college championship game or a sunny vacation, there are many great restaurants. Here are five classics to get you started.
Shortly after the doors open on a weekday morning, hungry fans of Pane Rustica are lining up for croissants, muffins and coffee. The restaurant has been a local favorite for 13 years, growing into a larger space with a bakery and a bar.
Owners Karyn and Kevin Kruszewski wanted to feature bread made in an Old World style, and Pane Rustica has become a place where they see generations of family coming back for food.
Signature dishes include a sandwich with smoked turkey, sweet onion jam, tomato and aioli, and a Rustica Salad, which comes with polenta croutons. The restaurant has been Zagat-rated for 10 years, and ranked high on the Tampa Bay version this year at No. 2.
Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley said the chicken salad served in an acorn squash is fabulous, and the chocolate espresso cookies dusted in powdered sugar are amazing.
Besides the food, Reiley said, Pane Rustica is a great place for people-watching. Occasionally a mayor drops in. Tampa Bay Lightning hockey players eat here.
The Kruszewskis have added a bar to the restaurant, which Tampa Tribune food writer Jeff Houck said is one of the coolest in the area. When he eats here, he always orders the Shut Up and Eat it, a surprise chef special that's always changing.
The Refinery's logo, a pig, is not a sign for bacon or pork belly, though you will find that here. It is a symbol of a working animal, and that this is a working man's restaurant.
Small plates are $10 or less, and everything else is $20 or less, a price point that is important to the chef, especially at a restaurant that's been nominated twice for a James Beard Award. Good food for everyone.
"That's something that we really pride ourselves in," said Michelle Baker, co-owner of the restaurant and wife of the chef, Greg Baker.
Michelle said the result is a variety of customers. Twenty-somethings and septuagenarians. Professors and police officers. Surgeons and plumbers. Chef Mario Batali showed up one night to hang out.
The Refinery's menu changes every week depending on what's available from local farmers.
The Times' Reiley said the Bakers have pioneered a local food movement in Tampa. Baker takes that food and creates uncanny juxtapositions, often something fatty and rich next to a tamer vegetable.
From the bar, you'll find a variety of beers and wines, from Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys to local beers from Cigar City Brewing. The eclectic selection fits the Seminole Heights neighborhood, with its bungalow homes and independent sensibility.
Houck's favorite meal is a braised cabbage and crispy pork belly topped with a rosemary-chile nut brittle. Typically one to share, Houck kept this dish to himself.
The Columbia Restaurant, located in the Ybor City neighborhood, is an institution: the oldest restaurant in Florida, the oldest Hispanic restaurant in the country and, with 15 dining rooms, the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.
"You could go there every day for two weeks and not have the same kind of experience," Houck said.
Some waiters have been serving here for two or three decades. Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, Stephen King, George Clooney, Derek Jeter and Bruce Springsteen have eaten here.
What to order? Consider the Spanish Bean Soup, a Tampa original created more than 100 years ago. Founder Casimiro Hernandez Sr. adapted the recipe from Spain's cocido, traditionally served in two courses, but he put everything in one bowl. The soup is a flavorful broth with sausage, garbanzos and potatoes.
The Snapper Alicante is baked in a rich gravy with vegetables and wine.
The Columbia's Original "1905" Salad is tossed with lettuce, slices of baked ham, Swiss and Romano cheeses, tomato, olives and garlic dressing.
The Cuban bread is brought in from local La Segunda Bakery.
Here's a tip from Houck: Take a kitchen tour. It's not formal, but ask a waiter to take you through.
Mise en Place
Someone told Mise en Place co-owner Maryann Ferenc that what they love about this restaurant is elevated food and service in a setting that's always been inviting instead of intimidating.
Back in 1986, that was the goal. Ferenc and co-owner and chef Marty Blitz wanted an upscale dining experience without the pretentiousness. What started as a small catering business became an award-winning restaurant.
Many local chefs started here under Blitz's tutelage, Houck said. "He's sort of the godfather of Tampa cooking."
Ferenc describes the food as a reflection of the robust regional cuisine. The menu changes somewhat every week depending on what foods are locally available and what the chef comes up with. Some of her favorites include the soups, the charcuterie plate, the cheese selection and a za'atar grilled fish.
Mise's location near downtown and Westshore attracts a steady business crowd for lunch and early dinner. It is also a popular choice for birthdays, bar mitzvahs, first dates and engagements.
"We've done everything from christenings to wakes for one family. They call up and say, 'We would only think of you guys to do this,'" Ferenc said. "And that's really an honor. To be that much a part of someone's life."
Mise en Place is a restaurant that just keeps getting better and is home to one of the greatest bartenders in the city, Reiley says of Nate DeWitt, who recently served her a chocolate-habanero martini.
You'll also find a new wine bar and craft cocktails from Mise at the Tampa International Airport. Or try some of their salads, sandwiches and paninis at the Sono Cafe in the Tampa Museum of Art.
Bern's in south Tampa, open since 1956, is known for its steaks, wines and over-the-top decor.
Presidents, kings and famous athletes have dined here, an expense account kind of place where Houck can only imagine the political deals that have been brokered over gaudy steaks and wines from one of the world's best collections.
"It's the granddaddy of steak houses," Houck said. "It's not only significant in Tampa. It's significant nationally."
The steaks here are dry-aged for four to 12 weeks – an expensive process that few restaurants still commit to, said Brooke Palmer, a Bern's spokeswoman.
Most first-time visits include a kitchen and wine cellar tour.
Bern's is also known for its Harry Waugh Dessert Room, which you can visit after dinner at the steak house or visit separately. Try the sundae with macadamia nut ice cream made in house, served in an orange-scented cone with whipped cream and plenty of hot fudge.