Welcome to Tampa: A Newcomer’s Eating Tour

This Gulf of Mexico city is currently undergoing a major gastronomic renewal. Here are 10 top spots that local food experts suggest visiting first. 

Welcome to Tampa

While not quite as well-known as Orlando or Miami, Tampa makes up one-third of Florida’s Bay Area, alongside Clearwater and St. Petersburg. This Gulf of Mexico city is currently undergoing a major gastronomic renewal. Where once there were only chain restaurants to choose from, there are now independently owned gems sourcing local produce and food trucks keeping traditional Florida cooking alive. Tampa is now even home to a culinary-focused hotel, The Epicurean, where guests can enjoy wine tastings and gourmet meals as well as chocolate spa pedicures. To help craft the ultimate newcomer's dining tour, we reached out to local food experts Jeff Houck, food writer for the Tampa Tribune; Dorangela Mazzone Bobet, creator of Two Prince Bakery Theater; and Jeff Gigante, owner of Ciccio Restaurant Group. Here are the places they suggest visiting first. 

 

By Delia Paunescu

Taco Bus

913 E. Hillsborough Ave.

Before food trucks became the rage, Taco Bus was serving authentic northern Mexican fare from its school-bus kitchen parked behind a small dining room on Hillsborough Avenue. It’s now up to five different locations, all popular with vegetarians and vegans, but the original bus stays true to its humble roots. 

Taco Bus

Carne desebrada and cochinita pibil tacos, butternut squash tostadas, octopus and shrimp ceviche, and housemade agua frescas are always on order, while the dulce de leche cake is something you’ll enjoy taking home for later.

Edison Food + Drink Lab

912 W. Kennedy Blvd.

Chef Jeannie Pierola’s imagination runs wild here, producing a menu that merges science with comfort food. 

Edison Food + Drink Lab

“Experiments like cracker-fried red snapper with smoked cheddar grits, sugar snap tomato bacon salsa and chipotle shrimp nage will patch a hole in your soul you didn’t even know needed filling,” Houck advises. The barbecue tuna with salt-and-vinegar potato salad and ramp charcoal will leave you with a similar feeling. 

The Refinery

5137 N. Florida Ave.

Chef Greg Baker and wife Michelle led the newest wave of locavore eating in Tampa, and became James Beard semifinalists in the process. Their Seminole Heights restaurant boasts an eclectic menu that changes weekly and is based on seasonal ingredients. 

The Refinery

Jeff Houck says, “Their Sunday brunch — including the South of French Toast, made with lavender-sweet onion cornbread French toast, maple syrup and chipotle-honey butter — is a hangover’s dream remedy.” Even better, they have a second restaurant, Fodder & Shine, coming in late 2014 that’ll focus on indigenous Florida foods and recipes.

Buddy Brew

2020 W. Kennedy Blvd.   

Started as an independent operation in owners Dave and Susan Ward’s garage, Buddy Brew has grown into a wholesale business that currently outfits 75 different establishments with their expertly roasted coffees. 

Buddy Brew

To see it all in action, head to their coffee shop headquarters on Kennedy Boulevard where a perfect latte (or cappuccino or cortado) goes quite nicely with beautifully poached eggs on toast. 

Datz

2616 S. MacDill Ave.

Houck describes this South Tampa favorite as “if Willy Wonka had a restaurant.” 

Datz

Among the fanciful down-home menu items, you’ll find chicken-skin tacos, bacon and jalapeno mac & cheese with Sriracha aioli, and short-rib sloppy joes. There are also great cocktails (a bacon Bloody Mary you won’t soon forget) and an extensive beer selection to really make the two-story restaurant worth your while. Even better, there’s Dough, a sister bakery next door, where you can find Froot Loop doughnuts, housemade gelato and French macarons. 

Oxford Exchange

420 W. Kennedy Blvd.

One of Tampa’s main draws has always been the historic Plant Hotel, which lines the Hillsborough River. As of 2012, the University of Tampa’s glimmering minarets now share that spotlight with Oxford Exchange, a mash-up of a high-end restaurant, coffee shop, tea lounge, bookshop, housewares store and meeting space, which took over the hotel’s former horse barn. “It has to be seen to be understood, but it has taken Tampa by storm,” Houck assures. 

Oxford Exchange

Come here for lunch favorites like the chicken burger, hummus plate and fried Brussels sprouts. There’s also an organic juice bar in-house, and the whole place serves Buddy Brew coffee.

West Tampa Sandwich Shop 

3904 N. Armenia Ave.

For a truly great Cuban sandwich, head deep into the heart of Tampa’s Hispanic community to this cozy sandwich shop. It’s a favorite with visiting politicians and locals alike, who come for garbanzo bean soup, cafe con leche and an eyeful of the neighborhood residents. 

West Tampa Sandwich Shop

Once you’re sold on the Honey Cuban sandwich (named for President Obama), browse the hundreds of customer photos that fill corkboards behind the tables — they’re sure to charm you.

Bern’s Steak House

1208 S. Howard Ave.

A Tampa institution, Bern’s opened as a steak sandwich shop back in 1953. Today, the seemingly haunted mansion stands proud as a truly impressive family-owned establishment. Reservations are necessary but entirely worth it for a filet that comes with a loaded baked potato, seasonal salad, and organic sides (Bern’s even has its own farm where seasonal goodies are grown for the restaurant). 

Bern's Steak House

“The meal is consistently delicious, and the history and decor of the restaurant only enhance the experience even more. It’s my favorite steakhouse in the country!” Bobet says. Be sure to stop at the Harry Waugh Dessert Room upstairs for a sweet experience you won’t soon forget from executive pastry chef Kim Yelvington.

Daily Eats Diner

901 S. Howard Ave. 

Part of the Ciccio Restaurant Group’s South Tampa block, Daily Eats is among the more casual of the bunch. Owner Jeff Gigante calls it “where comfort meets nutrition trends for all-day cheap dates.” Bobet has a similar idea: “It’s great food with a mix of trendy-yet-nostalgic diner feel,” she said. The place is popular (read: crowded) for breakfast most days, and especially so at brunch on the weekends. 

Daily Eats Diner

The great news is that they serve eggs all day. Lunch and dinner are perfect to grab anything from grilled cheese, or a turkey burger crusted with potato chips, to one of their great “shredder” bowls. No meal here is complete without a stop to the in-house shake shop for a shake, especially their signature Cap'n Crunch variety. It might be the best milkshake you'll ever have. 

Cigar City Brewpub

15491 N. Dale Mabry Hwy.

While the brewery led the craft-beer revolution in Florida, establishing Tampa as a beer lover’s haven, Houck calls the Cigar City Brewpub in Carrollwood “a theme park for beer geeks, with hops, barley sacks and bottles used in the decor, and even beer barrels as chandeliers over the bar.” 

Cigar City Brewpub

Expect the food to be “pure Tampa, with one of the best Cuban sandwiches in town.” The chefs are also proud of their Cornish game hen with local pepper honey, and the pork belly with apple puree. 

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