TPAGuide

The Best Restaurants In Tampa

All the city’s essential spots for seafood platters, steaks, Cubans, and more.
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photo credit: Stephanie Muther

When it comes to big cities in Florida, Tampa is easily the most relaxed Miami is full of much less laid-back people who love to say our Cuban food is second-rate. Orlando is about 50% Disney fanatics and conference-goers at any given moment. Tampa is just chill—with the exception of that one weekend we all dress like pirates and drink way too much rum. You’ve got the beach nearby, top-notch seafood, and, yes, Cuban food that's as good as anywhere in the country (even Miami).

Whether you’re feeling more foie gras and fine wine or pimento cheese biscuits and frosted beer, this guide has a Tampa restaurant for every situation—there's a hidden speakeasy, a temple with excellent Thai food, and the oldest restaurant in Florida.


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Water Street Tampa

$$$$Perfect For:Drinking Good CocktailsOutdoor/Patio SituationDate Night
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The Pearl works for a swanky meal before a show at the nearby Amalie Arena or on a weeknight when you just want dinner to feel a little special. As the nautical decor (and mermaid mural) suggests, seafood is the star—raw or baked oysters served with cajun seasoning, Thai curry mussels floating in a coconut and sake broth, and a two-tiered shellfish tower. The egg-topped hanger steak, marinated in pineapple juice for 40 hours until it’s ultra tender and slightly sweet, is also a standout. Relax with a cocktail and a slice of brown sugar pie on the terrace facing the Water Street District downtown, where you may see hordes of rabid Lightning fans.


Hidden inside Roast, a weekday deli and bakery, is a bookcase that opens (with the right password) to this dimly-lit speakeasy. Go on a Friday night when you can snack on sweet potato cornbread dripping in hot honey, blackened salmon drenched in a guava glaze, and a not-too-sweet plantain cream pie while a two-piece band plays Charlie Parker covers. Reservations can be tough since the space is small, so if you can’t snag one for dinner, try brunch and order their mimosa tree (which is really just a fancy name for a cocktail sampler of five different bubbly drinks).


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Union is the new go-to spot in Westshore for lunch with your boss’s boss or a special occasion dinner—it’s the kind of place where you can eat sushi and steak at a table surrounded by velvet, marble, and leather. The menu is all over the place but it works, with plates like Iberico pork with shrimp fried rice, biscuits topped with ham and pimento cheese, and a really good hearth-roasted platter with lobster, king crab, clams, shrimp, and oysters. Wrap up the night with a post-dinner biscotti espresso martini or a sherry Old Fashioned on their covered rooftop lounge.


While a restaurant at the intersection of Channelside Drive and Old Water Street could never truly convince somebody they were in Paris, Boulon comes close. This cream-colored brasserie has floor-to-ceiling windows, plenty of mirrors, waiters in black vests, and a patio where you can pretend you’re in a more tropical version of the 11th arrondissement. They have a menu full of delicious French (and not-so-French) staples, like blue crab beignets, coq au vin, and a smashburger that’s doing its best upscale Big Mac impersonation with thousand island dressing and red onions. There’s also an attached boulangerie where you can grab croissants and madeleines if you need a quick morning pastry (and when don’t you?).


CUBAN SPOTS


If there’s one place you have to eat in Ybor City, Tampa’s Cuban food capitol, it’s Columbia Restaurant. The place spans a full city block and opened in 1905, making it the oldest restaurant in Florida. Inside, you’ll find Don Quixote murals, Seville tiles, and live flamenco shows, but it’s the food that really makes this place a classic. Try what may be Tampa’s earliest Cubano, or pick from chorizo-stuffed boliche and a paella loaded with scallops, pork, chicken, and calamari. Round out the meal with a pitcher of sangria and some white chocolate bread pudding made with Cuban bread from La Segunda.


The line might extend out the door when you walk up, but this tiny panadería that’s been open since 1915 is worth any wait. Their Cubano is legendary and the fried deviled crabs, rolled in the same bread crumbs, make the perfect side. For something you can’t get anywhere besides Tampa, try a square of the savory, slightly sweet, and wildly good Cuban-Silician hybrid scacciata. The eggy, bready base comes topped with basil, meat sauce, and parmesan, served at room temperature. 

Pair it all with a café con leche, then battle indecision while picking a pastry or three from the display case. The guava turnover is a classic, but there are also macaroons, cannolis, sticky buns, and fudge-coated marshmallow bon bons that are all family recipes and date back a half-century or more.


This West Tampa spot started as a grocery store in the ‘70s and now includes a small bakery, a busy dining room, and a cafeteria. Grab a spot at one of the three U-shaped counters in the cafeteria next to the regulars who've been coming here for 40 years and order some tender puerco asado or palomilla steak that comes served on top of a paper map of Florida. Entrees are huge and come with two sides plus refillable bread, and whatever you can’t finish makes for a luxe beach picnic the next day.


SPECIAL OCCASIONS


If your generationally wealthy friend from England opened a steakhouse in their parents’ old manor, it’d probably feel a lot like Bern’s. The lobby is all gilded furniture and ruby lights, and there are eight different dining rooms lined with wall-to-wall photos from the founder's travels to Bordeaux, Burgundy, and beyond. Every meat on the menu is given its own paragraph explanation, which sounds like it was written by someone who's an e-commerce copywriter by day and a steak scholar by night. The Delmonico that they dry-age for 100 days is always our go-to. 

After dinner, every table gets a tour through the kitchen and wine cellar that’s stocked with over 100,000 bottles, along with a trip to the dessert parlor upstairs. That’s where you’ll slide into your own private wine-cask cubby and try the banana cream cheese pie and a deconstructed chocolate sundae as a pianist plays anything you want.


Donatello has been around since 1984, and nobody in Tampa does old-school Italian food better. Start with the bruschetta and then get at least a couple of pastas like fettuccine tossed with bolognese or the cream-coated tortellini stuffed with sausage and ricotta. Beyond the classic red-sauce dishes, the fun atmosphere is a total time capsule and a reason to come here itself: everybody eating here gets a free rose, and servers in tuxedos whisk around plates of osso bucco and chilled calamari while live jazz echoes in the dining room. Always end the meal with the silky tiramisu and a little limoncello.


Ulele is located on the Tampa Riverwalk, with a lawn and an airy two-story dining room where you should watch your dinner get charbroiled on the 10-foot barbacoa grill. The restaurant does some Native American dishes like three sisters salad that combines beans, squash, and corn, and they really excel at anything seafood—order some grilled Gulf oysters and rich risotto with butter-poached lobster, shrimp, scallops, and crawfish. There’s also an on-site brewery, so you can taste a couple different kinds of fruit beer while you daydream about ditching your stove for a gigantic live fire contraption.


Why does it seem like every restaurant, especially in Florida, hits you over the head with marketing copy about how they serve “globally-inspired cuisine with creative ingredients”? If you really want the answer, email us (we have a lot of thoughts). Rooster & The Till is actually doing this, though, and doing it well. Go with a couple of friends so everyone can try a bit of everything, like foie gras with pear-cashew Nutella and the best romano beans you'll ever eat, made with Iberico ham XO sauce and grapefruit kosho foam. And don't skip the cocktails: Try the Sea of Trees, which is basically a grown-up piña colada with miso caramel, or the Hidden Treasure, which combines rum and passion fruit and tastes like waking up from a hazy, two-hour beach nap.


Rocca is fresh Italian food at its best: handmade pastas, great gelato and sorbet, a long wine list, and a ton of high-quality olive oil that we’ve considered drinking. While the marble bar is a good place for a walk-in negroni and plate of ricotta and salame calabrese agnolotti, try and get a table so you can experience the mozzarella cart. A server pulls water and curds into taffy-like cheese before slicing it onto a plate dotted with basil, tomatoes, and aged balsamic vinegar.


Oxford Exchange is the best fancy brunch option around. Part of that is due to the setting: there’s a central staircase filled with a bunch of people’s portraits like JFK and Frederick Douglass, a stone fountain in the glass-domed atrium, and a shoe-shine stand in the hallway. Brunch goes until 5pm on the weekend, so you could feasibly knock back bellinis with your lemon poppyseed pancakes a couple hours before the sun sets. There will probably be a wait, but you can pass the time hanging out in their gift shop, drinking champagne, and debating whether or not to buy a 300-page book on Bauhaus art for your dad’s birthday.


SOMETHING CASUAL


One of the best dining experiences in Tampa is Thai food served at a Buddhist temple every Sunday morning. You’ll see Thai sausage with woon sen noodles, chicken massaman curry, chilled black rice pudding with taro, empanadas, egg rolls, potstickers, and dumplings. If making a selection feels as difficult as choosing which sunglasses to pack on vacation, go with the hot beef noodle soup and a side of shrimp spring rolls, plus mango sticky rice for dessert. Then settle in at one of the picnic tables in the backyard that’s filled with moss-covered oak trees and orchids. Get there when they open at 9am because they often run out of the best stuff by noon.


Good Goody Burgers opened in 1925, and it feels like Calvin Coolidge is still president when you walk into this old-timey Tampa diner. There are cushiony and swively bar chairs, The Carpenters playing on the radio, and sloppy burgers with filled-to-the-brim milkshakes. Come for a casual but fun lunch or dinner, and get the POX burger with pickle, onion, and tomato sauce that kind of tastes like a better version of meatloaf. Save room for pie—the meringue-topped butterscotch is thick, smooth, and super rich.


Noble Crust is what would happen if the deep South and Italy had a baby. You’ve got pear burrata pizza and meatball sandwiches, four-cheese grits and chicken parm, and fried green tomatoes topped with pimento cheese and pork belly. Take a big group to the Carrollwood location where you can spread out in the relaxed dining room inside or on the patio where the retractable walls keep you cool in summer. Although the menu varies seasonally, you can always get the fried chicken slathered in Tabasco honey and black pepper gravy or an 11-inch pie topped with tiny cups of charred pepperoni. Yes, you should absolutely consider adding on some Italian strawberry ice blended with tequila and prosecco.


If the team behind Greek spot Psomi put on a musical, all of the lead roles would be wildly talented breads who could carry the whole show singing a capella. While that’s clearly not possible, the carbs here are excellent, especially at weekend brunch. There are stuffed pitas, honey-drenched loukoumades, solid everything bagels, and even a horiatiki salad that comes with a crusty baguette baked that morning. Of course there’s a bread basket (with seasonal berry jam and clarified butter), and of course you must order it. The cozy dining room, filled with prints of Greece and alabaster chandeliers, may be full by mid-morning, but three stone patios provide plenty of shade outdoors. Be sure to pick up a cranberry walnut boule from their bakery on the way out.

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