Tampa’s vibrant culinary scene ranks at the top of my list, above the scenic beaches and championship-winning sports teams. Famous for freshly caught seafood and one of the largest grouper fisheries in the U.S., you’ll find your share of diverse influences from Cuban, Italian, Spanish, Puerto Rican, and Mexican. Tampa is an epicenter for culture and cuisine, whether fine dining, farm-to-table eateries, or the local bar and bistro. Here is my list of favorite restaurants to experience in Tampa, in no particular order.
Several restaurants hosted me but all opinions are my own.
1. The Columbia Restaurant
The Hernandez/Gonzmart family opened the historic Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest restaurant, in Tampa’s Ybor City in 1905. Today, fifteen dining rooms, including the iconic 1903 saloon bar, encompass 52,000 square feet with seating for 1,700 patrons and occupy an entire city block. Six nights a week, come for fabulous cuisine and Flamenco dancing.
Tampa has enjoyed the restaurant’s Spanish-Cuban cuisine for more than 117 years, where fourth and fifth-generation family members continue the traditions. Don’t pass up the signature Original Cuban Sandwich, named the “Best Sandwich in Florida” by Food & Wine Magazine. Enjoy freshly baked Cuban bread, fine ham slices, Genoa salami, Cuban mojo-marinated roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard, pressed and toasted.
What To Order At Columbia Restaurant
- Tapas – Devil crab cakes, empanadas, sauteed shrimp in Spanis olive oil, garlic, and chili pepper
- Salad – Ceremoniously made at the table, we all ordered the famous “1905 Salad.” This fan favorite was a plateful of lettuce, tomato, baked ham, Swiss cheese, green Spanish olives, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, and topped with the “1905” dressing.
- Main Dish – Savor the paella española, Spain’s national dish, with shrimp, scallops, calamari, clams, mussels, chicken, pork, onion, tomatoes, green peppers, and fresh garlic with Valencia rice. Outstanding! Note that this dish takes 30 minutes to prepare but is well worth the wait.
- Bonus – I ordered the Cakes de Cangrejo, a Cuban twist to my favorite crab cakes, loaded with chunks of blue crab and drizzled with a passion fruit aioli.
- Vegetarian Option/GF – Black beans Original 1905 and eggplant riojana. Gluten-free choices are available as well.
Pro Tip: Save room for flan prepared the old-fashioned way from great-grandmother’s recipe. The key lime pie is historic, the “official pie of Florida.”
Besides Ybor City, there are six other Columbia Restaurant locations.
2. EDGE Rooftop Cocktail Lounge
At the Epicurean Hotel, the EDGE Rooftop Cocktail Lounge offers spectacular sunsets, beers from local craft breweries, fruity-crafted cocktails, a concise wine list, and small gourmet plates.
What To Order At The EDGE Rooftop Cocktail Lounge
- Drink – Passion margarita made with passion fruit and jalapeño habanero agave, a better old-fashioned made with multiple whiskies, or an epic mai tai.
- Starter – The formaggi e salumi features the chef’s selection of cheeses and charcuterie accouterments.
- Main Dish – The foie gras mousse is rich and flavorful, as is the shrimp lettuce wraps.
Pro Tip: Save room for the rich three-layer chocolate cake wedge for dessert.
3. Elevage SoHo Kitchen & Bar At The Epicurean Hotel
Led by Executive Chef Jon Atanacio, culinary director at the famous Bern’s Steakhouse, The Elevage SoHo Kitchen & Bar at the Epicurean Hotel presents a timeless menu accented with Indian, Mediterranean, and Asian inspirations. Enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner on weekdays and brunch and supper on the weekends.
What To Order At Elevage SoHo Kitchen & Bar
- Starter – baked oysters with leek, bacon, and absinthe, or the beef tenderloin tartare flavored with black garlic, Worcestershire, anchovy, and capers.
- Drink – Add a glass of malbec from Mendoza or a Willamette Valley chardonnay.
- Main Dish – Seared sea scallops prepared with honey-nut squash, andouille, brussels sprouts, and brown apple butter.
- Bonus – Others in the group raved about the aged Rohan duck breast with wild mushrooms, lentils, and port wine jus and the blackened redfish etouffee with shrimp and bamboo rice.
- Sides – Sauteed trumpet mushrooms and crispy glazed brussels sprouts were perfect companions.
Pro Tip: Save room for a rich chocolate flourless brownie soaked in dark chocolate sauce and topped with white chocolate ice cream or the bourbon apple and pear cobbler with cherries, pecan streusel, and vanilla gelato.
4. Goody Goody
Richard Gonzmart and the Columbia Restaurant Group resurrected the old Goody Goody diner when they purchased it in 2014. The Goody Goody restaurant was established in 1925 and made famous burgers for 80 years before it closed in 2005. Today, the Goody Goody diner is again making famous hamburgers and more, bringing back its reputation encompassing heritage, family history, and good food.
Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we visited Goody Goody for breakfast, and all agreed with Southern Living Magazine’s claim that Goody Goody is the “Best Breakfast in Florida.”
What To Order At Goody Goody
- Breakfast – The Kathleen Omelet filled the plate with three eggs: tomato, spinach, onion, mushrooms, potatoes, cheddar, grits, and Cuban bread
- Drink – The café con leche was my first experience with Cuban coffee, which reminded me of Texas cowboy coffee: equal parts strong coffee, and hot milk
- Brunch Bonus 1 – Others ordered the gigantic “Hot Off The Grill” 12-inch pancakes with butter and maple syrup
- Brunch Bonus 2 – The OMG! French toast is battered, grilled, and topped with maple syrup and powdered sugar
- Lunch: Original Goody Goody Burger “POX,” served with sliced pickles, onions, and the secret sauce from 1929.
- Lunch Bonus: A Royale with cheese comes with a fried, over-easy egg, onion, cheddar, Monterey Jack cheeses, sauteed mushrooms, barbecue bacon, lettuce, and tomato.
Pro Tip: Goody Goody pies are made daily and include incredible butterscotch, coconut cream, banana cream, chocolate cream, and a monthly pie special. Order by the slice, a la mode, or a whole pie.
5. Heights Public Market At Armature Works
A revamped, historical building assembled an exclusive collection of restaurants all in one place, the Heights Public Market at Armature Works in the Tampa Heights neighborhood. Come hungry and find a one-stop concourse of eateries ranging from burgers, fries, wood-fired pizza, giant chocolate cookies, ice cream, sushi, bowls, Mexican tacos, and Cuban cuisine.
What To Order At Heights Public Market At Armature Works
- Zukku Sushi – I ordered the shrimp volcano roll, served with tuna, cream cheese, cucumbers, and avocado, topped with tempura shrimp, scallions, roe, and sesame seeds.
- Steelbach – This Southern-influenced kitchen and chophouse offers aged grass-fed beef with steaks cooked over a 1,000-degree open-fire grill. Enjoy a noteworthy whiskey bar and weekend brunch.
- BnB, Butcher and Barbecue – House-smoked meats and the best burger and fries. Get chopped brisket and pulled pork sandwiches, nachos, and a mac and cheese bowl.
We cozied up to the counter to nosh on charcuterie plates and sipped a flight of carefully chosen wines from across the world at Cru Cellars. We started with the Broadbent Vinho Verde from Portugal, light and crisp with a bit of sparkle.
The Spanish Viña Cartin Albariño had a bright Meyer lemon, almond finish.
Thibault Ducroux Beaujolais from France offered hints of strawberry and rhubarb, a great wine to pair with veal, pork, or poultry. The unique label showing a boy in a red shirt riding a bicycle made me laugh.
Cru Cabernet Sauvignon, USA, boasted a great body with black currant, toasted oak, and espresso.
Italian Campofiore Sangue di Giuda, the “blood wine” blend, featured a sweet red, gently sparkling wine.
6. The Rusty Pelican
We watched a gorgeous sunset at the Rusty Pelican right on the shores of Tampa Bay. Enjoy fresh local seafood, savory cuts of meat, Atlantic salmon, or the rusty pelican board for two, including lobster, shrimp risotto, crispy local snapper, New York strip, and buttery mashed potatoes.
What To Order At The Rusty Pelican
- Starter – Crab cake, my favorite, loaded with lump crab and shrimp, with diced peppers, grilled corn, chipotle, and ginger aioli.
- Bonus – I made another appetizer, the coconut shrimp, my main course, served with orange-ginger marmalade.
- Specialties – Whether you choose the Key West conch fritters, fried calamari, or chilled east and west coast raw oysters, you’ll find yourself in seafood heaven.
- Main Dish – Splurge with the seafood tower, savoring East and West coast oysters, poached shrimp, chilled lobster, crab salad, and salmon tartare, with a selection of spicy sauces.
- Other Options – Crab-stuffed grouper, miso-marinated mahi-mahi, or butcher cuts of filet mignon, New York strip, or dry-aged ribeye, with add-ons of lobster tail or garlic shrimp.
7. Oxford Exchange
We enjoyed breakfast at Oxford Exchange, a combination restaurant, bookstore, home décor shop, champagne bar, and coffee house near the University of Tampa. Serving breakfast, lunch, weekend brunch, and afternoon tea, we were seated in the sunlit conservatory with a retractable roof, surrounded by flowers and greenery. You may also be seated in the art-filled dining room with an open kitchen.
What To Order At The Oxford Exchange
- Breakfast – I ordered the omelet with bacon, spinach, tomato, cheddar, avocado, crispy potatoes, and toast.
- Bonus 1 – Others in the group tried the house specialty blueberry buttermilk pancakes with yummy mascarpone cream, warm maple syrup, and toasted walnuts.
- Bonus 2 – The breakfast tacos made with chorizo, eggs, Manchego cheese, jalapeño pico de gallo, cumin aioli, and crispy potatoes met with rave reviews.
- Small Plates – avocado toast, tomato soup, smoked salmon dip with bagel chips, or salads, including the crispy chicken cobb, tuna poke, or lemon couscous.
- Sandwiches – Burger, the club, fish tacos, or buffalo cauliflower flatbread.
Extra – You’ll find gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian selections available.
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