The Tampa Bay area is a hotbed of great food experiences, from casual food trucks to elegant fine dining. So many choices, so little time - which is why we've gathered 15 can't-miss dining experiences - breakfast, lunch and dinner - designed to fit the itinerary for any five-day visit.
The long line on weekends shows this American diner with the French accent is the go-to place for breakfast or brunch in St. Pete Beach. Maybe it's the humongous omelets (including the aptly named Hangover, stuffed with corned beef hash, topped with hollandaise), the pancakes (as big as your head), the orange marmalade (try it on the buttery croissants), the Croque Madame or the nine variations of eggs Benedict.
Hours: Breakfast 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days a week; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily except Sundays
Address: 7401 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach
This has been a Clearwater institution since 1958, with a distinct Philadelphia sensibility in keeping with its location near the Phillies spring training headquarters (try the scrapple!). Lenny's features huge portions, bantering servers and a lively crowd. A basket of pastries presented when you're seated whets the appetite while you choose from 20 omelet variations, knishes, potato pancakes, fresh-baked bagels and amazing home fries. Deli sandwiches, hoagies and burgers round out the menu.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
Address: 21220 US Highway 19 North, Clearwater
A St. Petersburg landmark since 1976, Jack's has thrived since moving from a marina beside the Sunshine Skyway nearly 20 years ago. Credit the sassy waitresses and food made with hungry fishermen in mind (pork chops, country ham, smoked sausage, pig brains). The biscuits with sausage gravy are a thing of beauty and the Hobo Hash is to die for. The scrapple put Skyway Jack's on Food Network Magazine's list for best breakfast in Florida. The blackboard lists specials like fried flounder with eggs.
Hours: 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
Address: 2795 34th St. South, St. Petersburg
There are other dim sum choices in Tampa - China Yuan and Yummy House stand out - but none serve it every day or with the skill and showmanship of TC Choy's. Located in the heart of South Howard Avenue's Restaurant Row, TC Choy's offers a dizzying array of more than 70 dim sum dishes, and on weekends they are served from carts wheeled through the dining room. Salt and pepper shrimp, Chinese broccoli and roast duck are standouts.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Address: 301 S. Howard Ave., Tampa
Billed as the largest weekly market in the Southeast, this is a strolling feast for the senses. Open from early October to late May, the market features 200 vendors rotating among 130 spots. The offerings include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the real highlight is a United Nations of prepared foods: Spanish, Cuban, Thai, Mexican, Cajun, scrumptious knishes, tender barbecue, stone-fired pizza, artisan baked goods. Stroll and munch or grab a chair and enjoy the free live music and people-watching.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Address: 100 1st St. S.E., St. Petersburg
After more than a century of serving fine Latin cuisine, Florida's oldest restaurant remains a bustling bulwark of historic Ybor City and is now run by the fourth and fifth generation of the Hernandez Gonzmart family. Menu mainstays like the "Original Cuban Sandwich," black bean soup, chicken and yellow rice, ropa vieja, paella, sangria, flan and, in recent years, an innovative tapas menu keep generations of Tampa families coming back for more. Be sure to wander through the myriad dining rooms (Don Quixote is everywhere) and soak in the history of old Tampa. Flamenco dancing nightly.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
Address: 2117 E. 7th Ave., Tampa
2. Pane Rustica
What started as a narrow little mom-and-pop bakery has grown into a South Tampa mainstay, sporting a swanky cocktail lounge, a buzzy dining scene and one of the best lunch spots in the Bay area, thanks to the fresh bread made daily. Menu highlights include inventive sandwiches that can be turned into salads (magic!), thin, crispy pizzas with creative combinations that change daily, and one of the best hamburgers in the city.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Address: 3225 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa
A visit to Tampa isn't complete without a Cuban sandwich, but where to go for this iconic munch? It's a question that can spark heated debate, but few would disagree that Brocato's has made a definitive version for more than 60 years and is also home to premier examples of two other Tampa staples - Devil Crab and stuffed potato. A humble setting draws a large and diverse crowd of blue and white collars.
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Address: 5021 E. Columbus Drive, Tampa
If you narrowed authentic Florida barbecue down to just one dish, it could be smoked mullet, and Ted Peters has set the standard since 1951. It's not much more than a roadside stand with open-air picnic tables and pine-paneled dining room (for the really hot or the occasionally cold days). Choose from mullet, Spanish mackerel and salmon slow-smoked over red oak or amazingly gooey cheeseburgers, German potato salad redolent with bacon, and the gold standard for smoked fish spread, another iconic Tampa Bay foodstuff.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesday
Address: 1350 Pasadena Ave. South, St. Petersburg
5. Taco Bus
Recently named the sixth most popular food truck in the country, Taco Bus is rooted deep in the Tampa Bay food consciousness (with five brick-and-mortar locations in addition to a roaming truck). The menu features the simple street food of owner Rene Valenzuela's home town of Hidalgo, Mexico, with a focus on fresh ingredients, including house-made bread for the tortas. Highlights include cochinita pibil, acorn squash and carne asada, served in tacos, burritos, tostados, tortas and salads. Try some horchata to wash it all down.
Hours, Locations, Phone Numbers: See website; hours vary by location
Tampa's premier restaurant is more than a steakhouse; it's an experience. Dry-aged, hand-carved prime grade steaks and organic vegetables are just the start. Bern's also has the largest restaurant wine collection in the country (and it's surprisingly affordable). After dinner, take a tour of the wine cellar and bustling kitchen, then move upstairs to the dessert room. Nearby sister restaurant Sideberns offers cutting-edge comfort food and the new Elevage hotel/restaurant across the street makes this spot the epicenter of foodie heaven.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Address: 1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa
Mise en Place offers sophisticated big-city Florida dining with a menu that changes weekly, depending on available local ingredients and chef Marty Blitz's current passion. The emphasis is on fresh and flavorful, so there might be mofongo pork, a lobster poutine, rack of lamb (a menu mainstay) and fried green tomatoes with crab. House-cured meats, smartly selected cheeses and an excellent wine and cocktail list complete the augment the menu.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Address: 442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
3. Birch & Vine
A farm-to-table aesthetic in the dining room and magnificent views of Tampa Bay at the rooftop bar, with sidewalk seating along Beach Drive, combine to make this a choice spot to catch the downtown St. Petersburg buzz. The sous vide Nieman Ranch filet mignon defines the concept of tenderness.
Hours: Brunch 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Address: 340 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg
While located in the Loews Don Cesar, one of the most historic hotels in Florida, locals know Maritana Grille as more than a hotel restaurant. It is simply one of the finest restaurants along the Pinellas beaches, with an emphasis on locally sourced, sustainable ingredients in an elegant but relaxed setting. Executive Chef Kenny Hunsberger, recently named Tampa Bay's best chef by Creative Loafing, has overseen a creatively reimagined menu. The Reveal dessert will have you squealing with delight when the ostrich-sized white chocolate egg cracks open to yield scrumptious ice cream and cake.
Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. daily
Address: 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach
If you are looking for fresh fish - and who isn't? - go to Walt'z, which buys its fish right off the nearby docks in Madeira Beach (the grouper capital of Florida) every day. You never know what will be on the chalkboard menu - hogfish, snapper, black or red grouper, cobia, pompano - and sometimes it runs out fast. Get there early for their simple dishes of grilled or lightly fried fish, boiled Key West pink shrimp, smoked fish spread, Bahamian rice and Caribbean cole slaw, with beer and wine and a view of John's Pass from the converted bungalow.
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. daily
Address: 224 Boardwalk Place, Madeira Beach
-- Story by Tom Scherberger, photos by Lara Cerri for VISIT FLORIDA