Some US cities display their civic pride by building monuments and museums. Others boast about their role in the country’s history on shiny engraved plaques or in exhibits of sepia-toned photos hung on the walls of the city hall. In Tampa, Florida — a city of almost 400,000 people, tucked into a bay halfway up the state’s Gulf Coast — local history isn’t just something visitors can learn about, it’s something they can taste.
In the 1800s, scores of settlers from Latin America and Europe came to the former Civil War outpost to make their fortune in Tampa’s then-booming cigar industry. You can see the mark they made on the city in the flan and dulce de leche that still appear on many restaurant dessert menus, and in the eye-popping Cuban coffee served in Tampa’s Ybor City Historic District.
As the city grew, so did its food scene, with culinary pioneers transforming strip malls into world-class steakhouses that hosted presidents and celebrities. Then came the moment the Great Recession released its grip on Tampa, meaning entrepreneurial restaurateurs could take advantage of low property prices — and high demand — to open everything from food halls to farm-to-table restaurants and ramen shops.
Even today, it’s hard to keep up with the number of restaurants opening in the city — but fortunately, you don’t have to. We’ve selected the six dishes currently tempting Tampa locals, and the best places to eat them — plus, four restaurants to check out in Tampa Bay.
Cuban sandwiches: Columbia Restaurant
Towards the end of the 19th century, Tampa became known as the ‘Cigar Capital of the World’. Settlers from around the globe came to work in the booming cigar industry, which at the time produced more stogies than Havana. According to local legend, the Cuban sandwich was created in Tampa during this period, with different waves of immigrants each contributing to the recipe. The Spanish and Cubans brought the pork, the Germans the pickles, and the Italians the Genoa salami. Whether you believe the lore or are just hungry, the best spot to enjoy a Cuban is the Columbia Restaurant, a Tampa institution that’s also the oldest restaurant in Florida. Come at night to enjoy your sandwich with a side of flamenco or live jazz.
Châteaubriand: Bern’s Steak House
Since its opening in 1956, Tampa’s Bern's Steak House has hosted the rich and famous, as well as locals who want to celebrate their birthday in style. Here, the dress code is smart casual and the fillets, sirloins and porterhouses are all perfectly dry-aged in house. One of the biggest stars on the menu is the châteaubriand, a tenderloin steak available in cuts large enough to serve up to six guests. You can enjoy yours broiled and topped with truffle herb butter, foie gras or scallops. Bern’s also serves a châteaubriand carpaccio with parmesan, arugula and grapes. Come hungry, and thirsty: Bern’s is home to the largest wine cellar in the world.
Poke bowls: Heights Seafood Co
Tampa — and the rest of the world — can thank Hawaii for poke bowls: a mix of raw fish, rice and toppings like soy sauce and green onions. Though the dish may hail from another corner of the country, Tampa’s chefs are taking advantage of the abundance of fresh local seafood to make the recipe their own. At Heights Seafood Co, the catch of the day is served in a poke bowl customers can personalise with garnishes like avocado, kimchi and jalapeños. Down the road, Poké Rose, a Hawaiian restaurant at The Hall on Franklin food hall, serves its namesake poke dish: jasmine rice topped with edamame, seaweed, spring onions and your choice of tuna, salmon or crab.
Grilled Gulf oysters: Ulele
From Tampa, it’s just a short drive to the Gulf of Mexico, breeding ground of the Gulf oyster. Thanks to freshwater runoff from the Mississippi River, Gulf oysters are milder than their Atlantic and Pacific Ocean counterparts. They’re also larger and meatier. Enjoy yours raw with a side of horseradish and cocktail sauce. Or head to Ulele, a restaurant along Tampa’s recently revamped Riverwalk that serves locally sourced meats and seafood, including grilled Gulf oysters. Topped with a dripping mix of butter, garlic and cheese — and covered in char from the grill — these are as messy as they are delicious.
Short rib gnocchi: Rooster & The Till
While you could always find good, if not downright great, food in Tampa, chef-driven cuisine didn't catch on here until the early 2010s. One of the pioneers was Rooster & The Till, a repeat contender on any list of Tampa’s best restaurants. Locals will argue over which dish is the best. Some love the cobia collar, others the sea bass belly. But most will agree that you can’t go wrong with the short rib gnocchi, a small plate featuring smoked ricotta, tomatoes and spicy peppers.
Fried chicken sandwiches: King of the Coop
This is the American South, so perhaps it’s no surprise that fried chicken sandwiches would make the cut. Follow the locals to King of the Coop, a self-proclaimed ‘chicken joint’ where the highlight of the menu is the Nashville hot chicken sandwich, a fiery blend of spicy chicken tenders, pickles and coleslaw. The chicken is juicy, thanks to a 24-hour soak in buttermilk prior to frying. The seasoning — a mix of brown sugar, paprika and cayenne pepper — pairs perfectly with the creamy coleslaw and apple cider vinegar pickle garnishes. For an extra Southern spin, order yours with a side of pimento cheese and collard greens.
BEST OF THE BAY
Enjoy a beachside sunset from the upper decks of the Hurricane, on St Pete Beach. As the name implies, seafood rules here. Try the signature grouper sandwich, a half-pound fillet of the delightfully mild and slightly sweet fish, served with tangy tartar sauce and lemon.
This laid-back bar is a favorite with locals and visitors alike. Come for the margaritas, stay for the grouper reuben. This twist on the classic grouper sandwich includes sauerkraut, cheese and thousand island dressing. The sandwich is served on pumpernickel and rye bread — just like you’d find at a classic New York deli.
Specialising in Asian street food and creative cocktails, Hawkers offers a variety of small plates, soups and skewers. Locals love the roti canai, a Malaysian-style flat bread served with a side of zesty curry sauce. After dinner, grab a drink at any of the nearby bars in St Petersburg's historic Edge District.
With its rose centerpieces and hushed atmosphere, Dunedin’s The Black Pearl is perhaps one of the most romantic restaurants in Tampa Bay. The relatively short menu is delightfully fussy, with French-inspired dishes like escargot and foie gras. Try the white truffle lobster risotto, available as a starter and an entrée.
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