My 11 favorite restaurants to live in Tampa

The Tampa Bay area offers a wide variety of restaurants. Some are luxury restaurants. Others are down-to-earth seaside places where you pick up shrimp or crab and throw the shells on the table. But wherever you go in the area, you’ll find delicious food.

From Anna Maria Island, which separates Tampa Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, to St. Petersburg with its urban charm and Tampa with its mix of cultures, the food is reflected in all of these Florida locations.

I have numbered my favorite restaurants, but not in order of preference. They competed with me in most of them, but all the taste choices are mine.

A selection of appetizers at Columbia

Photo: Kathleen Walls

1. Columbia Restaurant

Much of Tampa’s food history began at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa. Established in 1805, it is the oldest in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.

What to order in Columbia

He claims to be the inventor of the Cuban sandwich.

James Joyce Irish Pub

James Joyce Irish Pub

Photo: Kathleen Walls

2. James Joyce Irish Pub

James Joyce Irish Pub is an Ybor City restaurant with an Irish flavor. I felt like I had walked into an Irish pub in Dublin with the dark wood, stained glass windows and lots of plaques on the walls and ceilings. The 30-foot-long dark wood bar has about 50 beers on tap, as well as 30 Irish whiskeys and several other spirits. He is a seven-time winner Tampa Bay Times Ultimate Bar of the Year Award.

Chef Trey Taylor’s Jamison Burger won Best Burger at the Burger Showdown, an annual event at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. It combines tender ground beef with Jamison whiskey and special spices.

Rueben quesadilla to James Joyce

Rueben quesadilla to James Joyce

Photo: Kathleen Walls

What to order at James Joyce Irish Pub

I tried their rueben quesadilla. It is a sweet and sour mix of German and Mexican culture.

Ulele Restaurant in Tampa, Florida

Ulele

Photo: Kathleen Walls

3. Scar

Ulele is located on Tampa’s Riverwalk. The name honors Princess Ule, daughter of Tokomboga chief Hirihigua. Legend has it that in 1528, she saved Juan Ortiz, a member of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, by throwing herself over his body when the tribe sentenced him to death by roasting.

The decor here is a mix of Spanish and Native American. There is a larger than life wild horse, stained glass windows and brick walls. The outdoor patio has vibrant orange and black seating protected from the weather by large yellow umbrellas. There are Native American sculptures, including a statue of Ulele in the courtyard. The restaurant has an outside bar, a 10-foot barbacoa grill and an on-site brewery.

Dishes reflect Native American culture, such as native chili with alligator, wild boar, venison, duck, ground chuck, cranberry beans and chili spices. You can add jalapeño, red onions and white cheddar to make it Loaded Native Chili.

What to order at Ulele

I tried the gator tails. They were tender with a crispy coating, seasoned with a chili marinade and served with a remoulade sauce for a little spiciness. The sides of wild rice paired with crisp ribbons of carrot and asparagus were a nice contrast.

For dessert, we shared candied maple bacon ice cream and pineapple upside down bread pudding. The ice cream had a crunchy cornflake crust. The pineapple gave the bread pudding a tang and the toasted coconut ice cream mixed in well. The dark rum sauce added a butter-liquor flavor.

Pro tip: It is pronounced You-lay-lee.

4. Housewife’s Bakery And Cafe

If you want to dine with locals, Housewife Bakery & Cafe is the place. It’s a small family business serving Tampa since 1959. The food is a blend of family Italian recipes and Tampa’s Cuban culture. You can choose Cuban roast pork or Italian sausage with peppers and onions served with chicken and yellow rice. They have their own take on the Cuban sandwich using their own Cuban bread with salami, ham, cheese, pulled pork, pickles and a mix of mayonnaise and mustard. One of their specialties is an Italian-inspired dish, Scacciatta, which is related to pizza.

The side of the building is decorated with a mural showing pies, cookies and a gingerbread house.

What to order at Housewife’s Bakery And Cafe

They bake a huge variety of cookies. I had to choose between about 32 varieties. I settled for brownies and rum balls. Pastries, guava jams, mini custard puffs, mini eclairs and more occupy another case. Carrot cake, cream pies, various cakes and cheesecakes beckon from a rotating tray.

Cuban sandwich at Doc Ford's in Tampa, Florida

Cuban sandwich at Doc Ford’s

Photo: Kathleen Walls

5. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar And Grill

Doc Ford’s Rum Bar and Grille is owned by Marty Harrity and Mark Marinello in partnership with Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford books. Located on St. Pier. Pete, where the restaurant and White’s Books meet. Marion “Doc” Ford is a marine biologist who lives in his home lab in Tampa Bay. Doc Ford, once a government agent, is sometimes called back for undercover work. Both Ford and his restaurant specialize in seafood, so eating here and watching boats cruise the bay made me feel like I was in one of his books. White’s favorite is the Yucatan shrimp, a spicy boil-and-eat shrimp.

What to order at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar And Grill

I chose the Cuban sandwich with ham, Swiss cheese, slow roast pork, mustard and pickles served on a crunchy Cuban roll. For company, I went healthy and had a fresh fruit bowl.

Ginny's and Jane E's

Ginny’s and Jane E’s

Photo: Kathleen Walls

6. Ginny’s And Jane E’s

Ginny’s and Jane E’s on Anna Maria Island began as the creation of two sisters — one a farmer, the other an art and antiques dealer. Opened in a former IGA grocery store, the cafe/shop is a unique mix of local art and collectibles combined with simple food such as salads, sandwiches and baked goods.

All around me, unique folk art, bicycles hanging from the ceiling, fish mounted on the walls, clothes racks and antiques created a fun atmosphere. “Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis is playing in the background it took me back to the 1950’s. Just like the 50’s, the food is real farm raised products.

What to order at Ginny’s And Jane E’s

The juicy, chunky chicken salad sandwich was a unique experience.

Seafood platter at Floridays

Seafood platter at Floridays

Photo: Kathleen Walls

7. Floridays Woodfire Grill And Bar

How often are you greeted by a life-sized shark hanging over the bar? Floridays is a cross between an old Florida fish house and a Key West beach restaurant. It overlooks Anna Maria Sound. We ate at the tiki hut to enjoy the ocean view.

What to order at Floridays Woodfire Grill And Bar

We shared for our appetizer mussels cooked in garlic butter and white wine sauce. I went all out and had seafood with shrimp, clams, mussels, sausage, potatoes and corn. It was boiled in an herbal beer stock that added a depth of flavor. We ended up with a shared key lime pie and the P-nut butter chocolate bar. The key lime was my favorite as I could taste the tartness of the fresh key limes.

French Toast at Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe

French Toast at Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe

Photo: Kathleen Walls

8. Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe

For breakfast, Anna Maria Island Beach Café’s all-you-can-eat pancakes are an island tradition, but I had the French toast.

We sat outside to enjoy the cool view of the sandy beach. They are open from breakfast to dinner.

What to order at Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe

A few of us couldn’t decide between the blueberry or strawberry french toast, so we got both and shared. The egg-dipped toast was nicely browned and the sweet fruit topping plus the whipped cream was a tasty addition

Oysters Sampler at Swordfish Grill

Oysters Sampler at Swordfish Grill

Photo: Kathleen Walls

9. Swordfish Grill And Tiki Bar

Swordfish Grill and Tiki Bar at Cortez Fishing Village is a waterfront treasure. It’s a place where locals hang out on a covered pier and boaters tie up and dock for great seafood fresh out of the local waters. You can dine indoors or outdoors. There’s a side patio if you want a quiet spot, and the back deck where a musician competes with banker talk from a small stage. The sea breeze spreads the smell of frying fish in the area.

What to order at Swordfish Grill And Tiki Bar

We spread out on the side patio at a picnic table. The menu is rich and mainly seafood. For starters, we ordered something you rarely find outside of the Keys, Bahamian conch fritters. According to the menu, these come from “a secret recipe from the islands that has been passed down from generation to generation”. The seasoned outer crust was crispy and the inside soft and chewy. Conch meat tastes a bit like chewy oysters. The Remoulade sauce added a layer of spiciness.

I ordered the oyster sampler with four oysters Rockefeller, garlic parmesan oysters and jalapeno bacon oysters. My favorite was the oysters Rockefeller.

The courtyard at Mar Vista

The courtyard at Mar Vista

Photo: Kathleen Walls

10. Mar Vista

Mar Vista is a cross between fine dining and a Florida fish house. Located on the water in Longboat Key, it offers beachside dining under softly lit oak trees or a covered patio. We enjoyed a four course meal paired with fine wines.

What to order at Mar Vista

The most interesting dish was the main course, Shogun Farms pulled pork. Chef Aaron Kulzer told us the meat comes from wild boar. Shogun Farms captures them, feeds them healthy diets for at least a month, and then slaughters them. The meat is tender and tastes fresh, not gamey. The wine pairing was Lola Russian River pinot noir.

Food at Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Food at Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Photo: Kathleen Walls

11. Anna Maria Oyster Bar

In 1995, John and Amanda Horne opened an oyster bar that evolved into one of Bradenton’s most beloved seafood restaurants, Anna Maria Oyster Bar. They now have four locations. The one I visited is on Anna Maria Island’s Historic Bridge Street Pier overlooking Tampa Bay. Boaters can dock at the pier and dine.

Of course, oysters are a specialty. They come raw. steamed? tequila lime, what do you get when an oyster marries a margarita. garlic parmesan; Grandma Georgie’s Chipotle, a little spicy. or Oysters Rockefeller. There are many other options.

What to order at Anna Maria Oyster Bar

I had coconut shrimp with a sweet and spicy apricot horseradish sauce. The large shrimp had enough coconut in the crust that I could taste its sweetness. My side choices were fries and cheese. Drinks range from soft drinks to all versions of hard.

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