On a November press trip with Visit Tampa Bay, nearly every one of our many hosts shared the same sentiment: Tampa Bay is having a moment. We couldn’t agree more, and with so many solid food choices in the area — some stalwarts, some newcomers — it’s well worth the short drive from Orlando for a Tampa Bay getaway to check out the food scene. Below are some of the highlights from our visit. Think of them as a Tampa Sampler of sorts and craft your own edible itinerary!
Your Home Base in Tampa Bay
Just as its name suggests, The Epicurean Hotel is inspired by and caters to those who treasure good food
and wine. Expect a gratis glass of wine upon check in, a taste that foreshadows the bounty right across the lobby at Bern’s Fine Wine & Spirits. Just like the wine list at its namesake across the street — The Epicurean was created in partnership with the legendary Bern’s Steak House — the best hotel gift shop ever is a treasure trove of hard-to-find vintages, often at very reasonable prices.
The hotel is in the pedestrian-friendly SOHO (South Howard) neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from the Palma Ciea location of Cru Cellars. In addition to flights (pictured above) and more than 35 wines by the glass, Cru also offers a full menu as well as shareables like truffle fries, garlic Gulf shrimp and taratare with Gulf yellowfin tuna.
Anyone who’s been to Ybor City knows about Tampa’s proud Cuban and Spanish cultural heritage, and
most likely experienced it firsthand during a visit to the iconic Columbia Restaurant, which the Gonzmart family has run since it opened as a 60-seat cafe in 1905. Now Richard Gonzmart pays an edible homage to the Sicilian immigrants who also helped build the city, at Casa Santa Stefano. This former macaroni factory is every bit as opulent as the Columbia. It is every bit as authentic too. Descendants of the founding families of Tampa donated the photos on the walls. Plus, Sicilian specialties that Gonzmart remembers from childhood dinners at the home of his best friend’s Nana fill the menu.
Locals know scacciata (often spelled “scachatta” and always pronounced “skuh-CHAH-tu”) as tomato-sauce-topped bread. It is served as a starter at every childhood birthday party and family celebration, Sicilian or otherwise. (Local bakeries like Alessi make it fresh each day and pack it in party-ready to-go boxes.) At Casa Santa Stefano, the Sciacciata Siciliane is a house-made sfinciune bread, which is not unlike focaccia. It is topped with tomato sauce, onions, garlic, Pecorino Romano and caciocavallo cheese. Save room because this choice is not even the most carbo-loaded item on the menu. It also boasts killer house-made fresh and imported dry pastas, and at lunch offers cartocciata, their version of a calzone. Spicy deviled crab stuffs the most Tampa version of this chewy, rustic Hot Pocket.
Not only is Oxford Exchange the place for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch, it’s the place to wander
around and mentally redecorate your living space. The beautiful bookstore has pride of place at the entrance. Gorgeously curated home decor, kitchen ware, linens and more beckon throughout the lofty, light-filled spaces. The ambience at The Restaurant feels downright European, with a carefully selected list of coffees, fine teas, bubbles and more.
Sparkman Wharf is one of the newer attractions around town, and the dining garden offers a range of choices from barbecue to cheesesteaks to farm-to-table bowls from beautifully repurposed shipping containers. Enjoy these offerings outside while you listen to live entertainment and ogle the adorable dogs at this pet-friendly locale. At the full-service restaurant Jotoro, Michelin-starred Chef Joe Isidori pairs fine Mexican provisions with unbeatable cocktails, all against a backdrop of delightful more-is-more decor and a hip-hop-heavy playlist.
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