What makes a great food city or region? It’s food at every price point that is fearless and fresh — street food, mom-and-pop ethnic spots, fine dining and at every level in between; it’s dishes that reveal a new, even defiant take, without ever losing sight of the national dialogue about what’s current. It’s a place that showcases its indigenous dishes and culinary history, celebrates its farms and seasonal ingredients, and yet is not mired in “this is the way we do it because this is the way it has always been done.” It’s food that honors tradition but values creativity more. It’s food that comforts but also has the freedom to surprise.


How did we get here? The stage was set. Craft beer arrived, which is often galvanizing, igniting consumer interests but also begetting other forward-thinking and “artisanal” food and drink businesses. Compared to many other metro areas, there is still relatively inexpensive real estate to be had. And demographically things are just right: Millennials grew up, moved away and went to college, then came home and started businesses, many of those related to food.


From the young’uns to snowbirds, there’s a lot of disposable income in these parts, which supported the 2017 debut of dozens of new independent restaurants in places like downtown St. Petersburg, downtown Tampa, Seminole Heights and the exurbs to the north of Tampa. (Take a look at Wesley Chapel these days.) Great food cities like New York depend upon demographic diversity, partly because it means a single table can be turned multiple times per evening (early birds and tourists, then regular folk, then those crazy Europeans who eat around the time I’m donning pajamas).


In March, I will have been the food critic at the Tampa Bay Times for 10 years, and each year I’ve done some version of a top restaurants story. This list reflects the incredible dynamism the area has experienced — there may be places you’ve never heard of, there may be beloved places that didn’t make the list. You won’t find a lot of steakhouses, although there are plenty on Boy Scout Boulevard and elsewhere doing a fine job. This is because steakhouses tend to be fairly static and frequently don’t reflect the vision of a single authorial voice. (Also, I’m telling you, steakhouses, you’re going to have to figure out how to market to millennials, roughly 22 percent of the population and extremely reluctant to plunk down $50 on a protein. They will spend the money, but they like to do it in smaller increments.)


“Audacious” was a word I found myself using frequently, especially within the Top 10 (a word the paper’s crackerjack copy editors helped me excise). Many of this year’s Top 50 are not fancy, some are downright humble, but they almost invariably have something to teach us.


Restaurants play an increasingly large role in our lives: We spend more money eating out than we do cooking at home. There are a million restaurants nationally employing nearly 15 million people. In 2017, restaurant sales reached almost $800 billion. Restaurants are entertainment, safe haven, home away from home. Herewith is this year’s list, from which I hope there are a few new places you can call home.

Best Craft Cocktails

The Mandarin Hide in St. Petersburg. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

The Mandarin Hide

 231 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

 mandarinhide.com  |  erin@mandarinhide.com


With the tagline “pouring our spirits to raise yours,” the Mandarin Hide opened in October 2010, before many of us had ever heard of craft cocktails. Ciro’s in Tampa opened several months earlier, but the Mandarin Hide seems to have launched the careers of loads of ambitious Tampa Bay bartenders and helped many of us tell an old-fashioned from a manhattan. (They offer classes, too, if you’re still hazy.) Tuesday nights are “test kitchen,” where for $6 you can try out a work-in-progress from one of the mixologists.


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Source: Tampa Bay Times