Culinary vacations are hip and trendy. It’s no wonder since we take as many photos of our food as we take of our families. Posting a mouthwatering meal to your Facebook page is sure to get you plenty of comments from friends and family back home. From festivals to famous chefs, our fascination with food recently took us to Tampa Bay, Florida, an area that quickly is becoming a formidable food destination.
A number of new restaurants in Tampa are worth spotlighting. First up: Locale Market, a high-end food market from chefs Michael Mina and Don Pintabona. Locale offers locally sourced products from cheeses and meats to seafood and produce. Scattered throughout the market, there are food and beverage stations at which you can dine on everything from freshly made pastas and sushi to burgers and beer. Upstairs, there is wine bar with one of the largest selections of wine in downtown St. Petersburg.
The Epicurean Hotel (part of the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International,) is a food-focused hotel that brings eating and sleeping to an entirely new level. It is a collaboration with the legendary Bern’s Steak House, so you know the food is something special. The restaurant, Elevage, features continental, innovative cuisine. If you prefer cocktails, try the EDGE Social Drinkery rooftop bar and for your sweet tooth, Chocolate Pi, a patisserie. The hotel also features the Epicurean Theatre, a state of the art culinary classroom offering a variety of classes in subjects ranging from cultural trends to the art of mixology and cooking techniques.
Suzanne and Roger Perry are culinary visionaries who are tantalizing Tampa Bay’s taste buds with three distinctive and very different dining experiences. Datz serves up mega portions of over-the-top, fun, approachable comfort food (the incredibly memorable meatloaf, stuffed with bacon-jalapeno mac ‘n’ cheese was featured on Travel Channel’s “Meatloaf Paradise” show). Next in their restaurant trilogy: Dough, a quirky and whimsical bistro and bakery. Dough found its way into the spotlight when it competed on Cooking Channel’s “Donut Showdown.” The winning recipes: Dough’s popular crème brûlée donut and a spiced-orange bourbon donut with a smoked vanilla ganache. Finally, there’s Roux, a fresh take on the beloved traditions of New Orleans.
There are other innovative restaurants. Take edison food+drink lab, the brainchild of long-time Tampa Bay culinary powerhouse, Chef Jeannie Pierola. She uses farm- and dock-fresh organic and sustainable ingredients to transform the ordinary to extraordinary. My favorite of her dishes is the pomegranate blood orange-braised short ribs. Accompanied by butternut squash polenta, rainbow chard, roasted baby beets, buttered radishes, blood orange hazelnut gremolata, and a pomegranate red wine reduction, this dish is nothing “short” of incredible. Are you hungry yet?
There is a rich culinary history in Tampa Bay. Bern’s Steak House has been taking guests on gastronomic adventures since 1956, with prime-cut-to-order steaks, vegetables grown on the Berns’ farm, 21 choices of caviar, and a world-renowned wine cellar with more than 6,800 unique labels. In fact, Bern’s was the only restaurant in the state of Florida to be named a 2015 James Beard Foundation finalist in the outstanding wine program category. Be sure to tour the wine cellar and kitchen when you visit.
The Columbia, Florida’s oldest restaurant, has been a Tampa tradition since 1905. It is still family-owned, with fourth and fifth generations at the helm, serving century old family recipes such as Paella. The Columbia’s 1905 salad, with a dressing that features Worcestershire sauce, lemon and parmesan cheese, is not to be missed. In case you can’t make it to the original location, check out the Columbia restaurant/café in the Tampa International Airport.
Viewfinder Tip: To offset any potential vacation weight gain, take a walk or jog along Tampa’s new scenic River Walk.
Fresh ingredients. Locally sourced. These words are music to my ears when looking for a restaurant. At the Refinery, the menu rotates three to four times a week based on local, fresh ingredients chefs can find. At brunch you might see the “Ramen-Like Bowl,” which comprises mustard pulled pork, pork broth, noodles, cucumber, red cabbage, radish, poached egg and pickled jalapeno served on chipped mix-match plates. This all comes from the keen culinary eye of Greg Baker, executive chef and owner. He’s a genius and it shows.
Tampa Bay is not all about fancy food. With balmy year-round temperatures, the city is an ideal location for outdoor food and wine festivals, and, there are plenty of those. Tampa Bay celebrates the likes of strawberries, ribs, bacon, crawfish, seafood, stone crab, and even Cuban sandwiches at different food festivals throughout the year.
The region also is home to the World’s Biggest Food Truck Rally at the state fairgrounds, and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records last year for the largest parade of food trucks from across the country. Speaking of food trucks, you can’t pass through Tampa without stopping at the Taco Bus, which serves healthy, authentic Mexican favorites. While there now are more than a half-dozen Taco Bus locations throughout Tampa Bay, my favorite is still the original location on Hillsborough Avenue. From burritos to quesadillas, this place serves the freshest flavor you’ll find on four wheels.
What has been your most memorable foodie destination?