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Sandwich from Wicked Oak BBQ
Kiera Andrews/Wicked Oak BBQ

12 Tampa Restaurants to Visit Right Now

From nostalgic steaks to perfectly pressed Cuban sandwiches

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Sandwich from Wicked Oak BBQ
| Kiera Andrews/Wicked Oak BBQ

While 2020 has certainly brought loads of challenges, Tampa has also had its share of highlights this year: Tom Brady is leading the Bucs, the Stanley Cup moved back, and it’s the home of Super Bowl LV. The city’s restaurant landscape, like countless others, has been doing what it can to survive — and while some old school favorites have sadly shuttered (RIP Skippers Smokehouse!), new eateries have still managed to take shape and help fill the void.

From new takes on traditional Cuban food to the most hashtag-ed tacos on Instagram, Tampa’s restaurant scene is working harder than ever to not just stay alive, but thrive. And this Eater 12 list is proof of just that.

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Wicked Oak BarbeQue

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After putting his food truck in park (literally) when Covid hit, Felix “Bubba” Flores launched “Smoking out the Heights” during which he served his award-winning barbecue pulled pork sandwiches and brisket in Seminole Heights until he sold out (which was every day). It was so well-received, he opened his first brick and mortar this summer that serves up no-frills barbecue like the Tampa Two (pulled brisket and mac ‘n cheese sandwiches), jalapeño and cheddar-infused smoked sausages as well as briskets, pork, ribs and chicken by the half pound, and the just-released burnt ends on Friday until they sell out (which still tends to happen every day). 

Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe

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Walking into Ella’s is reminiscent of walking into a Key West haunt, packed to the brim with funky decor including, as the name implies, plenty of cool folk art as well as rotating musical acts. Just as inviting? The food. Known for its “Soul Food Sunday’’ brunch, the menu features a bevy of American comfort food classics like chicken and waffles and a chicken and biscuit pot pie as well as The Florida Man (smoked sausage topped with smoked beans and apple coleslaw). The libations flow heavily as well; a favorite among them is its signature “Breakfast of Champions” made with Irish whiskey and Ella’s own butterscotch schnapps chilled with an OJ chaser… basically, pancakes and syrup in cocktail form.

Thee Burger Spot

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Hole-in-the-wall burger spots don’t get more classic than this. It’s so nondescript, in fact, many likely just drive by it without noticing — but this family-owned joint is a stop worth making. The thrice named “Best Burger in the Bay” stacks a quarter pound of beef in a variety of ways ranging from the more standard “Thee Cheeseburger One” to the more elevated “Thee Heated One” with ranch, jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, bacon, and “onion thangs” as well as “Thee Glazed One,” a bacon cheeseburger sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme donuts (only available on the weekends).

Piccola Italia Bistro

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Now this Italian spot could easily be located in the Big Boot itself. It’s small, warm, and has just over half a dozen tables. But the real reason it feels straight out of Italy? Because the chef (originally from the Italian region of Abruzzo) also greets you, takes your order, makes the bread, serves the food — essentially playing every role in the restaurant. And still manages to whip up a stellar menu from Rome, Bologna, and Naples including a lineup of homemade pastas and traditional sauces like the “Sunday Gravy” his Nonna Maria used to make.

[kū´bå]

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While there is slight controversy about this, Tampa (not Miami), is the official home to the Cuban sandwich. Meaning, one simply can’t visit this city without downing one. Located in Tampa’s trendy food hall Armature Works, [KŪ´BÅ] puts a modern spin on Cuban fare serving up chicharrones, its award-winning sangria… and has taken home the crown for “Best Tampa Historic Cuban Sandwich” for a reason. Make that five reasons: Florida orange juice-soaked hot shredded pork, salami, Swiss, and homemade mustard sauce on pressed La Segunda Bakery (a Tampa institution!) Cuban bread.

Muchachas

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Quesabirria tacos are currently breaking the internet. But for those who haven’t heard of this traditional Mexican favorite, it’s basically a cross between a taco and a quesadilla stuffed with gooey cheese and braised beef that’s served with the braising juices (aka consommé) as a dipping sauce. And one of the first spots to satisfy the literal feeding frenzy for these hot items is Muchachas, which made its debut at Armature Works just this past November.

Flor Fina

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When Hotel Haya opened in Ybor this summer, the owners knew they wanted a chef as upscale as the accommodations. Mission accomplished. Known as the “godfather of Nuevo Latin cuisine” chef Douglas Rodriguez is a James Beard award-winning chef, whose menu is packed with Latin-influenced dishes ranging from the smoked Argentine-style chorizo and ceviches to tomahawk ribeyes. And since he was born to Cuban immigrants in Miami, there are two styles of Cuban sandwiches: Miami (without salami) and Tampa (with salami).

Columbia Restaurant

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Columbia comes with a rich history (it is Florida’s oldest restaurant, after all). Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. the Columbia Restaurant is still owned by the same family and has grown from a small 60-person cafe frequented by cigar workers to the largest Spanish restaurant in the world; an institution in Tampa’s historic Ybor City. Aside from its Cuban cuisine, including its paella and signature “1905 Salad” it’s world-famous for its flamenco shows that are typically accompanied by many pitchers of its house-made sangria.

At first glance, Cena may not seem like your typical Italian spot as it resembles more of a hotel lounge; however, don’t be fooled: its menu is nothing but resolute, truly elegant Italian dishes.  Standouts include the octopus salad and wagyu beef carpaccio, and the cacio e pepe — a buttery, peppery parmesan Tuscan pasta — is not to be missed. Also a must? The desserts, as the restaurant harbors one of the most talented pastry chefs in the city.

Jotoro Kitchen & Tequila Bar

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While the al fresco waterside “food court” Sparkman Wharf is quite casual, it’s newest tenant lead by Michelin Star chef and partner Joe Isidori sets a far swankier scene. The menu is a Mexican mash-up that combines flavors from East L.A. with nods to Asian cuisine and is described as “where mariachi meets old school hip hop.” The 220-seat eatery plates spicy Vietnamese tacos and Texas-style cheese and steak enchiladas and houses a massive bar with upward of 50 labels of tequila, that can be sipped while taking in the downtown Tampa skyline.

Bern's Steak House

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A trip to Tampa without indulging at Bern’s is like going to the beach without getting sandy: unnatural. Bern’s, while technically a tourist destination given it’s so widely revered, is also sorta not one because it’s just as frequented by the locals. And that’s not only because of the food, which is sourced from the restaurant’s own farm, but also the experience which is unparalleled. After selecting the cut of beef (which, unlike pretty much all other steakhouses, comes with enough sides to feed an army) take a tour of the kitchen, one of the largest wine cellars in the U.S., and don’t skip the dessert room. The second floor “speakeasy” is truly stuck out of time outfitted with private booths from which patrons can sip century-old cognacs and devour the signature macadamia nut sundae all while using the en-suite phone to make song requests for the piano man.

Big Ray's Fish Camp

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Grouper sandwiches are right up there with Cuban sandwiches when it comes to must-devour Tampa fare. And Big Ray’s, located in South Tampa’s “South of Gandy” neighborhood (home of Mac Dill Air Force Base) does them up right. The owner grew up catching fish just blocks away on Ballast Point Pier, and now slings some of the best catches in town including the popular grouper sandwich (served grilled, blackened or fried) and grouper reuben on rye bread with thousand island dressing as well as shrimp po boys and lobster corn dogs. The old Florida vibe is complete thanks to casual picnic tables, cold brews, and a laid back outdoor setting.

Wicked Oak BarbeQue

After putting his food truck in park (literally) when Covid hit, Felix “Bubba” Flores launched “Smoking out the Heights” during which he served his award-winning barbecue pulled pork sandwiches and brisket in Seminole Heights until he sold out (which was every day). It was so well-received, he opened his first brick and mortar this summer that serves up no-frills barbecue like the Tampa Two (pulled brisket and mac ‘n cheese sandwiches), jalapeño and cheddar-infused smoked sausages as well as briskets, pork, ribs and chicken by the half pound, and the just-released burnt ends on Friday until they sell out (which still tends to happen every day). 

Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe

Walking into Ella’s is reminiscent of walking into a Key West haunt, packed to the brim with funky decor including, as the name implies, plenty of cool folk art as well as rotating musical acts. Just as inviting? The food. Known for its “Soul Food Sunday’’ brunch, the menu features a bevy of American comfort food classics like chicken and waffles and a chicken and biscuit pot pie as well as The Florida Man (smoked sausage topped with smoked beans and apple coleslaw). The libations flow heavily as well; a favorite among them is its signature “Breakfast of Champions” made with Irish whiskey and Ella’s own butterscotch schnapps chilled with an OJ chaser… basically, pancakes and syrup in cocktail form.

Thee Burger Spot

Hole-in-the-wall burger spots don’t get more classic than this. It’s so nondescript, in fact, many likely just drive by it without noticing — but this family-owned joint is a stop worth making. The thrice named “Best Burger in the Bay” stacks a quarter pound of beef in a variety of ways ranging from the more standard “Thee Cheeseburger One” to the more elevated “Thee Heated One” with ranch, jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, bacon, and “onion thangs” as well as “Thee Glazed One,” a bacon cheeseburger sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme donuts (only available on the weekends).

Piccola Italia Bistro

Now this Italian spot could easily be located in the Big Boot itself. It’s small, warm, and has just over half a dozen tables. But the real reason it feels straight out of Italy? Because the chef (originally from the Italian region of Abruzzo) also greets you, takes your order, makes the bread, serves the food — essentially playing every role in the restaurant. And still manages to whip up a stellar menu from Rome, Bologna, and Naples including a lineup of homemade pastas and traditional sauces like the “Sunday Gravy” his Nonna Maria used to make.

[kū´bå]

While there is slight controversy about this, Tampa (not Miami), is the official home to the Cuban sandwich. Meaning, one simply can’t visit this city without downing one. Located in Tampa’s trendy food hall Armature Works, [KŪ´BÅ] puts a modern spin on Cuban fare serving up chicharrones, its award-winning sangria… and has taken home the crown for “Best Tampa Historic Cuban Sandwich” for a reason. Make that five reasons: Florida orange juice-soaked hot shredded pork, salami, Swiss, and homemade mustard sauce on pressed La Segunda Bakery (a Tampa institution!) Cuban bread.

Muchachas

Quesabirria tacos are currently breaking the internet. But for those who haven’t heard of this traditional Mexican favorite, it’s basically a cross between a taco and a quesadilla stuffed with gooey cheese and braised beef that’s served with the braising juices (aka consommé) as a dipping sauce. And one of the first spots to satisfy the literal feeding frenzy for these hot items is Muchachas, which made its debut at Armature Works just this past November.

Flor Fina

When Hotel Haya opened in Ybor this summer, the owners knew they wanted a chef as upscale as the accommodations. Mission accomplished. Known as the “godfather of Nuevo Latin cuisine” chef Douglas Rodriguez is a James Beard award-winning chef, whose menu is packed with Latin-influenced dishes ranging from the smoked Argentine-style chorizo and ceviches to tomahawk ribeyes. And since he was born to Cuban immigrants in Miami, there are two styles of Cuban sandwiches: Miami (without salami) and Tampa (with salami).

Columbia Restaurant

Columbia comes with a rich history (it is Florida’s oldest restaurant, after all). Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. the Columbia Restaurant is still owned by the same family and has grown from a small 60-person cafe frequented by cigar workers to the largest Spanish restaurant in the world; an institution in Tampa’s historic Ybor City. Aside from its Cuban cuisine, including its paella and signature “1905 Salad” it’s world-famous for its flamenco shows that are typically accompanied by many pitchers of its house-made sangria.

Cena

At first glance, Cena may not seem like your typical Italian spot as it resembles more of a hotel lounge; however, don’t be fooled: its menu is nothing but resolute, truly elegant Italian dishes.  Standouts include the octopus salad and wagyu beef carpaccio, and the cacio e pepe — a buttery, peppery parmesan Tuscan pasta — is not to be missed. Also a must? The desserts, as the restaurant harbors one of the most talented pastry chefs in the city.

Jotoro Kitchen & Tequila Bar

While the al fresco waterside “food court” Sparkman Wharf is quite casual, it’s newest tenant lead by Michelin Star chef and partner Joe Isidori sets a far swankier scene. The menu is a Mexican mash-up that combines flavors from East L.A. with nods to Asian cuisine and is described as “where mariachi meets old school hip hop.” The 220-seat eatery plates spicy Vietnamese tacos and Texas-style cheese and steak enchiladas and houses a massive bar with upward of 50 labels of tequila, that can be sipped while taking in the downtown Tampa skyline.

Bern's Steak House

A trip to Tampa without indulging at Bern’s is like going to the beach without getting sandy: unnatural. Bern’s, while technically a tourist destination given it’s so widely revered, is also sorta not one because it’s just as frequented by the locals. And that’s not only because of the food, which is sourced from the restaurant’s own farm, but also the experience which is unparalleled. After selecting the cut of beef (which, unlike pretty much all other steakhouses, comes with enough sides to feed an army) take a tour of the kitchen, one of the largest wine cellars in the U.S., and don’t skip the dessert room. The second floor “speakeasy” is truly stuck out of time outfitted with private booths from which patrons can sip century-old cognacs and devour the signature macadamia nut sundae all while using the en-suite phone to make song requests for the piano man.

Big Ray's Fish Camp

Grouper sandwiches are right up there with Cuban sandwiches when it comes to must-devour Tampa fare. And Big Ray’s, located in South Tampa’s “South of Gandy” neighborhood (home of Mac Dill Air Force Base) does them up right. The owner grew up catching fish just blocks away on Ballast Point Pier, and now slings some of the best catches in town including the popular grouper sandwich (served grilled, blackened or fried) and grouper reuben on rye bread with thousand island dressing as well as shrimp po boys and lobster corn dogs. The old Florida vibe is complete thanks to casual picnic tables, cold brews, and a laid back outdoor setting.

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