Many out-of-towners think Tampa is mostly about Cuban food. Fair enough. It is home of the famed Cuban sandwich. (Sorry, Miami, local historians have unearthed documents that reveal the sandwich's true birthplace as the cigar factories of the city's Ybor City neighborhood a century ago.) But as someone who has called Tampa home for nearly three decades, I've seen this town's food scene — once decidedly ho-hum — undergo something of a renaissance in recent years, with new restaurants fusing Florida traditions with local ingredients and some pretty cutting-edge cooking.
You can't visit Tampa and not eat Cuban. Period. Like most locals, I have my favorite joints, some more hole-in-the-wall-ish than others. West Tampa Sandwich Shop & Restaurant (westtampasandwichshoprestaurant.com, 813-873-7104) tops my list for its friendly vibe and fantastic Cuban food. Despite lots of American-style fare on the breakfast menu (all good), skip them and instead order Cuban toast — Cuban bread slathered with butter and hot-pressed to crunchy perfection (regular size, $1.60; large, $2.10). It also does a nifty riff on this traditional dish by adding a little honey to the butter before pressing (regular, $1.80; large, $2.10). I also often opt for a lightly sweet empanada de queso y guava (a crispy empanada filled with cream cheese and guava paste, $2.45). Pair with a shot of Cuban espresso ($1) or cafe con leche (small, $1.55; medium, $2.20; large, $2.40), espresso and steamed milk. If you're here for lunch, get the Cuban sandwich — correctly made, Tampa-style, with mustard, pickles, Swiss cheese, roasted pork, ham, salami and Cuban bread (small, $3; regular, $3.60; large, $4.80). As with the toast, there's a version with a touch of honey.
Menus offering umpteen different dishes tend to make me feel paralyzed by choice. Yet I'm blessedly neurosis-free here. Maybe it's because the Hall on Franklin (thehallonfranklin.com, 813-405-4008) is really seven restaurants under one roof. Tampa's first taste of the American food-hall craze is no mere highfalutin food court. Think an eclectic mix of food-and-drink vendors, plus traditional sit-down restaurant service at high-top, regular and coffee tables beside low, comfy leather couches. Trendy, sure, but a great place for lunch — especially when everyone in your group has different tastes. Favorites from recent visits include Heights Fish Camp's grouper BLT sandwich ($12.99) and peel-and-eat shrimp with wasabi cocktail sauce ($10.99) — both updated takes on a Gulf Coast standards — and Poke Rose's eponymous bowl of sesame-flecked and ginger-spiced ahi tuna cubes, scallions, edamame and chia seeds atop radishes, jasmine rice and greens (small, $11.95; large, $15.95.) Catering to drink tastes here is easy. You'll find all manner of coffee, soda and chocolate drink concoctions at Kofe. For those after something with a bit more kick, try the Collection's wines and cocktails. Although I'm a die-hard Negroni fan, I also like founder and Hall partner Ro Patel's signature take on a classic Gibson cocktail ($12), garnished with little pickled onions and a sliver of freshly shaved black truffle.
A legend well beyond Tampa, Bern's Steak House (bernssteakhouse.com, 813-251-2421) has always seemed to be more than the sum of its parts. And what parts it has. From the outside, its nearly windowless white stucco walls make you wonder if you've got the wrong address. Beyond the front door is a warren of cozy rooms and hallways that appear to have been decorated by some bordello madam oenophile. Then there's the upstairs dessert room, with several dozen podlike private booths fashioned from wine casks, each equipped with six-channel stereo sound systems and phones so guests can ring the nearby lounge pianist with their song requests. And I haven't yet mentioned the restaurant's justifiably famous, phonebook-size wine list (and absurdly big and vampiric wine cellar) and menu of steaks and other signature dishes. If this sounds ghastly or wonderful, you're right. It's both. And more. Though I typically troll restaurants' daily specials for novel tastes, I'm a creature of habit here, starting meals via a wine-picking confab with a sommelier, followed by a signature house French onion soup au gratin with garlic and spelt toasts ($7.50). Next is an old-school Caesar salad ($11.95), prepared tableside by a black-jacketed waiter. For a main course, I invariably go for a chateaubriand ($48.20 for the 11-ouncer) and baked potato. I may skip dessert but never a visit to the dessert room and at least after-dinner drinks. Though I've sampled a fair number of sweets here, my favorite is Bern's riff on a classic baked Alaska, made with macadamia nut ice cream and served aflame ($13.95).
Abercrombie is a writer based in Tampa. His website is paulabercrombie.com; find him on Twitter: @paulabercrombie.