There’s a restaurant revolution happening in Tampa, with reliable old-school joints as well as new, edgy bistros.
We recommend starting with the venerable Columbia Restaurant. The downtown Ybor City staple has been a landmark on the Tampa scene for decades, combining history — its grand exterior features ornate tilework, while inside you’ll find a tranquil Spanish-style courtyard — and fine dining.
At 52,000 square feet, the Columbia spans an entire city block, making it the largest Spanish restaurant in the world; and in this case, bigger is also better. The 1905 Salad, Columbia’s birth year, is sublime, as is the grouper wrapped in pastry dough with asparagus and red peppers. Columbia also makes a terrific Cuban sandwich (ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and salami on Cuban bread).
For a new-retro experience, go back in time with a visit to Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club. For entry, you must know the secret password, (obtained by calling the swanky establishment). It’s worth the effort. The staff sports Prohibition-era garb, and there’s a cool secret room behind a bookcase.
The topic of who serves the best Cuban food in town is the center of much debate. The finest Cuban sandwich just might be served at the delightfully quirky West Tampa Sandwich Shop. The Obama Sandwich was born after the former president ordered a honey Cuban at the small but charming diner, a Cuban drizzled with honey, plus lettuce and tomatoes. You also can’t go wrong with the chorizo sandwich or the plantain omelette.
Don’t miss La Segunda Central Bakery, which has been in existence for more than a century. Its chewy, delicious Cuban bread is a local treasure. The same could be said for the tasty guava turnovers and flan.
New eats on the block
As far as new restaurants go, Ulele is setting a standard. The building itself is a draw, a historic pumphouse that’s been repurposed into a light-filled restaurant with huge windows overlooking a palm-strewn backyard. The only difficult decision is what to try. Do you request the pan-seared pompano, or the gouda grouper? Whatever you do, wash it down with the home-brewed honey lager.
For Mediterranean fare, Haven will not disappoint. The octopus carpaccio and the Wahoo ala Plancha (it’s escargot, live a little!) are worth the visit.
Raise a glass
According to USA Today, Tampa is the No. 3 beer city in the country, with over 30 craft breweries, and more are on tap.
Cigar City Brewing is not just a beer lover’s destination. True beer geeks can take a behind-the-scenes tour of the brewery and see its equipment up close. The variety of their brews is staggering, which is apt since you’ll be staggering well before last call. If you like sours, you won’t go wrong with the Guava Passion Berliner at the Coppertail Brewing Company, but don’t skip the French Oak Black Cherry Porter.
The luxe Aloft Downtown Tampa offers libations at its modern cocktail lounge W XYZ, where the atmosphere is casual by day and sophisticated by night. Relax by the infinity edge pool, which overlooks the scenic Hillsborough River with a view of the Moorish minarets on the bucolic University of Tampa campus while a DJ spins during weekends.