21 historic Tampa Bay Area restaurants that can still satisfy your cravings

The ever-changing restaurant scene in the Tampa Bay Area is a testament to a long history of diversity of epicurean options for local diners and visitors.

And while many creative spirits have taken a crack at finding the best recipes for success along with numerous regional and national chains, many longtime independent restaurants remain favorites among Florida residents. Some of these restaurants have been in business for 30, 40, 50 years or more -- a few even since the early 1900s.

Tag along as we take a culinary tour of a few of the most beloved local restaurants (we picked just 21 for now in 2021) in Tampa and the region that have been serving patrons for generations. Let's rediscover how some of these landmark entrepreneurs are doing in the face of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and what's next for them in coming months and years.

TAMPA

A veritable smorgasbord of options for local diners seeking ties to our history thrives in the City of Tampa, the geographic center of the Tampa Bay Area.

Columbia Restaurant
2117 E. 7th Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 

One of the most famous of these establishments is the Columbia Restaurant, founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., and operated after his passing by his descendants, including the restaurant’s current fourth-generation leader Richard Gonzmart.
 
“Over 115 years we have survived many challenges,” says Gonzmart, whose Columbia Restaurant has survived the Spanish Flu, two world wars, prohibition, the Great Depression, urban renewal -- and now the COVID-19 pandemic. “I believe a crisis comes at least every 25 years, and you have to be ready for it. And we were ready for this one.”
 
Some of the pandemic safety protocols implemented at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City and its sibling eateries around Florida are social distancing, the wearing of masks, extra cleaning, and other health and hygiene measures that, as Gonzmart says, “extend beyond guideline recommendations.”

Other changes at the Columbia Restaurant Group in recent months are abbreviated menus and enhanced curbside takeout options at the original restaurant in Ybor City and at the Tampa Bay History Center, Tampa International Airport, Sarasota's St. Armand Circle, St. Augustine's Historic District, Clearwater Beach's Sand Key, and Orlando's Celebration.

“We need to ensure they [customers] feel welcomed and appreciated. And, among other things, we have to smile behind our masks,” Gonzmart remarks. Through thick or thin, the crowds keep coming back for the Columbia Restaurant’s “1905” salad, paella, and original Cuban sandwiches.

But how did he keep the lights on even when the doors of the Columbia were closed last spring?

“When times were good over the last decade, we paid off much of our debt. When we were closed, we took care of our staff, paying their health insurance and 401K contributions as well as providing meals to them and their families.”
 
Gonzmart says maintaining close ties with suppliers and employees during the safer-at-home orders was vital. “During the shutdown from late March to late May, we stayed in touch with our vendors and remained current with our bills. Consequently, our vendors have taken really good care of us. And because we have been so involved in our communities, we’ve seen a real loyalty and return when we were allowed to reopen.” He adds, “And, always, we have to provide value, quality, and service.”

In addition to serving up excellent food and a world-class experience at the main Columbia Restaurant and other dining establishments in Gonzmart’s growing portfolio (including more recently opened eateries Ulele and Casa Santa Stefano), he has maintained the importance of family in the leadership of Florida’s oldest restaurant and its subsidiaries.

“We’re among the 15 oldest family-owned restaurants in the country,” Gonzmart says. “Less than 4 percent of all U.S. family-owned businesses survive to the fourth generation. So, I know how fortunate we are, and how hard we have worked over the years and generations. My daughter and my nephew are the fifth generation to be owners and operators of the Columbia.”
 
As the “fourth-generation caretaker” of the Columbia Restaurant, Gonzmart looks ahead to the future and assures continued adaptations to comply with all CDC safety protocols for as long as COVID-19 is a health concern. But there are also some more lighthearted things in store.

“We will expand the hours at our new Sicilian concept Casa Santo Stefano to include lunch and not just dinner. And we’ll open our upstairs space at Casa -- called Santo’s Drinkeria -- for more casual dining and drinks.” Gonzmart says he has other “dreams” he’s working on, “but it’s too soon to share them.”
 
La Teresita Restaurant
3246 W. Columbus Drive, Tampa, FL 33607

Established by Cuban immigrants Maximino and Coralia Capedevila in 1972, La Teresita has served Presidents, governors, senators, mayors, and other movers and shakers. Arroz con pollo (rice and chicken), pollo salteado (sauteed chicken), and ropa vieja (shredded beef) are among the many classic Latin plates that patrons have long enjoyed at La Teresita Restaurant

Thailand Tampa Restaurant
5252 S. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, FL 33611

Opening in 1979, Thailand Tampa Restaurant is billed as the first “true authentic Thai food” eatery in South Tampa. After more than 40 years, it certainly is one of the Tampa Bay Area’s oldest Asian restaurants, too. Some of the dishes that keep patrons coming back are Thai-style beef salad, pad Thai, and curry duck. 

Alessi Bakery
2909 W. Cypress Avenue, Tampa, FL 33609

Evolving from a small bakery on Cherry Street in 1912 (the year the Titanic set sail) to becoming a full-scale dining establishment with a bakery, deli, and distribution center, Alessi has long been a household name in Tampa. Founded by Nicolo Alessi, this Tampa landmark has been passed on down through the generations and remains a family-owned and -operated company today, serving up an array of customer favorites, including Cuban sandwiches, scachatta, deviled crab, eclairs, cookies, and more. Many may be more familiar with Alessi Bakery's resplendent wedding cakes, which undeniably rank among the top in the baking industry.

Malio’s Prime Steakhouse
400 N. Ashley Drive, Tampa, FL 33602

The Malio’s name has been a mainstay in Tampa fine dining since 1969, offering up delicious steaks, an outstanding wine selection, and an ambiance that has lured the biggest names in sports, entertainment, and politics for decades. Now located in downtown inside the tall round building at the corner of Ashley Drive and Kennedy Boulevard on the Tampa Riverwalk, Tampa’s suit-and-tie / skirt-and-scarf crowd can often be seen and heard over the sizzle emanating from the grill. But one can only reminisce about past doings at Malio’s former location on South Dale Mabry (now LA Fitness), where memories recall myriad sports contracts, big-time business deals, political wheeling and dealing, longtime love affairs, and quickie romances taking place over many a memorable dinner. 

Jerk Hut
1241 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa, FL 33612

Partly named for a spicy blend of seasonings the Arawak native peoples used in preserving and cooking meat, Jerk Hut has become Tampa’s go-to place for authentic -- and delicious -- Jamaican food, including jerk chicken, plantain sandwiches, and oxtail meals. Founded by Andrew Ashmeade in 1993, Jerk Hut has since grown to include three locations in Tampa, including its flagship restaurant on Fowler Avenue in the Uptown District, a restaurant in Seminole Heights, and one in South Tampa. Due to the pandemic, Jerk Hut has temporarily closed its dining rooms but is offering takeout and delivery.

Bern’s Steak House
1208 S. Howard Avenue, Tampa, FL 33606

The name “Bern’s” is synonymous with elegant dining experiences unlike one will find elsewhere in the Tampa Bay Area, and it’s a well-deserved reputation. Bern's traditions, such as a strict no-shorts policy, are upheld without waiver -- a commitment to unyielding standards that come through in every steak, each bottle of wine, all bowls of Crème Brulee, and in the many other entree and dessert favorites served to locals and out-of-towners since 1956. 

Mel’s Hot Dogs
4136 E. Busch Blvd., Tampa, FL 33617

Just a stone’s throw from the entrance of Busch Gardens stands Mel’s Hot Dogs –- the place for classic Chicago-style wieners since 1973. Musician Mel Lohn founded his now-iconic hot dog haven after moving to Tampa from Chicago and longing for the hot dogs he loved back home. He opened his restaurant at the corner of Busch Boulevard and 42nd street and nearly 50 years later at the same location continues pleasing Tampans, visiting Chicagoans, and folks from all over with his “real Chicago-style hot dogs.” Hours for indoor dining at Mel's Hot Dogs are currently restricted but catering and takeout are in full operation.

3 Coins Diner
7410 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa, FL 33604

Where do you go in Tampa for a real diner-style breakfast, lunch, or dinner 24 hours a day? For decades, that spot has been 3 Coins Diner, located in Seminole Heights. The menu is varied and the prices are affordable, ensuring that everybody is happy – along with their purses and wallets. Some of the longtime favorites at 3 Coins Diner in Tampa are country-fried steak and eggs, patty melt sandwiches, and chicken marsala. 

Mise en Place
442 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL 33606

Hiding behind a French name is an international bouquet of flavors that is Mise en Place, which has taken its guests on a whirlwind tour of the epicurean kind since 1986. Korean Argentina red shrimp crab pancake hints at the fusions that the restaurant’s contemporary chefs audaciously create -- and patrons love. Current menu items also include Harissa Seared Tofu, Grilled Spatchcock Chicken, Pan Seared Snapper, Duck Breast, and Molasses Pecan-Crusted Rack of Lamb. Sure, Mise en Place tempts the curious down the culinary brick road, but those who wish to stay closer to home can always opt for the L.A. pizza or the fried green tomatoes salad.
 
During the pandemic, Mise co-Founders Maryann Ferenc and Marty Blitz also have been hosting virtual wine tastings with sommeliers and winemakers, sometimes from their new restaurant, The Dewey, in Pass-A-Grille. So patrons can tip a glass from the comfort of their own home while enjoying the luxury of delivery (within a certain distance from the restaurants) of an entree or two and getting tips for pairings while chatting up the other participants. Check-in with Mise en Place for more details and signup information.

The Cuban Sandwich Shop
10434 N. Florida Ave., Tampa, FL 33612

There seems to be a myth around Tampa that the best Cuban sandwiches are found only in the heart of the city near West Tampa or Ybor City. Not so at all, as The Cuban Sandwich Shop near Forest Hills proves. This family-owned North Tampa restaurant has been making award-winning Cuban sandwiches since 1975 and offers an array of other affordable, delectable menu items, including deviled crab, stuffed potatoes, and a savory variety of breakfast choices. 

Press Box
222 S. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, FL 33609

Every big city needs a local sports bar, and since 1978 the place to catch a few brews, generous portions of grub, and a great game is The Press Box. This South Tampa institution, known as the town’s “original sports emporium and eatery,” has seen it all: Memorable World Series championships, exciting Super Bowls, and, of course, those endless years in the 1980s and 1990s spent crying over your beer at the Press Box when it seemed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just couldn’t catch a break -- or a football. 

Jimbo’s Pit Bar-B-Q
4103 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL 33609

The décor in this rustic barbecue outpost will take you back in time to the days of the Yukon explorations, the Old West, or at least to 1970 -- the year Jimbo’s Pit Bar-B-Q opened its doors at this Westshore location. This local family-owned and -operated restaurant serves up some mean ribs, sweet BBQ chicken sandwiches, and platters that will please even the most discriminating critics of the tangy, sweet, and spicy. 

Clearwater and St. Petersburg 

Pinellas County is a vivid mosaic of more than two dozen communities harboring a diversity of people from wealthy landowners and international travelers to ordinary retirees, immigrants, and workers, to the poorest of the poor in one of Florida’s most densely populated regions best known for sandy white beaches and an artsy vibe. Adding to this cultural mosaic is a rich blend of restaurants catering to every tastebud imaginable, with many of these eateries having served locals for generations. 

Frenchy’s
41 Baymont St., Clearwater, FL 33767

One name that has been prominent on the seafood scene up and down the Pinellas County shoreline is Frenchy’s, a now-famous bar and grille that launched from humble beginnings in 1981.

“Frenchy’s” isn’t just a catchy name -- it refers to an actual person who began building his way to local fame with a small restaurant on a side street just off Clearwater Beach some 40 years ago. With lines forming out the door, Quebec-born Michael “Frenchy” Preston decided to expand -- and expand he did. Frenchy’s Saltwater Café opened in 1989, Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill debuted in 1991, Frenchy’s South Beach Café welcomed customers beginning in 2003, and Frenchy’s Outpost Bar & Grill premiered in 2013. “We are all very humbled and excited about our big Frenchy’s Original Café 40th Anniversary,” says Jay Cabral, Frenchy’s marketing representative.
 
Even though many longtime dedicated patrons have been visiting Frenchy’s since the last days of disco, there are new faces that show up all the time -- and they get hooked on the seafood and other delicious offerings without fail. Cabral recommends newcomers cast their lines on the grouper sandwich. “But they’re going to have to figure out which preparation. … We have a few to choose from!” He says. “They all start with the same fresh Gulf grouper caught by our own fisherman, so you can’t go wrong. I would recommend our equally famous garlic crab fries or tuna-stuffed avocados with a frozen rum runner to start.” 

While throughout most of Frenchy’s history crowds have been jam-packed at the bar and around tables, things have been a little different lately at this popular local chain of seafood restaurants in Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges to Cabral and restauranters throughout the Tampa Bay Area.

“It’s been an opportunity to fine-tune and improve our carryout business,” he says. “We learned much about delivery partners, logistics, and the impact of little things, like container choices. The trial by fire brought about by the pandemic accelerated our knowledge base just as (ironically) we were opening our new carryout/delivery concept [called] Frenchy’s To Go.”
 
Looking ahead toward the rest of 2021, the Frenchy’s crew will be opening Frenchy’s Stone Crab & Seafood Company. “This new-and-improved facility will serve as a greatly expanded processing facility for our fresh fish and stone crab harvest. Better yet, it will also have a public retail shopping experience that should exceed many overpriced, grocery-based seafood counters without a dent in the wallet. Fresh, fair, and fabulous!” 

Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber
447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater, FL 33767

Clearwater Beach has seen myriad changes since Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber opened its doors in 1948. This seafood restaurant offers the classics, including New England clam chowder, escargot, and oysters on the half shell. But along with the surf are plenty of menu items hailing from the turf, such as filet mignon, black Angus burgers, and Mediterranean pizza. 

The Chattaway
358 22nd Ave. S., St. Petersburg, FL 33705

This homey hangout blends Old Florida with the English isles for a unique experience that can’t be found anywhere else. The Chattaway has been a staple in various forms for more than 90 years, and part of its charm is the ambiance. British Afternoon Tea includes assorted sandwiches, scones with Devonshire Cream, Crumpets with Irish Butter, Petit Fours, Raspberries and Cream, and all the English tea you can drink. During evenings and weekends, local bands can be heard jamming away on the stage while firepits heat up the cooler nights. This eccentric, cash-only landmark offers a diverse menu that includes cheeseburgers, shrimp baskets, and salads. 

Casita Taqueria
2662 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, FL 33713

Casita Taqueria is one of the more recently established St. Petersburg restaurants to have opened its doors yet is no less a part of the community fabric. Since launching a decade ago, Casita Taqueria has built a loyal following over four locations and countless tiny tacos ranging from carnitas and pollo Verde to carne asada and Brussel sprouts. Burritos, tortas, salads, and beer also spice up the menu.

Harvey’s 4th Street Grill
3121 4th St. N., St. Petersburg, FL 33704

Since 1984, Harvey’s 4th Street Grill has been serving up grouper, steak, salads, soups, pasta, burgers, and just about everything else that makes every day dining a special occasion. Rounding out the repertoire is a full bar, a robust wine list, and various specials that help make every visit to Harvey’s 4th Street Grill unique. Don’t forget to check out the Full Moon celebrations. 

Beyond Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater

The Tampa Bay Area’s three largest cities -- Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater -- are home to some of the best restaurants in the country, but other communities also deliver when it comes to tried-and-true flavor.
 
Hellas Restaurant & Bakery
785 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs, FL 34689

Just ask devotees of Hellas Restaurant, a popular Tarpon Springs landmark that has become the staple for Greek food in a town known as having the highest percentage of Greek Americans anywhere in the United States.

Hellas Restaurant Head Chef and General Manager Manny Psomas says Bob and Maria Karterouliotis founded the bakery in Chicago in 1970 and, after moving to Clearwater in 1982, soon moved their operations to the Tampa Bay region. They opened their eatery in 1984 having taken over a building that was once the home of Pappas Riverside Restaurant, an iconic local establishment founded in 1925 and that moved within Tarpon Springs before relocating to a prominent corner lot on Dodecanese Boulevard and N. Pinellas Avenue in 1975; Pappas Riverside Restaurant closed in 2005. 

Firmly one of the most popular Greek restaurants in Tarpon Springs, the name “Hellas” derives from the word “Hellenic,” which describes anything Greek. And when it comes to how Greeks eat, Psomas asserts the main course alone just won’t do. “Greeks don't just eat one item, they put out a spread -- salad, saganaki, bread, seafood, lamb, baklava.” He says those visiting Hellas Restaurant should remember there’s something for every tastebud. “When it comes to eating at Hellas, you should ask yourself what you're in the mood for? What's better, an apple or an orange?” Yet, the food isn’t the most important thing at the table, he remarks. “It’s who's around it.”
 
Who’s around Hellas Restaurant these days? Psomas says the restaurant closed for a short while in spring 2020 during the early days of the pandemic but has since been operating at 50 percent capacity, compliant with current CDC guidelines. 

“Handwashing is a must, sanitizing tables and chairs after diners leave -- it's really just an extension of what we were already doing before the pandemic.” Looking ahead in 2021, Psomas says the restaurant will continue adapting to the pandemic as necessary. “We will continue to ensure the safety of all workers and guests.” 

Eli's Bar-B-Que
360 Skinner Boulevard, Dunedin, FL 34698

Originating from a rolling barbecue cart operated by butcher Elijah "Eli" Crawford, Eli's Bar-B-Que has been a Dunedin favorite since the late 1990s. While Crawford passed away years ago, his family and loved ones still operate this cash-only walk-up restaurant, open only Fridays and Saturdays. Yes, the lunch and supper lines can get a bit long here, but the smoked ribs, chicken sandwiches, and other good eats at Eli's Bar-B-Que are certainly worth the wait. With their location right along the Pinellas Trail, it's safe to assume it has served as a pit stop (pardon the pun) for many hikers and a delicious end-of-the-trail reward for so many others.

The Whistle Stop Grille & Bar
915 Main Street, Safety Harbor, FL 34695

Ever thought about having a hemp burger? How about a paleo shrimp bowl? These, along with a range of classic offerings and flavors from around the United States can all be found at The Whistle Stop Grille & Bar. This eclectic Safety Harbor landmark beckons diners with its colorful yard art, inviting outdoor seating, and homey theming. The location has been a hot spot in Safety Harbor for decades. It was originally a drive-in ice cream parlor known as Frostee Harbor, which Dawn and Patrick Pendola purchased in 2000 and transformed into The Whistle Stop Grille & Bar.
 

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.
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