Tampa Bay Eats!

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“It’s easy to impress me. I don’t need a fancy party to be happy. Just good friends, good food, and good laughs. I’m happy. I’m satisfied. I’m content.” -Maria Sharapova

Once I stepped foot back in my hometown of Tampa, I felt like a kid in a candy store.  I couldn’t wait to try out all of the new restaurants around town that I have heard so much about.  Obviously, I payed a visit to all of my old favorite go-to spots while in town. But this time around, I made it a point to add some new (highly-anticipated) spots to my regular dining rotation. Whether you are visiting Tampa Bay for the first time or live here year round, take a peek at some of my favorite restaurants in the area.

Ulele.
Tampa (Tampa Heights)
Two words to describe how I felt after my dining experience at this upscale, gourmet restaurant? Blown. Away. Ulele is located along the Hillsborough River next to the newly restored Ulele Spring. The decor is some of the most beautiful and unique that I have seen in Tampa to date. The restaurant is named after Ulele, the young daughter of a local Tocobaga Indian chief believed to have saved a member of a Spanish expedition out of love. A beautiful bronze statue of her stands outside of the restaurant.

From the 18th century French stained-glass panels to the amazing collection of artwork that lines the walls, not a single detail was forgot when it comets to the design of this sleek and elegant restaurant. The feel of this spot (not to mention the menu) is nothing short of perfection.

During my first visit I had the Ulele burger but they are known for so many incredible dishes such as the grouper, yellowfin tuna, and the remarkable steaks that come directly from the Strickland Ranch (family owned establishment). The Okra Fries are made from hand-cut okra tossed in lime juice and sea salt with house-made ketchup and beyond delicious.  The Crackling Pork Shank is also among one of my favorite dishes on the menu.

The expansive outdoor patio offers some of the best scenic views in town, and the on-site brewery/rooftop dining area is a must as well. Whether you want to go for happy hour and enjoy some handcrafted cocktails and appetizers or have a special dinner out, don’t miss out on the gem that is Ulele!

Annata.
St. Petersburg (Downtown)
Annata is extraordinary in every way.  I absolutely loved the super trendy  look and the rustic feel that was enhanced by all of the exposed brick walls inside the restaurant. The ambiance was warm, cozy and completely inviting. Though their wine list is extremely extensive, the bartender put us at ease as he made personal recommendations for each one of us and even allowed us to taste before making our bottle purchases.  After only a few short minutes of arriving, we had already been seated outside with a delicious (custom) charcuterie board in front of us. It was filled to the brim with hand selected, unique cheeses, cuts of meat and all of the accompaniments. My girlfriends and I ordered a variety of small plates to share, which was the perfect way to go.

I highly recommend the flat breads (we chose the one with Speck, Sweet Soppressata and Prosciutto di Parma– and it was out of this world!) We also had the pan seared scallops, the sweet potato gnocchi (O M G!) and the braised short ribs. We all loved every dish equally and could not stop talking about how amazing every bite was. Not only that, the service was exceptional as well. What a great addition to the already amazing selection of killer restaurants that line Beach Drive in downtown St. Petersburg! This would be the perfect place for a date night or a girls’ night out.

Columbia.
Tampa (Ybor City)
I love, love, love The Columbia. No trip home is ever complete without a visit to this historic restaurant for lunch or dinner.  The Columbia is famous for being Florida’s oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. To be around that long, it’s gotta be good! Where do I even begin with their mouth-watering menu? Everyone who has tasted the 1905 Salad understands why it has been selected as “One of America’s Top 10 Best Salads” by USA Today. I also love the Spanish bean soup as a starter and their authentic Cuban sandwich.  Don’t forget to top off your meal with a cool glass of refreshing sangria or a decadent cafe con leche.

The Oxford Exchange.
Tampa (Downtown)
The Oxford Exchange hits it out of the park in every measurable way. I am in love with this enchanting place which is located right across from The University of Tampa and walking distance to downtown Tampa. This quaint restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch daily and for brunch on the weekends. The menu is full of fresh, simple meals made from local, organic ingredients. My personal favorites are the chicken burger with avocado (to die for!), the club roasted turkey, and the black & blue chili dusted burger topped with blue cheese, fried egg, bacon, spicy date preserves, arugula, toasted bun and I can’t forget the fried brussel sprouts as my favorite side dish. Not to mention, they have an incredible brunch menu!

The ambiance is one-of-a-kind with a real vintage, London-like feel. The decor boasts beautiful black and white checkered floors, real fiddle leaf fig trees everywhere and ornate ceiling panels and light fixtures as far as the eye can see. As far as dining is concerned, you can choose to be seated in a beautiful atrium boasting huge skylights which let in abundant natural sunlight or inside of a typical dining room.

The Oxford Exchange is so much more than a regular restaurant, though. Before or after your meal, you can do some shopping in their gift shop which sells the most beautiful selection of home decor, vintage finds and unique, upscale gift items. There is even a coffee and tea bar and cute little nooks for reading or working. This is a great spot for people watching, and I find that it is the perfect spot for business meetings as well. I can not say enough about this spectacular place. You have to see for yourself!

Rococo Steak.
St. Petersburg (Downtown)
One word – Exceptional!  During my recent Connect Florida retreat, my classmates asked where we should dine in St. Pete, and immediately one of my favorite spots came to mind: Rococo Steak.  Since there was a large group of us, we ordered a wide array of menu items to share. Personally I ordered the 7 oz grass fed filet mignon (cooked to perfection.) Fortunately, I also had the opportunity to taste a little bit of both the ribeye and NY strip~ and both were out of this world.  The Poutine Fries are hands-down my favorite appetizer at Rococo! Let’s just say calories don’t count when you’re at Rococo. Do yourself a favor and order these fries! You will thank me later.  Fries smothered in hand cut fries smothered in wisconsin cheese curds, nueske bacon, herbed gravy-need I say more? I also love the bacon caesar salad, the creamed corn, the asparagus and of course their mac and cheese.  I seriously can not say enough great things about this place.  The food truly speaks for itself. The environment is contemporary and chic and perfect for a special dinner out. Every time I have dined at Rococo, it has been consistent and absolutely perfect!

Do you have any favorite restaurants in the Tampa Bay Area that I missed? Please leave your suggestions below as I am always looking for new spots to add to my list.

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