Even though I know many of us are, like me, tired of mainly chain restaurants opening in our area, the fact is that all of the newcomers continue to expand our dining options in New Tampa and, especially, in Wesley Chapel — and that is good news.

Also encouraging is the fact that many of the later newcomers — and many of the chains already announced as still to come — are eateries that we at least haven’t had in our area before.

For example, after my recent visit to Orlando, I am really excited about the Saltgrass Steakhouse (see page 40) that will open, hopefully before 2020, between the Tampa Premium Outlets and I-75, just as I was pretty pumped that both MOD Pizza (which opened n 2018) and Blaze Pizza (which opened earlier this year; again, see pages 40-41) coming to our area, even though there will never be anything better than true New York-style pizza at the top of my Favorite Pizza list. But, I am a fan of the new “fast casual” pizza options — and I also like that MOD and Blaze both also have excellent make-your-own salad options.

There are some surprises on my list for 2018 and please realize that I got to wait until 2019 to make my choices (unlike our readers, who had to submit their surveys by November of last year), but I still have not included any restaurants on this list that were not yet open in 2018.

I will say that all of the new chain options did make it more difficult for me to pick just 50 favorite restaurants — I likely considered at least 100 different eateries between our two markets for this list. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed doing the research for it. 

    As it has been since it opened, the only problem with Dempsey’s Steak House at Saddlebrook Resort is that the average working guy can’t afford to eat there, other than for a very special occasion. With its $40-$60 steaks and all a la carte pricing, I wouldn’t eat at Dempsey’s at all, other than the fact that everything from the filet mignon to the bone-in ribeye steak (photo above) is as good as anywhere you’ll find in Tampa — including Council Oak, Fleming’s and Charley’s. The fresh seafood is equally impressive and there’s no doubt that the crab cake appetizer and sides for two are unequaled. 
    I feel like I’ve known Stonewood’s Tampa Palms proprietor Dave Rathbun forever, but the bottom line is that this mini-chain is known for great food at fair, but certainly not bargain prices, and for outstanding service. Whether for lunch or dinner, dining at Stonewood (or even just enjoying food and beverages at the bar), is an experience, not just a meal. Is it worth $5-$10 more for Stonewood’s aged New York strip or filet mignon than you’d pay at Longhorn or Outback? I’d have to say yes. Recent menu changes, like the southern fried shrimp platter shown below (that I can’t eat because of my accursed shellfish allergy) and reasonably priced bowls (like an excellent tuna poke bowl) for lunch have moved Stonewood up to my favorite restaurant in New Tampa.

Anytime a restaurant I’ve tried before adds new menu items that are in my dining “wheelhouse” — like the addition of truly fresh “short trip” fish, like the mahi-mahi Mediterranean style pictured above at Grillsmith — I have to give it a try. But, while a lot of places do mahi or grouper, Jannah and I have gotten to enjoy wahoo, cobia and snapper at Grillsmith, which also has the best mashed cauliflower and sautéed spinach in our area. With a little better variety of steaks, Grillsmith could challenge Stonewood for #2.

Whenever I’ve compiled my list, I try to think of the places that I have visited the most and what I realize is that Jannah and I have spent a lot of time sharing food at the bar at Longhorn. Yes, it’s only a mile from where we live, but we love sharing Longhorn’s Flo’s filet and I feel the outlaw ribeye is a pretty good value. We also love the recent addition of cheesy baked cauliflower (you can get it that way for broccoli, too), as well as the salad, bread and the outstanding service at the bar. 

Bahama Breeze was fast becoming our favorite new restaurant last year when the Island Grille stopped having any “fresh catch” other than swordfish on the menu. We recently got to enjoy a fresh mahi-mahi at Bahama Breeze, and I do really enjoy the Jamaican specialties, but additional steak (top sirloin or filet) and chicken options would help. 

Ciccio Cali continues to please with three yummy tuna “Cali Bowls” on the menu, as well as the chicken and baby broccoli stir-fry, new spicy Brazilian bowl, wrap sandwiches and thin-crust pizzas. Other new menu items include two hummus appetizers, a vegan chopped salad and even the “impossible” burger. Nice wine selection, too. 

Without additional new menu items added in 2018, Little Italy’s dropped a few spots on my list, but it still has the best veal parmigiana and lasagne in our area and their pizzas and calzones are back. A fresh fish special and some veggie sides would be welcome additions.

Acropolis continues to expand its menu with more authentic Greek and Middle Eastern dishes, but my favorites are still the lamb chops, the Athenian fish and the Greek salad. Acropolis would finish higher on my list if I loved the roasted veggies and other side dishes.

When Noble Crust opened, I loved that there was usually a fresh fish special and I do still love the double-cut pork chop, chicken fried chicken parmigiana, pizzas and sides like broccolini, garlicky greens and crispy Brussels sprouts, plus the homemade desserts.

Sukhothai’s fresh sushi (especially the tuna tataki) and combination fried rice are still among my favorites in our area and I also love the crispy duck with ginger sauce, the new tuna sashimi poke bowl and the shoes-off, below-floor seating. 

Despite another limited menu (unless you really love burgers), Jannah and I do crave the ahi tuna appetizer, chop-chop salad, chicken Henry and petite filet at Ford’s Garage, which also has good veggie side dishes and white cheddar mashed potatoes. 

Our readers’ new favorite pizza place definitely makes my top 5 for favorite New York-style ‘za, but what really helped the new location move up in my rankings were the authentic linguine with white clam sauce and tasty veal and eggplant parmigiana.

The ambiance is second to none and the food never disappoints. I love Thai Ruby’s fresh fish specials and the crispy duck with ginger sauce is still the best in our area. This is a great place to start an intimate date night.

I haven’t always placed Liang’s this high on my list, but I realize that it does feature my favorite New York-style barbecue spare ribs, great egg rolls and the sautéed green beans are among my favorite veggie dishes in the area. We always order them spicy!

My favorite non-chain newcomer in New Tampa and Wesley Chapel, Omari’s menu will continue to grow as more folks make requests, but with super-fresh, chef-prepared dishes like the flounder almendrine pictured above, it is a definite must-try.

Kobe already had the highest-quality hibachi steaks in our area, but Jannah and I also love it for its reasonably priced appetizers at the full-liquor bar.

Still my favorite New York-style pizza in our area and the Italian fare, like veal parmigiana and lasagne, also gets high marks.

The best blackened wings I’ve had, amazing salads and great sandwiches in a comfortable setting keep The Fat Rabbit in Tampa Palms high on my list.   

One of my top-five New York-style pizza places, which also has the best penne with pesto Genovese in our area. Try adding fresh spinach and grilled chicken. Yum!

If you like getting great value for your money, you’re probably already one of the regulars at Hungry Greek, which features our area’s best gyros and authentic Greek salads.

Another highly-ranked newcomer on my list, I haven’t yet sampled the fresh fish sauté special, but the Fiesta Fridays, wings, burgers and salads are all top-notch.

The menu continues to move towards more authentic Chinese fare, but I love Fushia for the best Chinese combination fried rice and beef with Chinese broccoli in our area.

Jannah and I definitely enjoy the Victoria’s filet and the Alice Springs chicken, and I do think the bone-in natural cut ribeye is a good value for the money.

Up there with Sukhothai for the best sushi in our area, I also enjoy the soft shell crab appetizer, the kitchen-made hibachi fare and the tempura and ton katsu fried options.

Not only has the new location on BBD in Wesey Chapel added some new menu items, the addition of real bacon for breakfast has upped OTB’s stock with me a lot.

This newcomer in the former Woody’s location in the Wesley Chapel Village Market features very good pizza and excellent penne with broccoli rabe and sausage.

Our area has more than its fair share of value Japanese restaurants, but Ginza’s Mongolian beef, sushi and appetizers are all-you-can-eat for $12.95 during the week.

Although some say the quality of the food isn’t the highest, Jannah and I can’t get enough of Vallarta’s chicken fajitas, which are better than the rest in our area.

It’s still pretty new, so I haven’t sampled all of the menu for breakfast or dinner yet, but the Pan Asian ribs and NY strip steak are both enough to keep me coming back. 

Just a tad below Ginza for my tastes, I do enjoy the fact that the hibachi is cooked tableside and the even-lower-than-Ginza price of $10.95 for weekday lunch.

Rest of Top 50 Alphabetical

Arroy Thai -Great garlic & black pepper sauce!

Bonefish Grill-Two words: tuna sashimi!

Bonsai Sushi-Popular for sushi & Japanese fare

Bosco’s-Try the gator pizza & pasta

Capital Tacos-Tasty fajita salads

Culver’s-Good burgers, amazing frozen custard

FJ Expresss-New value-priced & tasty Japanese fare

Hibachi Express-Best prices for tasty hibachi!

Irish 31-Great salads & upscale pub grub

Lanna Thai-Really good food, great atmosphere

Minerva-Lamb kababs & Chinese-style fried rice

NY NY Pizza-Try the Grandma’s pizza!

Oakley’s Grille-Best burgers & now great meatballs

O’Brien’s Irish Pub-Burgers, tater tots & karaoke

Prost Kitchen & Bar-Best schnitzel & spaetzle

Texas Roadhouse-Good steaks, bad line dancing

Top Shelf-Great wings & sauteed veggies

Wolf’s Den-Inexpensive, good breakfast choice 

Woodfired Pizza-Great pizza & salads (Bearss) 

Yamato Japanese Rest.-Good hibachi fare

Gary’s Favorite NY Pizza

1. La Prima Pizza

2. NY NY Pizza

3. Amici Pizza

4. 900° Woodfired

5. Taste of NY

6. Best NY

7. Fratelli’s

8. Capri

9. Pizza Mania

10. Westshore 

Gary’s Favorite Steak

1. Dempsey’s

2. Longhorn

3. Stonewood

4. Omari’s Grille

5. Outback

6. Kobe

7. Texas Roadhouse

8. Garden Grille

9. Yamato

10. Ginza

Gary’s Favorite Asian Fare

1. Sukhothai

2. Thai Ruby

3. Liang’s Bistro

4. Kobe

5. Fushia

6. Sushi Café

7. Ginza

8. Koizi

9. Yamato

10. Arroy Thai 

Gary’s Favorite Burgers

1. Oakley’s Grill

2. Sonny’s BBQ

3. Stonewood

4. OTB Café

5. Bayscape Bistro

6. Top Shelf

7. Bahama Breeze

8. Grillsmith

9. Burger 21

10. Five Guys

Gary’s Favorite Pasta

1. Fratelli’s

2. Amici

3. Omari’s Grille

4. Little Italy’s

5. Bahama Breeze

6. Noble Crust

7. La Prima Pizza

8. Stonewood

9. Garden Grille

10. PizzaMania

Gary’s Fave Ice Cream/Yogurt

1. Bruster’s

2. Culver’s

3. Snowrolls

4. Twistee Treat

5. Cold Stone

6. Happy Cow

7. Batter & Dough

8. Baskin-Robbins

9. Menchie’s

10. Dairy Queen

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