Every year, after we report the results of our annual Reader Dining Survey & Contest, I always feel compelled to give you my dining favorites, including all of the restaurants that opened in (or very near) New Tampa and Wesley Chapel the previous year. Some of you love my opinions; others…not so much.
Even so, most people I meet out in our neck of the woods tell me they agree with my choices more than they do those of the readers year after year.
But, having waited until after the coronavirus outbreak hit home here in Florida to give you my list of favorites for 2019 surely didn’t help matters any, as several of the eateries listed on pages 32-37 of this issue were closing, at least temporarily, rather than be open for takeout and delivery only, per Florida Gov. Ron De Santis’ order on Mar. 20.
Sadly, there’s no doubt that some on this list may not be able to weather this storm and may close permanently. Until that happens, however, please support as many of the still-open eateries on my list as you can. I know Jannah and I will.
I’m glad I got to sit down to a perfectly seared ahi tuna appetizer, a tender medium-rare filet, and a flavorful grouper piccata at my (and our readers’) favorite restaurant in New Tampa — Stonewood Grill & Tavern in Tampa Palms — shortly before DeSantis gave his order.
As for the rest of my New Tampa top-25, please read on! — GN
1 — STONEWOOD
17050 Palm Pointe Dr., Tampa Palms | (813) 978-0388
Even though it hasn’t always been my #1 favorite restaurant in New Tampa, there’s no doubt that Stonewood Grill & Tavern in Tampa Palms has been near the top of my list since the day it opened nearly two decades ago.
Stonewood continues to serve the best (and best variety of) steaks (like the 9-oz. filet mignon pictured below) in New Tampa and it also offers a daily “market catch” (like the fresh grouper piccata, with sauce on the side and perfectly sautéed spinach, right) and other specials (like lollipop rib lamb chops…mmm) that have kept it near the top of my list every year.
New GM Matt Passardi — who previously ran the Grillsmith in the Shops at Wiregrass — and his staff usually also keep their guests happy at New Tampa’s most-happening bar scene, but of course, covid-19 has shut down the bar and Stonewood’s elegant dine-in experience, at least for now. My suggestion? Get it to go while you can!
2 — THE FAT RABBIT
16029 Tampa Palms Blvd. | (813) 252-3004
The day The Fat Rabbit opened a few very short years ago, I was impressed with the look and feel of the place as a bar hangout, but I was thrilled when I sampled the food the first several times. Even though I’m not so much a wing aficionado as I am a foodie, many in our area agree that The Fat Rabbit has the best wings anywhere — blackened with a side of the Fat Rabbit cilantro sauce are my faves — as well as great burgers, “taters” (try the garlic sweet potato) and grown up grilled cheese. But, adding a Catch of the Week (blackened mahi-mahi above) moved the Rabbit way up on my list.
Shoppes at The Pointe
17004 Palm Pointe Dr. | (813) 975-1222
The Ciccio Restaurant Group has created one of the most successful slates of local eateries in the entire Tampa Bay area, with concepts like Green Lemon, Daily Eats, Ciccio Water and Better Byrd (look them all up), but Ciccio Cali has been the only one in our area since Lodge closed in the former Ciccio & Tony’s location in City Plaza. But, I have always credited Ciccio Cali as the first to bring “bowl culture” to New Tampa. The menu has been simplified, with multiple “bowl style” options (the “Lean & Clean” with tuna is my fave), plus crisp-crust pizza and famous wrap sandwiches (the Cali Club is my fave).
4 — ACROPOLIS GREEK TAVERNA
Oak Ramble Plaza
14947 Bruce B Downs Blvd. | (813) 971-1787
Although I spend a lot less time these days south of Tampa Palms on BBD, it never takes much to convince Jannah to go to (or take out from) Acropolis. Part of another successful Bay-area mini-chain, Acropolis features authentic saganaki cheese flambé and artichoke and spinach dip appetizers, a tender shish (filet) and chicken kabob duo, savory loin lamb chops and our favorite entrée — the thin, crisp, lightly fried Athenian fish pictured above. And, even though Acropolis doesn’t have a true Greek dressing, the Greek salad also is outstanding with its creamy Acropolis Greek dressing.
5 — LAS PALMAS LATIN GRILL
6431 E. County Line Rd. | (813) 803-3903
Speaking of amazing fish, owner/chef Ramses Garcia serves our area’s flakiest, tastiest merluza (like snapper) a la Rusa, as well as award-winning Cuban sandwiches and traditional specialties like ropa vieja (shredded beef), picadillo (ground beef) and arroz con pollo (chicken & yellow rice), and I really love the steaks — palomillo (in sour mojo sauce, with onions), churrasco (skirt steak with chimichurri sauce) and sautéed vaca frita (crispy beef). But, the lechon asado (tender roasted pork), masitas (pork chunks) and special pork chops (above) are my faves. You can’t go wrong with Ramses’ wife Ana’s award-winning tres leches dessert, either!
6 — BAYSCAPE BISTRO at Heritage Isles Golf Club
10630 Plantation Bay Dr. | (813) 994-3445
Former Wharton High culinary teachers Eddie and Lourdes Bujarski have created an impressive restaurant inside the Heritage Isles GC clubhouse. With a more extensive menu, Bayscape would finish even higher on my list, because it’s hard to beat for breakfast, lunch and dinner,. There are great wings, burgers, salads and sandwiches, but my faves are the dinner “signatures” like country fried chicken and slow-roasted, top round roast beef with brown gravy pictured above. It’s been a while since Jannah and I stopped in for dinner and Friday night karaoke, but the last time we were there during the week, the chef-made pasta bar was incredible.
7 — FUSHIA ASIAN BISTRO
Shoppes at Amberly, Tampa Palms
15317 Amberly Dr. | (813) 903-6705
If you still haven’t tried Fushia, you’ve been missing one of New Tampa’s best-kept secrets. Fushia may not serve traditional New York-style Chinese food, but it features many dishes I love you won’t find anywhere else in our distribution areas. I’m partial to the pan-fried pork dumplings, but Fushia has a large menu of dim sum (served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. only) appetizers, plus all-you-can-eat Chinese hot pot and Korean BBQ, but my faves are the yang chow fried rice, the spicy yan jian pork, dry pot chicken and the beef with Chinese broccoli shown above.
8 — THAI RUBY
Shoppes at Amberly, Tampa Palms
15319 Amberly Dr. | (813) 558-0570
As Thai restaurants go, Thai Ruby is the most beautiful Thai place in New Tampa and also has the best food, especially since Sukhothai closed a couple of months ago. The spring rolls, ginger chicken, the spicy Thai combination fried rice (with chicken, beef and pork), the Siam chicken, filet of grouper and soft shell crab are all top-notch and Thai Ruby may have the largest selection of veggie dishes you’ll find anywhere (I love the steamed broccoli with carrots, green beans and snow peas), but this is the place I go when I have a craving for crispy duck, whether its the tender roast duckling shown above or the “fancy” duck with sweet & sour sauce.
9 — KOBE JAPANESE STEAKHOUSE
Pebble Creek Collection
19601 Bruce B Downs Blvd. | (813) 994-6600
For those who crave the teppanyaki (hibachi) table experience in our area, you won’t find a better choice than Kobe. And, even though Jannah and I usually sit at the bar rather than share a table with families with young children, you get the same great meal, just without the show. Kobe definitely has the best-quality filet mignon, sirloin steak and chicken of any Japanese restaurant in our area, and you can even get pepper-crusted tuna tataki hibachi, as well as beautiful-looking surf-&-turf combos with lobster, shrimp and scallops that I (sadly) am not able to enjoy. The sushi is really good, too.
10 — LIANG’S BISTRO ASIAN CUSINE
17515 Bruce B Downs Blvd. | (813) 978-1225
Even though I prefer many of the entrées at Fushia a little more than the main dishes at Liang’s, there’s no doubt that this is a very nice, upscale Chinese (with other Asian options) restaurant with very good food. My favorite entrées are the steamed (with mixed veggies) or Liang’s crispy fish, the sizzling Shanghai steak and Sichuan chicken, but I love Liang’s for its New York-style BBQ spareribs, the teriyaki wontons and especially, the crispy egg rolls shown above. The item Jannah and I take out most often, though, are Liang’s awesome sautéed string beans, but I order them in a spicy chili sauce, rather than the usual oyster sauce. So good.
11 — FULL CIRCLE PIZZA
Pebble Creek Collection
19651 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. | (813) 994-3700
Don’t get me wrong…even though I find the deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza shown above very tasty, I’ll never say I like it as much as the New York-style pizza I grew up with. And, even though I know that deep-dish and thin-crust Chicago pizza is a big reason why many locals love Full Circle, I’m actually a much bigger fan of the other delicious menu items owner/chef Freddy Nova and his wife Julia have added since taking over the place in 2017. My favorites are the chicken and broccoli in garlic and oil and the meatball and chicken parmigiana subs.
12 — SUSHI CAFE
The Walk at Highwoods Preserve
18015 Highwoods Preserve Pkwy. | (813) 977-7800
For anyone who’s asking, for my money, Sushi Café has the best sushi in New Tampa or Wesley Chapel. With a huge assortment of sushi rolls, including some truly unique options like a Pacific fusion roll with spicy tuna, crunch, cucumber and avocado on top, plus a wide variety of sashimi, Sushi Café also has one of the best spicy tuna tataki appetizers in our area (photo). I also really enjoy the “hibachi from kitchen” entrées, like the filet mignon and chicken options, even though (especially because?) there are no teppanyaki tables. I also recommend the crispy chicken katsu and chicken and veggie tempura.
13 — GINZA
6417 E County Line Rd. | (813) 907-1688
When you’re looking for the best value for your money in our area, I believe that Ginza has to be in that conversation, especially for lunch Monday-Friday, which costs only $12.95 for adults ($6.95-$8.95 for kids 4-14) for all of the sushi, appetizers and entrées you care to eat. Even at $21.95 for adults and $8.95-$12.95 for kids for dinner, it’s a great value, especially when you consider the quality of the unlimited egg and spring rolls, pan-fried pork dumplings and dishes like the spicy Mongolian chicken shown above (the Mongolian beef also is top-notch). And, while Ginza’s sushi may not be quite as good as Sushi Café’s, I do enjoy Ginza’s white meat fish sashimi, California roll and others.
14 — KOIZI ENDLESS HIBACHI & SUSHI
Shoppes at The Pointe
17012 Palm Pointe Dr. | (813) 971-1919
Anytime you get into a discussion with a local about which endless hibachi and sushi restaurant they prefer — Koizi or Ginza — things can get a little heated. Koizi is $1 less for adults for lunch ($11.95) and dinner ($18.95)and it actually does have teppanyaki tables (above), I just have long felt that the quality of most items, especially the appetizers, is better at Ginza. Even so, the hibachi filet mignon, New York strip steak and chicken are all pretty good and there is a great variety of sushi and sashimi available. The teriyaki and black pepper chicken are also pretty good options .
15 — WOODFIRED PIZZA
2822 E. Bearss Ave. | (813) 341-2900
The first woodfired pizza place to open in (or near) either of our distribution areas is known for its high-quality pizza ingredients, as well as owner Peter Taylor’s unique pizza names — like my favorite Pizza Raquel, which features house-made fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, grana padano cheese and olive oil, to which I usually add either pepperoni, fire-roasted sausage or Italian-style meatballs (Peter’s “carnivore” pizza has all three) and fresh spinach. The wood-fired meatball appetizer and wings also are delicious, and I’ve yet to sample the wood oven petite (4-oz.) filet mignon, but the classic Caesar, Greek and iceberg wedge salads are excellent, too.
16 — LITTLE GREEK
New Tampa Center
19022 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. | (813) 972-0707
Although it’s a completely different kind of eatery than Acropolis, Little Greek also has really good Greek food, as evidenced by the crowds that usually are in line (but always moving; great service!) during lunchtime. In addition to the only true gyro sandwiches (photo) and platters in New Tampa, this still-growing small chain (with around 30 locations in Florida and 50 total in six states), also features excellent steak, chicken, salmon and even lamb skewers, spanakopita, falafel, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and hummus and the only true Greek salad dressing in zip code 33647.
17 — SAKE HOUSE
Shoppes at Amberly, Tampa Palms
15311 Amberly Dr. | (813) 977-3838
This unassuming little sushi bar and Japanese restaurant has previously been called Fong’s Sushi and Sushi Raw, but one thing has remained consistent through all of its incarnations — really good sushi (photo) and specialties like gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) filled with your choice of pork, chicken or shrimp, tempura (shrimp, chicken, beef, scallops, salmon, veggie or even tofu), and beef and chicken teriyaki. The seared tuna tataki appetizer is outstanding, and among my favorite rolls are the tuna trio (spicy tuna inside, red and white tuna on top) and the OZ roll, with fried grouper and spicy crabmeat.
18 — OAKLEY’S GRILLE
17631 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. | (813) 523-5075
Even though the restaurant hasn’t been owned by anyone with the last name Oakley in a few years, current owner Luca Ammirati is a native Italian who has added a number of specialties from his homeland, starting with authentic fried meatballs served with the tomato sauce on the side. The last time I was in Oakley’s, Ammirati had not yet added penne carbonara, lasagna or penne al ragu (meat sauce), but all three are now listed on his website, so I definitely need to stop in to try them. And of course, Oakley’s still has my favorite bacon cheeseburger and crisp fries in New Tampa.
19 — ISLAND FIN POKE CO.
6417 E. County Line Rd. | (813) 575-8002
This newcomer, which was opened by former New Tampa residents Brenda and Jeff Sproat in late 2019, has established itself as the first Hawaiian-style create-your-own poke bowl place in New Tampa. I love the regular and spicy ahi tuna options as my protein (I usually do two scoops of spicy and one scoop of regular), and there are unique options like spam, octopus, shrimp and tofu, plus veggie options (like regular and spicy pickled veggies, edamame and corn), but as the Sproats say, the thing that sets Island Fin apart are the sauces. I really only need the OG and Island Fire marinating sauces…and an occasional Dole whip dessert.
20 — THAI LANNA & SUSHI
Cross Creek Center
10022 Cross Creek Blvd. | (813) 991-0108
For those of you who don’t live off of Cross Creek Blvd., Thai Lanna is another excellent (and pretty) Thai place that also really good appetizers like the Thai spring rolls, pan-fried dumplings (bottom right in the photo) fried calamari and even fried eggplant. There are three kinds of crispy duck, with the volcano duck (with mixed veggies and sweet chili sauce) being my favorite. Try the and crab fried rice! Thai Lanna also has really fresh sushi (cooked shrimp sushi and California roll are shown above), too.
21 — MR. DUNDERBAK’S
Oak Ramble Plaza
14929 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. | (813) 977-4104
When the original Mr. Dunderbak’s was in the University Mall, I thought it was a cool place for German food, even though I really only had roast bee and pastrami sandwiches there. The location on BBD (which has been around the last 15-20 of its 45 years in business) has a much more diverse menu, and I really enjoy German dishes like the crispy jagerschnitzel (available in veal or pork, both are great) shown above, and the kassler rippchen (pork chops). I’m not a big beer drinker, but Mr. D’s biergarten has a huge selection and is always packed. Great European chocolate selection, too.
22 — PETRA MEDITERRANEAN
17503 Preserve Walk Ln. | (813) 898-8991
If you’ve ever had a hankerin’ (as I sometimes do) for authentic beef shawarma hand-sliced off a rotating spit (photo), Petra is the place for you. The authentic Mediterranean/Middle Eastern menu includes a great sampler platter, which includes fried kibbe, falafel, hummus, babaganoush and grape leaves, served with a side of tahini sauce. I also really enjoy the nabulsi fried cheese appetizer, the tabouli, fattoush and Greek salads, as well as the chicken shawarma and chicken and shish (cubed lamb) kebab sandwiches and the Petra mixed grill with shish, kufta (ground lamb) and chicken kebabs.
23 — GLORY DAYS GRILL
17508 Doña Michelle Dr. | (813) 513-7550
When this, our distribution area’s first Glory Days Grill, opened a few years ago, replacing the popular Lee Roy Selmon’s, I will say I wasn’t a big fan. However, when Jannah and I first tried the new Glory Days on S.R. 54 in Wesley Chapel, we recognized that the menu had been greatly upgraded and we have visited both locations quite a bit since then. We love the zucchini fries appetizer shown above, as well as the steak rice bowl, the grilled and comeback chicken entrées, Boston chowda and the 1/2-lb. proprietary blend burgers. Glory Days also has two sizes (7-oz. & 10-oz.) of its tasty “1988” sirloin steak and a great sports bar atmosphere.
24 — THE BRUNCHERY
17507 Preserve Walk Ln. | (813) 533-7271
For those of us who had been begging for a great breakfast place in New Tampa, owner Stanley Athan’s The Brunchery filled that void. And, even though I prefer fried eggs over easy with crispy bacon to the scrambled egg breakfast shown above, this was such a pretty picture we decided to use it instead. The Brunchery also serves a selection of “Benedict” (poached egg) breakfasts, avocado toast, a lox (smoked salmon) platter, ultimate omelets and an incredible variety of French toast options. I’m embarrassed to say Jannah and I haven’t sampled it for lunch yet, but it offers burgers, sandwiches (including tuna and grilled chicken melts) and salads.
25 — TAMPA PALMS GOLF & COUNTRY CLUB
5811 Tampa Palms Blvd. | (813) 972-1991
There was a time, like when I first purchased the Neighborhood News 26 years ago, when this beautiful club, Boston Cooker and Hunter’s Green Country Club were the only “real” restaurants open for dinner in New Tampa. But of course, you usually had to be a member to dine at TPGCC, so I really only got to eat there when I attended New Tampa Rotary Club breakfast meetings on Friday mornings — and that club still meets there every week! However, I will say that the times when I’ve gotten to have dinner at TPGCC, the food has always been pretty good, like the filet shown above.
GARY’S NEXT 25 FAVES (in alphabetical order)
All of these restaurants are very good, just not good enough (in my opinion) to make my Top-25 in New Tampa. I’m even admitting to liking some “fast food” places.-GN
Bearss Tavern & Tap
Cantina Mexican Grill
Deano’s Pizza & Pasta
Don Julio’s Authentic Mexican
Five Guys Burgers & Fries
Hummingbird Jerk House
Hunter’s Green Country Club
Jersey Mike’s Subs
Minerva Indian Restaurant
Mulligans Irish Pub (at PCGC)
PJ Dolan’s Irish Pub
Saffron Indian Cuisine
Steak n’ Shake
Taste of NY Pizza
*- Notes – Mahana Fresh & Lima both didn’t open until 2020, or they would have made this list.
** – Sukhothai, Vallarta’s (Tampa Palms), and Regina Margherita (previously called Chefs of Napoli) were all on this list before they all closed (with Regina Margherita closing the week we went to press with this issue) and El Pescador, which previously occupied Lima’s location in the New Tampa Center plaza, made my top-50 before it closed.