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.
For example, even when my kids were young and I ate a lot more fast food, I liked Chick-fil-A, Steak-n-Shake and others enough, but when I see enough people voting for any fast food eatery to place it in our readers’ top-10 — especially now, when we have more than 150 different restaurants between our two markets — I always feel like I need to have my say, too.
But, when I get to sit down to a perfect medium-rare, bone-in ribeye (photo) or big filet, with spicy bourbon creamed corn, a Caesar salad (with or without anchovies) and a glass of Malbec from my favorite restaurant in Wesley Chapel — Dempsey’s Steak House at Saddlebrook Resort, I know my judgement can’t be all bad. — GN
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5700 Saddlebrook Way | (813) 907-4574
From the day it first opened at Saddlebrook Resort off S.R. 54 somewhere around 20 years ago, Dempsey’s has been my favorite restaurant in Wesley Chapel — and for good reason!
It’s not because I used to live in Saddebrook before Dempsey’s opened, or because it’s the most expensive restaurant in New Tampa or Wesley Chapel. Dempsey’s gets my nod year after year because the steakhouse named for Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey always features the best hand-cut steaks, freshest, top-quality fish and amazing starters and sides.
In other words, Dempsey’s isn’t just the best restaurant in the Chap. It’s a top-5 steakhouse in the Bay area, as good (and as pricy) as the Council Oak at the Seminole Hard Rock, Fleming’s, Charley’s and the 1200º Chophouse on St. Pete Beach.
When I told Saddlebrook assistant food and beverage director Geoffrey Rutgers that Dempsey’s was #1 with me again this year, the long-time Neighborhood News reader quickly set up the photo shoot for my picture on pg. 30. “I’ve trusted your picks for years and I know I’m not the only one,” he said.
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Shops at Wiregrass
2000 Piazza Ave #100 | (813) 907-1900
Even though Grillsmith has always made my top-10 since it first opened in the Shops at Wiregrass, it’s now grabbing its loftiest spot on my list of WC favorites since the Tampa Bay-based chain first opened because of the addition of what they call “short-trip” fresh fish (like the grouper Mediterranean style shown above; we’ve also enjoyed corvina, snapper, mahi and even pompano and never had a bad piece of fish). There’s now also a larger selection of steaks and the mashed cauliflower is the best around.
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26340 Silver Maple Pkwy. | (813) 522-5090
Bubba’s 33 may be the highest-finishing new restaurant on my list since Dempsey’s, even though it’s an entirely different concept, price-point and feel.
Local Bubba’s 33 franchisee Jeff Dean and his wife (and marketing whiz) Crista have years of experience in the restaurant business, but Texas Roadhouse’s new concept also is amazing — sports bar prices with restaurant-quality food. “Everything is house-made,” Crista says. “From our hand-tossed pizzas to our hand-cut steaks.” And, the chicken-&-not-waffles above is my current favorite brunch item in Wesley Chapel.
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26133 Lexington Oaks Blvd. | (813) 907-7270
My friends Anass El-Omari and his wife Susana only renamed and reopened the restaurant inside the Lexington Oaks Golf Club a little more than a year ago but it has been a best-kept secret in Wesley Chapel ever since. And, even though you can only get Anass’ perfect grilled mahi-mahi (above), crispy, but tender chicken parmigiana and filet mignon with cream sauce as daily specials since he revamped his own menu after the golf course was closed for renovations last year, the more golfer-oriented food is still excellent.
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2647 Creek Grass Way, Lutz | (813) 909-0003
When Jannah and I feel like a delicious filet at a fair price, with great sides included, Longhorn is the first place we both usually think of — and not just because it’s the closest steakhouse to where we live. From the tender Flo’s filet to the NY strip, Longhorn’s steaks are aways done to perfection and if you’re somehow ever not happy, management will always make it right. We love the salad, the crisp-crust bread and always-fresh veggies, too. And, although we wish the bar area was a little bigger, the bartenders and drink prices are outstanding.
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Hilton Garden Inn Tampa-WC
26640 Silver Maple Pkwy. | (813) 591-6900
Please stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, but when the Hilton Garden Inn Tampa-Wesley Chapel first opened in late 2018, it hosted a Grand Opening event, where the food served in the hotel’s Garden Grille restaurant was so good, I thought it must’ve come from an outside caterer.
Wrong! The food at the Garden Grille is excellent, from delicious crispy wings, to tasty meatballs and even a great ribeye steak. I wish the Garden Grille was open for lunch, but it’s also great for “event” food like the French toast casserole shown above.
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Shoppes at New Tampa (WC)
1640 Bruce B Downs Blvd. | (813) 907-8202
When you’re looking for the best seared tuna sashimi appetizer (photo) in Wesley Chapel, there’s no doubt in my mind that Bonefish Grill’s is #1. The thick slices are always fresh, always well-seared but still rare and covered in black and white sesame seeds. Bonefish does also feature excellent fresh fish, but not as good for my money as Grillsmith’s. And, the Outback-quality steaks are an added bonus. I can’t eat the bang-bang shrimp because of my accursed shellfish allergy, but people say it’s the best — and most often imitated — you’ll find anywhere.
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25226 Sierra Center Blvd., Lutz | (813) 540-3673
Speaking of seared tuna, Ford’s Garage probably has my second favorite version of it in Wesley Chapel, but everything — from the Buffalo chicken sandwich shown above to the prime black angus burgers to the grilled chicken Henry entrée and chop salad — is always top-quality. I feel like the burger buns are a little too big, but you gotta love the “Ford’s Garage” logo they bear. There probably is more indoor and outdoor bar seating at Ford’s Garage than any restaurant in Wesley Chapel not named Bahama Breeze (see below) and the drink prices are great, too.
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Shops at Wiregrass
28330 Paseo Dr. | (813) 703-2602
There is no doubt in my mind that with a little larger and more diverse menu, Noble Crust would finish higher on my list of Wesley Chapel favorites. I love the house-made gnocchi and unique beef and pork meatball appetizers (there’s even Impossible meatballs available now), as well as the double cut pork chop, bistro steak and chicken fried chicken parm entrées and even though the bar area is a little tight, it offers an amazing selection of ultra-premium liquor and a great, fun vibe.
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TOP SHELF SPORTS LOUNGE
AdventHealth Center Ice
3173 Cypress Ridge Blvd.
Based on my experience at other ice rinks when both of my sons played ice hockey, I had no real expectations for good food when what is now called AdventHealth Center Ice first opened three years ago. Boy, was I wrong. Not only does Top Shelf have some of the best wings, burgers and bar food around, it also serves delicious mixed veggies as a side and the beers from owner Keelan Cottle’s own 81Bay Brewing are definitely popular with the hockey moms and dads.
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5710 Oakley Blvd. | (813) 973-7717
The steak quality at the Outback Steakhouse has never been in question. The Victoria’s filet shown above is very similar in quality and price to Longhorn’s Flo’s filet. It’s all a matter of whose seasoning you prefer. In addition to the great variety of steaks, Outback also is famous for its shrimp on the barbie and bloomin’ onion appetizers, Alice Springs chicken and surf & turf options that I sadly can’t enjoy, but rewards members (like me!) get $20 off at Outback or Bonefish or $40 off at Fleming’s every third visit.
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25830 Sierra Center Blvd., Lutz | (813) 949-0779
Bahama Breeze is more than just another chain restaurant. Even though some say it’s out of place in our area because it doesn’t border on a body of water, people really buy into the tropical look and feel of the Breeze and the food is pretty good, too. Although the ever-changing Market Catch fish isn’t always an option we like, the blackened mahi tacos above, skirt steak churrasco, burgers and Jamaican-inspired specials like the braised oxtail are all tasty entrée options and we also enjoy the wings, the beef empanadas and chicken quesadilla appetizers. It’s also our area’s largest restaurant and bar area.
GLORY DAYS GRILL
28812 S.R. 54 | (813) 535-7678
When our distribution area’s first Glory Days Grill opened in New Tampa 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, less than a mile from my office, we immediately recognized that the menu had been greatly upgraded. We absolutely love the zucchini fries appetizer shown above, as well as the steak rice bowl, the grilled chicken and comeback chicken entrées, boston chowda and the 1/2-lb. proprietary blend burgers.
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24436 FL-54, Lutz | (813) 909-2122
Owners Jessica and Carl Meyers’ seemingly hard-to-find location on S.R. 54, a mile or so west of the Tampa Premium Outlets, has been bringing in hungry fans from the moment it opened and the addition of beer, wine and homemade sangria definitely hasn’t hurt business, either. Although I’ve always said that the menu could be more diverse, if you’re looking for the best lasagne, chicken or veal parmigiana (the latter is usually a special) in our area, this is your place — and the portions are huge, especially the calzones! The homemade Sicilian-style pizza is also unique and yummy.
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THE HUNGRY GREEK
2653 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. | (813) 345-8526
Any time you can offer quality food at excellent prices, you should have a chance to be successful in the restaurant biz and The Hungry Greek is proof of that theory. Years before AdventHealth Wesley Chapel opened directly across the street, The Hungry Greek was packing in the people, especially at lunchtime, with its classic gyro and souvlaki sandwiches and platters, shish kabob combo and chicken Caesar pita sandwich and the Greek salad is the most authentic and delicious in our area, too. I also really enjoy the Greek beer and decadent desserts.
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900º WOODFIRED PIZZA
Shops at Wiregrass
28152 Paseo Dr. #195 | (813) 527-6940
Here come four of my favorite pizza places and Italian restaurants in Wesley Chapel all in a row. I personally prefer the NY-style to the woodfired Neapolitan-style pizza at 900º Woodfired Pizza, but my favorite dish is definitely the freshly-made penne pesto Genovese shown above, although I usually have owner Steve Falabella’s happy crew add grilled chicken and even some sautéed spinach to mine. The penne alla vodka and lasagne are awesome, too!
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AMICI’S PIZZA & DELI
26602 Wesley Chapel Blvd., Lutz | (813) 973-9734
The new location of Amici’s on Wesley Chapel Blvd./S.R. 54 in Lutz has brought me ever closer to the Mannino brothers and their delicious pizza, like the sausage and pepperoni NY-style shown above. But, like 900º Woodfired, Amici’s makes my list of Wesley Chapel favorites in part because it features a very authentic NY-style version of another one of my favorite pasta dishes — the linguine with white clams. I can’t really call it a sauce, because it’s correctly more of a light broth, but it is loaded with whole clams and garlic and is a definite must-try!
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FRATELLI’S PIZZA & CAFE
5327 Village Market | (813) 991-1118
Even though I didn’t remember the name of their long-time, open-24-hours-a-day original Fratelli’s in the Hunts Point Market in The Bronx, NY, I am so happy that the Fratelli brothers decided to sell that location and bring their tasty NY-style pizza and pastas to Wesley Chapel. I was even happier when I first sampled the truly authentic penne with broccoli rabe, chicken and sausage shown above. You won’t find a better broccoli rabe in the Tampa Bay area and the baked pastas and hot subs also rock!
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LA PRIMA PIZZA
1211 Bruce B Downs Blvd. | (813) 907-2878
The fact that I have been friends with owner (and fellow transplanted New Yawka) Willie Lopez (and his son and pizza man Chris, photo) for more than 20 years has nothing to do with why I say La Prima has my favorite NY-style pizza in Wesley Chapel (or New Tampa, for that matter). However, it takes more than just great, oversized slices of pizza to make my list of favorite restaurants and La Prima also has really good Italian specialties like huge calzones and oven-baked meatball parmigiana subs.
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27405 Wesley Chapel Blvd. | (813) 803-7974
Although I never really thought of Puerto Rican food as one of my favorite Latin cuisines until I tried the original location of Rice-n-Beans on S.R. 54 in Lutz, the spacious and beautiful new location (in the former location of Cody’s Roadhouse) has kept me a fan of Wesley Chapel’s Rice-n-Beans, especially the amazing fried chicken chicharrons shown above. I’m also a fan of the roast pork mofongo, the grilled pork chops and chicken breast in garlic sauce. And yes, the rice and (I prefer the red) beans served with every meal are also delicious and authentic. Great drink prices, too.
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Shops at Wiregrass
28347 Paseo Dr. | (813) 907-8701
Still the only Japanese steakhouse in Wesley Chapel, Yamato has a tremendous variety of hibachi-grilled proteins (photo) and the quality of the NY strip and filet mignon, as well as the chicken and even tuna teppanyaki dishes (and veggies) is good, although maybe not quite at the same level as Kobe in New Tampa. Even so, the sushi also is fresh and Yamato even has a full, premium-liquor bar, as well as its popular sushi bar and teppanyaki tables. Jannah and I enjoy the food more than the show at Japanese steakhouses. (Photo: Yelp)
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26409 Silver Maple Pkwy. | (813) 907-8188
I can live without the line dancing, but the food and service at Texas Roadhouse are both very good and I like picking out my own steak from the steakhouse’s display window before I order my meal. I prefer the NY strip over the filet or ribeye at Texas Roadhouse, but all of them are tasty and not as heavily seasoned (or quite as expensive) as at Longhorn or Outback. And, although I usually prefer bread with a crisp crust, the honey butter Roadhouse rolls are kind of addictive. Jannah and I always sit at the bar to avoid the sometimes-long wait for a table.
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27427 Wesley Chapel Blvd. | (813) 501-4924
Not only is the fast-and-casual Arroy Thai still the only Thai restaurant in Wesley Chapel, it’s also one of the better ones in our area. I enjoy the lunch specials, which include steamed jasmine rice, fried wontons and a salad with peanut dressing for only $8.95-$13.95, depending upon the protein you choose — which for me is usually chicken or pork with garlic and black pepper sauce, although I do also love the spicy basil and fresh ginger sauces, too. I also love the crispy duck dinner entrées, although I’m not big on curry sauces or noodle dishes.
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Shops at Wiregrass
28358 Paseo Dr. | (813) 907-2306
Although I enjoy the food at Irish 31, much of the menu is fried, so I have limited options to choose from. My favorite appetizer is the crisp-and-light zucchini sticks. I also like the popular boxty (fried potato balls stuffed with everything from Shepherd’s pie to Velveeta, bacon and chives). My favorite entrées are the fish & chips (photo) and the hearty and tasty Mulligan stew. Even the salads are fresh and delicious, with the 31 chopped salad being my favorite and of course, the atmosphere is great, too.
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5335 Village Market | (813) 907-5161
Mexican food primarily means steak and/or chicken fajitas to me and I prefer Los Vallartas’ always-sizzling and cooked- to-perfection fajitas (above) to the more expensive Cantina Laredo and the better bar atmosphere of Chuy’s. Vallartas’ onions and peppers always com out well-cooked and I like the restaurant’s addition of tomatoes to its fajitas. I also really enjoy the huge menu, especially the grilled ribeye steak Mexicana, topped with grilled onions, tomatoes and jalapeños. And all of the entrées come with rice and delicious refried beans.
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 Wesley Chapel. I’m even admitting to liking three “fast food” places.-GN
Best NY Pizza
BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse
365 Caffé Italiano
Five Guys Burgers & Fries
Hot Wok 88
Jersey Mike’s Subs
NY NY Pizza
O’Brien’s Irish Pub
Umu Japanese & Thai