With the possible exception of the hotel/tourism industry, there’s little doubt that the restaurant business was among the most Covid-affected industry sectors in Florida in 2020.

And, although many of the new eateries that opened in Wesley Chapel in 2020 were delayed by the pandemic, the past year was still one of the busiest for new restaurant openings in both Wesley Chapel and New Tampa.

Among the new eateries that opened in 2020 in (and adjacent to) Wesley Chapel and New Tampa were the following and please note that ALL of these restaurants will make my list of “Gary’s Favorites” in New Tampa and Wesley Chapel for 2020 in our next issue:

1. Treble Makers — The dueling piano entertainment venue that opened in The Grove at Wesley Chapel during the early stages of Florida’s restaurant re-openings, Treble Makers was one of the few newcomers to register more than a blip with our readers, finishing as the 4th Favorite restaurant in Wesley Chapel and Favorite American Restaurant in both of our distribution areas in our 2020 Reader Dining Survey & Contest. If you haven’t tasted chef Kevin Maggard’s coconut curry grouper, fried calamari or grilled filet mignon, you owe it to yourself to check out Treble Makers for a dueling piano show on Friday or Saturday night‚ or anytime!

Via Italia’s Bolognese

2. Via Italia — With so many different kinds of pizza on the menu, you might think that Via Italia, located on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. in New Tampa was “just” a pizza place. All of the different styles of woodfired pizza are great, but try any of Via Italia’s fresh pasta dishes. Owner Roberto Maganuco has both pesto Genovese and pesto Siciliano dishes (which are amazing), but don’t wait as long as I did to try the linguine with white clam sauce — it’s the best I’ve ever had in Florida. Via Italia was voted the #9 Favorite Restaurant in New Tampa by our readers, but it surely would have finished higher had it been open longer…or in a normal year.

3. Zukku-San Sushi Bar & Grill — Again, Zukku-San opened too late to get any reader votes this year, but it is a beautiful new restaurant with a full liquor bar, great sushi and Japanese specialties (including the best tempura and chicken teriyaki we’ve had in years) and a true South Tampa vibe. Look for Zukku-San to register with our readers in 2021, too. 

4. Rock & Brews — Considering how packed the place has been (even with social distancing) inside and out since the moment it opened, we were a little surprised that the first Tampa Bay link in this small chain (on S.R. 56) — inspired and owned in part by Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of the rock group KISS — didn’t get any votes at all from our readers, until we realized that it didn’t open until a week before we shut down the voting. With great live music on the weekends and everything from unique bruschetta to sweet heat fried chicken and even pizzas on the menu, Rock & Brews will likely make our 2021 top-10.

Lima’s seafood ceviche

5. Lima Peruvian Chicken — Anyone who looks up “Peruvian cuisine” online will find out that it is considered the #1 Latin cuisine and top two or three in the entire world — and Lima has authentic Peruvian rotisserie chicken, fish and seafood ceviches, baked scallops and so much more that it’s a shame some people thought it was another Mexican place that replaced El Pescador in mid-2020 in the New Tampa Center plaza on BBD. When I announce my favorite restaurants (new or existing) in New Tampa next issue, Lima will be in the top-5.

6. Florida Ave. Brewing Co. — Another hotly-anticipated entry that opened too late to receive reader votes this year, the former location of Sports & Field on S.R. 56 has a unique menu, with items like bibimbap bowls, Chinese sticky ribs and smoked gouda lobster mac & cheese, to go with more typical sports bar fare, an amazing craft beer selection, full liquor bar and private tasting rooms.

7. Oronzo Honest Italian — –One of two fast-casual Italian places in our area to make this list, owner Dan Bavaro (who also owns Bavaro’s Pizza Napoletano in South Tampa)’s Oronzo serves house-made pasta with delicious sauces and toppings, as well as pizza-style flatbreads, unique piadina sandwiches, plus salads, desserts and more — and now serving beer and wine! Located on BBD in New Tampa, it’s worth the drive to check out Oronzo, a truly unique concept. 

8. Aussie Grill — Although I’ve always enjoyed the Outback Steak House, here is another unique fast casual concept, this one  from the folks at Bloomin’ Brands, that I really love — and not just because Jannah and I live across the street from its S.R. 56 location. We definitely give thumbs-up to the bacon burgers and the topped grilled chicken and the order-ahead system is outstanding.

Pasta di Guy’s meat oven-baked pizza

9. Pasta di Guy —  Although he didn’t need to add his yummy (love the cheese!) oven-baked pizzas for me to be a fan, Cordon Bleu (London)-trained chef and owner Guy Carmeli keeps making this already-popular fast casual Italian eatery better and promises to keep adding new house-made pastas like fresh spaghetti (but, the strozzapreti is still my favorite) and probably more appetizers. I love the creamy pesto, vodka (1/2 Alfredo & 1/2 marinara), aglio e olio (garlic & oil) and beef bolognese (which does carry a $2.50 upcharge) sauces and I pretty much add Guy’s fresh sausage to everything.   

10. (tie) Chuck Lager America’s Tavern — Jannah and I love the atmosphere and many of the dishes at this third link in the U.S. of a new chain with a menu created by celebrity TV chef Fabio Viviani. With a little more diverse menu and some better fish options, Chuck Lager could climb on at least my list of favorites for 2021. 

10. (tie) Mahana Fresh — This second location (the original is in Bradenton) fast casual concept on BBD in New Tampa is different than most other “bowl culture” places because it offers not only three different kinds of grilled chicken, but also tender grilled steak as a protein option. There also are multiple kinds of rice and spinach salad as a base, but I’m kind of addicted to the kale crunch salad, as well as the sesame ginger broccoli, garlicky cilantro green beans and Mediterranean tomatoes.

Other new restaurants that opened in 2020 that I considered for this list:

 Michi Ramen (New Tampa)When Michi Ramen opened before Oronzo on BBD in New Tampa, it was set up beautifully as a takeout-only, so I was stunned when I saw what a gorgeous restaurant it is inside, once it opened up during Covid. The pan-seared Japanese-style gyoza (pork dumplings), tempura-style soft-shell crab, and popcorn-style fried chicken with spicy mayo are my favorite appetizers. I’m not the biggest ramen fan, or Michi Ramen would surely have made my top-10 favorite newbies.

Main Event — Yes, we realize that the bowling and entertainment center is more than “just” a restaurant, but Main Event did host one of the first North Tampa Bay Chamber ribbon-cutting events following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pandemic-caused shutdown of just about everything here in the Sunshine State.

Double Branch Artisanal Ales — Again, Double Branch, located in The Village at The Grove of Wesley Chapel, doesn’t yet qualify as a “restaurant” — at least not until its kitchen opens — but it has offered pizzas from a food truck outside the craft beer brewery and should open a kitchen inside in 2021. Even so, enough of Wesley Chapel’s craft beer-crazed residents voted for it as their Favorite Bar in New Tampa & Wesley Chapel for it to finish in this year’s top-5 in that category.

Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. — As a transplanted native New Yorker, I appreciate the “legit” kettle-boiled-then-baked bagels and “Brooklynized” water used for the bagels and coffee at this new favorite on S.R. 54 in Wesley Chapel, which could contend for “Favorite Breakfast” in our distribution areas with our readers next year and already scored with yours truly this year.

Crumbl Cookie — Although it also opened too late to make a splash in this year’s Reader Survey, not since Nothing Bundt Cakes opened in the Shops at Wiregrass has any new dessert-only place created such a stir in our community. The decadent churro and s’mores cookies are our favorites of Crumbl Cookie’s rotating flavors so far and the flavors of creamy ice cream also are rotated weekly.

Arepa Mia (Lutz) —  Located in the Grand Oaks Plaza on Wesley Chapel Blvd., this authentic Venezuelan eatery offers a variety of meat-filled arepas and empanadas, as well as tequeños, chicken wings and even Venezuelan soups. Everything definitely looks, smells and tastes homemade, so I would love to see this menu expanded.

Gu Wei Noodle House (New Tampa) —  This super-authentic Chinese-style (definitely not New York-style) Chinese restaurant opened late in 2020 at the former location of  Sukhothai off BBD (near the AMC 20 Movie Theater). Noodles are Gu Wei’s specialty but I prefer the stir-fried rice with my dishes. Even so, I have enjoyed the pan-sautéed pork dumplings, the beef with broccoli, which is mild on the menu, but I ordered it spicy — and it was.

Special Mentions — Although there has been a Bonefish Grill in Wesley Chapel for years, Jannah and I love the new S.R. 56 location, which has lots more parking as well as seating at the bar. Yes, the menu is the same as always, but again, Jannah and I live across the street from Bonefish now.

And, even though Moschella’s Italian Eatery & Market opened only nine days before the end of 2020 and doesn’t have dine-in restaurant seating, what this new gourmet shop does have are prepared foods as good or better than most restaurant fare.

Let me know if I missed any that opened last year that you love!

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