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Oct 5, 2013 06:01 AM

Destination-worthy in Tampa?

I'll be in Clearwater Beach for a wedding next month, and am staying for a few extra days to hang out at the beach. I'm pretty sure we're going to rent a car, and we'd like to drive to Tampa one night for dinner (likely a Sunday or Monday, if that makes a difference). What is worth the trip?

For parameters: we're coming from Boston, so hopefully something we can't get there. We'd love either Southern or Cuban or something that's creative/unique to Tampa. We'd like to spend no more than $50-60 a head. This definitely does not have to be *fine dining* - we get plenty of that in the Northeast.

I've heard a lot about the Refinery and Edison - are either of those fantastic?

Thanks for any ideas!

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  1. For Cuban/Spanish, head to the Columbia in Ybor City near downtown Tampa. Good food, good service, in a beautiful setting. Not five-star, but rock-solid, and showcases the regional favorites. Book for the dance show if you're of a mind.

    Bern's Steakhouse is legendary - at the upper end of your budget, but well worth it. Make sure you reserve your spot in the Dessert Room, and ask for a tour of the kitchens and mindblowing wine cellar - reportedly the largest on the entire eastern seaboard.

    10 Replies
    1. re: sunshine842

      sunshine842, your post re: Columbia Restaurant, Ybor City is a lifesaver. gfr1111's post is also helpful.

      SO is in Tampa and needs a place for dinner.

      I'll report back . . .

        1. re: financialdistrictresident

          Finally got a chance to ask SO how Columbia was.

          Service was okay. Wine list is limited.

          He said the bread was the best part of the meal.

          His colleague had the grouper and said it was good.

          SO started with a caesar salad. The lettuce was not romaine and it was old. Also, it didn't have anchovies and they didn't ask him if he wanted anchovies.

          For his main he had the ropa vieja and it was too tomato-y and the vinegar was over the top. It didn't compare with the ropa vieja he's had in Puerto Rico, Venezuela or Victor's in NYC.

          They did not have dessert.

          1. re: financialdistrictresident

            when you go to the Columbia, you have the 1905 House Salad. It's their signature dish -- not blaming you if you didn't know, but you'll know for next time. (and apologies for not mentioning it)

            The ropa vieja wouldn't be prepared like Puerto Rico or Venezuela, because the Columbia is Spanish with heavy Cuban influence -- different regions, different preps.

            1. re: sunshine842

              Thanks so much sunshine842.

              This will be helpful for the next hound. I only had a few hours notice to find a restaurant . . .

              I guess this means SO doesn't care for Spanish/Cuban style ropa vieja. Just like I don't care for Brazilian baccalau, I prefer the PR (red) style.

              1. re: financialdistrictresident

                for future reference, my usual meal at the Columbia is:

                Imported Sangria (with Sangre de Toro, mixed tableside)
                1905 Salad (tableside again)
                Snapper Alicante or Paella Valenciana (possibly Grouper à la Rusa, because it's unusual and delicious)
                Cafe Cubano, media y media (heavy coffee mixed 50/50 with milk)-- roasted across the street at the venerable Naviera coffee mill

                Enjoy the warm, crusty bread.

                Not room for anything else -- but their Tapas are generally excellent.

                1. re: sunshine842

                  sunshine842, hounds travelling to Tampa will be so grateful for your post :)

                  1. re: financialdistrictresident


                    With the full disclaimer that that's IMO, of course.

                    (you can find the menu here:

                  2. re: sunshine842

                    At The Columbia I order the 1905 salad with the al ajillo shrimp, and I mop up the garlicky sauce with the Cuban bread. Also their paella is pretty good. Only their St.Armands location in Sarasota serves stone crabs, and they have them every opening day of the season, Oct. 15.

                    1. re: Veggo

                      which does bring up a big caveat -- I've eaten at a number of the other location, and while it's still good, it's not the same as the original.

                      The 1905 Salad was (along with black beans and rice) in regular rotation when we lived in France, as it's just so good. Guests thought it was great, too, especially as a meal salad.

        2. Sunshine 842 nailed it. If I were looking for a representative Tampa meal, and could only go for one meal, these are the ones I would choose from.

          I was blown away by the Refinery the two times that I was there, and its chef was nominated for Best Chef Southeast by the Beard Foundation last year.

          On the other hand, reviews on the Florida Board have been mixed. Consistency of quality appears to be a problem. They rotate the menu weekly, so being able to produce quality results through repetition and practice is not something that they can rely upon. By the time that that have a dish down, it's "on to a new menu." I like this approach, but it does result in less consistency.

          I'd go to the Columbia for Cuban food and order the 1905 salad and the "expensive" sangria (they have two--the one with brandy in it is less sweet and delicious--the cheaper one is way too sweet), paella, and tres leches for dessert. ZI'd skip the flan, which, unfortunately, is not as good as elsewhere.

          Berns is a unique experience. Jeffrey Steingarten named it one of the two best steak restaurants in the United States. I'd go for the ribeye. Be sure to reserve for the dessert room and have the Bananas Foster. The two places where this dessert was the best for me were New Orleans' Brennan's (where it was invented) and Bern's.

          As for the wine collection at Bern's. What I have read several different places sounds hard to believe, but is, apparently, true. It has the largest collection of wines for sale in the world! (If anyone tells me that the Sultan of Brunei has a larger collection, I'll defer to them, but is that collection something from which you can buy a bottle?)

          17 Replies
          1. re: gfr1111

            I've only ever heard that it's largest cellar east of the Mississippi, but it's something like 10,000 bottles.

            Want a bottle of Gallo? they've got it. Want a shot of a 1789 Cognac, yeah, they've got that, too.

            1. re: gfr1111

              True, largest list in the world.
              l am slowly, not that slowly, working my way through it.
              Have been there @ 70 times.

              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                We could do Berns when it's your turn to buy.
                Oh, is your turn!

                1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                  OK Veggo, will do
                  you drive, you reserve.
                  Ask for one of Lisa's tables and let us do it on November 18th
                  Time whenever you wish.

                  We could have a chowdown, you handle that as well if you wish.

                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                    Deal. I'll take care of details and e-mail you.

                    1. re: Veggo

                      The 1945 Lafite is way off the table.

                      Probably dessert is off as well,never eat it, anywhere.

                      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                        I won't reserve the dessert room. I'll trust you with the wine list, but that probably eliminates the 1863 Madeira, also.

                        1. re: Veggo

                          Damn, was looking forward to buck a shuck.

                          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                            I just spoke with the wine steward, they still have an ample supply of 1982 Petrus, FYI.

                              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                Save yours for special occasions, we'll just drink theirs.

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  You guys have all the fun. A lot more fun than when I go to Tampa. Every time I'm at Bern's these days I'm with my parents. They're fine parents, but how much can you eat and drink when you're with your parents? My dad says I spend too much money on wine and my mom says I drink too much wine. Enough to make me want to go hide with a bottle of Petrus and drink it by myself.

                                  1. re: Bkeats

                                    Looks like a good % of the NY board goes to Bern's. We just got back from Longboat Key/St.Pete's/Tampa vacation and both nights we were in Tampa, we were in Bern's. Same as we did last year. The friends we go with (who live in NYC too) have a copy of the original wine book & we drink very well there at such minimal cost that I'm getting to believe that I can amortize my plane & hotel costs by eating at Berns instead of Luger or Manhattan places.

                2. re: gfr1111

                  Wow, sunshine, DCM and Veggo have all been to Tampa. I guess I have to raise the place up a little in my view as a destination. As someone who grew up there, I'm always surprised to find people who have gone to Tampa on purpose.

                  That said the Columbia and Bern's have been standbys since I was a wee tyke. More birthday dinners than I can recall have been held at Bern's. Sure you can get steak anywhere, but where else do you get decor that looks like contemporary bordello as I used to call it? (Only matched in modern times by the Strip House in NYC).

                  I would say that I'm personally not a fan of the dessert room. In the ancient days of my youth, dessert was served at the same table you had dinner at. At some point to keep the tables turning, they created the dessert room. It was jarring the first time we were told we had to leave the table and go to another room to have dessert. Still feels odd to me.

                  My family had some contact with the Laxer family. I recall being told that Bern, the founder, spent most of his time sourcing wine once the restaurant was well established. He would buy the entire production of small estates. I don't know if its true, but I was told there was a time that the price that a bottle of wine went onto the list was the price it would always be no matter how long the bottle was on the list. I remember going with a girlfriend after I graduated from college. We had a regular waiter that used to wait on the family. Since he knew I was an impecunious recent grad looking to impress my date, he pointed out a bottle of 20+ year old bordeaux that was less than $20. Amazing even to a 21 year old.

                  You should experience Bern's.

                  In St Pete, just to see the place, check out the Don Caesar. Have lunch outside. It harkens back to another time. A relic from the Great Gatsby era.

                  1. re: Bkeats

                    I've been to Bern's a number of times, to the dessert room a few more times for special events, and one bizarre night when I was stone-cold sober, allowed myself to be harangued into singing an entire set of standards with the legendary (and sadly, late) Dino accompanying me.

                  2. re: gfr1111

                    Greg Baker of the Refinery has now been nominated for a James Beard award for the past three years in a row.

                  3. Thanks for the suggestions!

                    I know i specified Tampa, but we are actually willing to drive anywhere within 30 or so minutes of Clearwater Beach. So, St. Pete or anywhere else would work, too.

                    I've never been to the Tampa area (even though I grew up in Miami), so I don't really know the geography or what is feasible.

                    13 Replies
                    1. re: nyc_to_ma

                      Went to CHARLEY'S STEAK HOUSE last night for the first time and I feel its better then Berns by far. Service, quality, taste, selection, and price was great. Large free parking lot or free valet was available together with a bread basket that knocked my socks off. I cancelled my resv at Berns because they said no T-Shirts, no shorts, no jeans. Charley's does not have a
                      dress code. I will be returning to Charley's very soon for the 60 mile trip from Sarasota.....

                      1. re: irwin

                        Did you wear your Speedo? I'm comfortable dressing appropriately for Bern's, and I appreciate a reciprocal courtesy by others in the dining rooms. As to the privacy of the dessert booths upstairs, have at it.

                        1. re: Veggo

                          I agree -- there are golf shirts and khakis on the gents, and capris and sandals on the ladies, so the dress code at Bern's isn't exactly a burden.

                          1. re: Veggo

                            I agree. It's nice to go somewhere and not see shorts and flip flops. I don't think a business casual dress code should be much of a burden.

                          2. re: irwin

                            l go to Bern's for the wine list, all other good things are just gravy.

                            1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                              Seriously, Irwin, put on some pants. You are not even a snowbird.

                              1. re: CFishman

                                Well, he summers in Maine....He mentioned a bread basket that "knocked his socks off"; maybe he compensates for the shorts with the traditional over-the-calf socks with sandals...:)

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  black socks with sandals that fasten with Velcro, of course.

                                  Plaid shorts, natch.

                              2. re: irwin

                                Bern's is a beautiful place. When i was there, i wore a dressy outfit, and my husband wore a sports jacket. i was not pleased to be in an elegant white-tablecloth kind of restaurant and see people in shorts. I'm glad they changed their dress code. You don't need to wear a tux, you just need to be nice and neat. I would feel really uncomfortable in a place as nice as Bern's wearing a t-shirt and jeans. That kind of clothing is more appropriate for Denny's or the Waffle House. Just sayin'.

                              3. re: nyc_to_ma

                                If you're already on Clearwater Beach, Frenchy's is about as far from fine dining as you can get, but it's a great local chain with a few beachfront locations, specializing in super-casual Gulf seafood. French's Rockaway Grill is the biggest, with arguably the best view:

                                I know you're from Boston so you should already have access to delicious seafood, but the local seafood down here should be very different from what you're used to up there.

                                1. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                                  and next week is the start of STONE CRAB SEASON.

                                  backflips, cheers, and excitement all round.

                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                    Repeating the infamous words of John Belushi...
                                    "Let's DO IT!"

                              4. If you want unique head south on Gulf Blvd, to the other end of the beach. Near St. Petersburg Beach and visit Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish.
                                You can find out all about it and see the menu at
                                It's old Florida casual and the food is always good. Plus if you take the beach route you can stop anywhere along the way and take a swim.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Imatraveler

                                  I took this drive earlier this year and really enjoyed it. We stayed on St. Pete Beach and had lunch at Ted Peters, mid-afternoon gelato at Larry's, and a surprisingly good dinner at the restaurant at the Postcard Inn. Then we drove straight up Gulf Boulevard to Clearwater Beach the following morning and had an awesome lunch at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill.

                                2. The Refinery, SideBerns, all great bets. let us know how it all goes!