Tampa is a real melting pot of a city. It began when Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish cigar manufacturer, arrived from Cuba. He liked what he saw and opened his factory in the part of Tampa known as Ybor City.
He invited other cigar manufacturers to join him and made it the cigar manufacturing capital of the world. Tampa’s early settlers were Cuban, Spanish, Sicilian, Italian, Romanian Jews, and other immigrants. Each ethnic group brought their native food and culture. This created a blending of tastes found only in Tampa.
5 Must-try Tampa Restaurants
2117 E. 7th Ave. // 813-248-4961
Much of the food found in Tampa today began with Columbia Restaurant. It’s roots run deep. Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. helped to open the Columbia Saloon on Dec. 17, 1903 and is now one of the oldest Tampa restaurants.
He became the owner and named it Columbia Restaurant in 1905. It is the oldest in Florida and now the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. is credited with inventing the Cuban Sandwich, although Miami claims they invented it.
The Cuban Sandwich is a culinary ethnic educational experience. Each part of the sandwich represents one of the groups that settled Ybor City.
The Spanish contributed ham, Sicilians loved salami, the Cubans wanted roast pork, the Germans and Jews brought their traditional Swiss cheese, pickle, and mustard. All placed on Cuban bread, then pressed to melt the cheese and heat the other ingredients.
Cuban bread is another Tampa invention. La Joven Francesca bakery, owned by Francisco Ferlita, a Cuban-Spanish-Italian immigrant.
It operated from 1896 until the 1960s. The Ybor City Museum State Park, housed in what was the bakery, has its oven and tells its story.
I had to try their traditional 1905 Salad. Tony Noriega, one of their servers, invented it in the 1940s. Our server tossed the crisp iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, olives, julienne of baked ham, Swiss cheese, and grated Romano cheese at our table.
He topped it with Lea & Perrins® Worcestershire sauce and Columbia’s own famous garlic dressing. USA Today named Columbia as “One of 10 Great Places to Make a Meal Out of a Salad.” They weren’t kidding.
In spite of the filling salad, I sampled Croqueta de jaiba. It’s a Ybor City version of Devil Crab Croquettes that became popular during hard times for cigar workers. When there was a strike in the late-1920s, the workers found blue crabs plentiful in Tampa Bay and Cuban bread was cheap.
The street venders combined the crab meat with enchilada mix, a tomato-based Cuban/Italian spice called “chilau.” They tossed it in stale Cuban bread and deep-fried it. The ones I sampled at Columbia are spicy and have a good amount of crab meat.
Another popular tapa dish I sampled was Gambas Al Ajillo. It is large shrimp sautéed in extra-virgin Spanish olive oil, seasoned with fresh garlic and chili pepper.
Their Shrimp and Crabmeat Alcachofas is served with Cuban crackers. It’s a baked shrimp, crabmeat and artichoke hearts casserole topped with grated Romano cheese. The mixed seafoods blend well with the artichoke and the cheese gives it a savory touch.
I’m not a big fan of calamari, but the Calamares Fritos Romana here is a fried calamari recipe that brings out the seafood taste of the calamari.
Dessert had me loving something that I didn’t think I like—guava. Their Guava Turnover Carmita was a sweet turnover of guava and melted sweet cream cheese.
They bake it in a soft crispy pastry and top it with powdered sugar and vanilla bean sauce. This was Carmen Hernandez, Casimiro Jr.’s wife’s favorite dessert. It gave me a whole new look on guava.
Hernandez’s original restaurant was a small corner building and very distinctive when compared to the other Tampa restaurants. Today, Columbia is more than a city block and has 15 dining rooms with a seating capacity of 1,700. Each room is unique and makes you feel like you are visiting a museum. The architectural style reflects the cultural blend.
There’s a touch of Moorish architecture in the curved door and many of the tile murals. The art and old brick walls in some areas feel Spanish.
Today, fourth and fifth generation family members own and operate Columbia. I met two of the owners, Casey Gonzmart, Sr. and his son, Casey, Jr., who were dining in the Spanish courtyard dining room.
The bar is the original one dating back to 1905. The wine cellar is one of the largest private Spanish wine collections in the world.
Many celebrities have dined at this gem amongst the Tampa restaurants including Marilyn Monroe, Stephen King, Babe Ruth, Liberace, George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen, and others. There is live music on Friday and Saturday. If you visit at night, you can see the Columbia Restaurant Dance Troupe performing traditional Spanish Flamenco dances.
1724 East 8th Avenue // (813) 247-1896
James Joyce Irish Pub is also in Ybor City and one of the better Tampa restaurants. I told you it’s a blend of cultures. It’s a smaller, more intimate dining choice than Columbia, but it holds its own. It’s a red brick building, but it adds enough green so you get the Irish feel as soon as you approach. It has an outdoor patio and side deck for cooler days.
Step into the dark wood interior. If it is a cool day—that happens occasionally in Florida—there may be a fire blazing in one of the two fireplaces. The stained-glass windows let in a dim light aided by brass chandeliers.
The bartender behind the 30-foot-long dark wood bar offers you a choice of 50 beers on tap, a bottled brew of a choice of cocktails. You have a lot of choices there too, as they stock about 30 Irish whiskeys and lots of other spirits. They won seven times the Tampa Bay Times “Ultimate Bar of the Year” award.
Their bar and kitchen blend well. Chef Trey Taylor is innovative, and it works well. Their Jamison Burger has earned them accolades for “Best Burger” at Burger Showdown, held annually at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. It’s a huge mouthful of beef mixed with Jamison’s whiskey and a few other bits of culinary magic.
The Shepherd’s Pie, made from beef, lamb and Irish red potatoes, some vegetables, and a generous touch of Guinness beer, is another example of mixing alcohol and food.
Their menu is small: starters, burgers and salads, but those are expertly prepared. I wasn’t very hungry when I dined there, but another choice on their menu intrigued me: the Rueben Quesadilla.
I had to try it and was thrilled with the combination of German and Mexican culture in this Irish pub. It was corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut wrapped in a crispy fried tortilla shell and served with mustard and thousand island blended dip.
The smooth cheese blended with the sharp sauerkraut, so it didn’t overpower the corned beef. The dip added that bit of spicy tang to make this a wonderful experience.
If you happen to be there on St. Patrick’s Day, this is the best of the Tampa restaurants to be in. It’s open daily from 11:00 AM to 3:00 AM. Another bonus for frequent guests is its reward card that gives you bonuses and specials the more often you dine there. It’s pet friendly—if your furry friend happens to be traveling with you.
1810 North Highland Avenue // 813-999-4952
This is one of those Tampa restaurants on the Riverwalk is pronounced You-lay-lee in honor of the Princess Ulele. According to local legend, she was the daughter of Tocoboga chief, Hirrihigua.
In 1528, she threw herself across 17-year-old Juan Ortiz, a member of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, who was sentenced to be roasted alive as vengeance for Spanish aggressions against the tribe.
Whether the legend is true or not, the vibrant fusion of ingredients from Florida waters and land once home to the Tocobaga people paints a picture of how native Americans dined in the 16th century. The décor is equally fun.
The outside area has vibrant orange and black seating covered with large yellow umbrellas to protect from Florida weather.
The courtyard is decorated with Native American sculptures, including a stature of Ulele. There is an outside bar and a 10-foot barbacoa grill for some unique grilling. There is also an on-site brewery to keep you supplied with cold ones if you prefer brews to cocktails or wine. As you enter and leave via the Riverwalk, there are quirky fairy tale scenes like Humpty Dumpty and Jack and his beanstalk.
Inside, there are more statures like a larger-than-life wild horse that dominates one section. Brick walls and stained-glass windows reflect the churches the Spanish conquistadors left behind in Spain.
The food here is unique. Things like Native Chili made with alligator, wild boar, venison, duck, ground chuck, cranberry beans and chili spices. You can up the game and get the Loaded Chili that adds jalapeño, red onions, and white cheddar.
I ordered the Gator Tails. They were fried crisp and seasoned with a tangy chili marinade and served with a remoulade sauce that added a touch of spiciness. One of my friends ordered the Florida Pompano “Pallardy.”
It was pan-seared fresh pompano, topped with a beurre blanc sauce and crawfish tail meat. The wild rice blend, crispy carrot ribbons and asparagus looked delicious.
For dessert we shared a Pineapple Upside-Down Bread Pudding and a Candied Bacon Maple Ice Cream. The ice cream was different and had a crispy corn flake crust, Knob Creek créme anglaise, caramel, and waffle crisp. The bread pudding was my favorite. I could taste the pineapple and enjoyed the refreshing toasted coconut ice cream. The dark rum sauce gave it a buttery-liquor flavor.
They earned a Michelin Recommendation, so you know they are doing something right. That’s why it’s one of the top rated Tampa restaurants.
6821 N Armenia Ave. // (813) 935-5106
One thing you always want to do when traveling is dine where the locals do. Housewife Bakery & Cafe is one of those Tampa restaurants locals know about but never show on tour guides.
Located in a former grocery on North Armenia Street near the Lowry Park Zoo, it’s a small family business serving Tampa since 1959.
It began with Louis Perrone who returned to Tampa after World War II. He married Frances Alessi, daughter of Nicola and Rosalia Alessi, founders of Tampa’s Alessi Bakery in 1912. His son- and daughter-in-law, Anthony and Dana Perrone, took the reins and recently passed them to third-generation owner Tena Perrone.
The small building is decorated with a mural on its side wall depicting cookies, pies, and a gingerbread house done in a fanciful style.
There is nothing small about the array of cookies displayed in the cases when you enter the café. Brownies, nibble mix, Italian cookies and other delectables, about 32 varieties of cookies share one case. Pastries, mini eclairs, mini cream puffs, guava turnovers, and more share another case. Carrot cake, German chocolate cake, chocolate fudge cake, cream pies, and cheesecake have pride of place in a tall revolving case that made my mouth water just by looking.
I bought a few varieties of the cookies to enjoy as I drove to all the attractions in Tampa.
The cafe serves breakfast and lunch, as well as sweet delights. Their dishes mingle the families’ Italian recipes with the Cuban culture so prominent in Tampa. They serve a Cuban pork roast or Italian sausage with peppers and onions, chicken, and yellow rice.
They serve the traditional Cuban Sandwich on their own Cuban bread with salami, ham, cheese, pork, pickles, and a mix of mayo/mustard. One of the Italian-inspired dishes is their Scacciatta. This is not exactly a pizza but similar, with tomato sauce, meat, and their own secret sauce on their special dough base.
Macaw’s Landing Café
1101 W. Sligh Avenue // (813) 935-8552
Of course, when you come to Tampa, you want to see some world class attractions. One is the Lowry Park Zoo. While most zoos have just the hot dog and snack stands if you want to eat there, Lowery Park has a more upscale one.
It’s Macaw’s Landing Café. It’s not Michelin level but has some pretty tasty sandwiches and salads. After visiting my favorite Florida panther, Lucy, it was one of the better Tampa restaurants.
One of their most popular is their hand-pressed burger or cheeseburger. For salads you can choose either a Cobb or Caesar salad. There are frozen custards or hand spun milkshakes.
I choose the Classic BLT. It was served piping hot on generous toasted bread slices. The lettuce and tomatoes were fresh.
My salad that came with it was small but had some juicy cherry tomatoes and slices of cucumber on a dish of mixed greens. You choose a packet of your favorite dressing; I tried the raspberry vinaigrette. Just tangy enough for me.
Tampa Restaurants Wrap Up
There’s something about Tampa and the city here. Whether it’s the things to do or the Cuban sandwiches, It’s something for you to find out next time you’re in town.
Visiting other destinations in Florida? Check out our other guides:
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I’m Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, GA, currently publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. I live in Middleburg, FL but travel extensively, mainly in the U.S. I’m the author of travel books, Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts, and Wild About Florida series, and several novels. All available at my site, katywalls.com/.
Publications I write for include Travel the South, Roadtrippers, Travel Awaits, World Footprints, Snowbirds and RV Travelers, Family RVing, Deep South, Florida Country, and more. My photographs appear in many publications. I also do videos. I’m a proud member of International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers (IFWTA), Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), and North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA).