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Destination Guide

France is famed for its food but what lies behind that renown is the land itself which has long produced what it took to create the cuisine?cows for butter and cream, vines for wine, seas for bouillabaisse and a melange of cultural influences to whisk it all together.

Tampa Bay profits from a similar abundance. In the warm waters of the Gulf thrive grouper, snapper, dolphin, shrimp and lobster. Not far away in Floridas Panhandle, oysters cling to anything stationary.

From the regions more than 2,500 farms come a host of winter vegetables, and in spring, fat strawberries from nearby Plant City become the feted centerpiece of many a Strawberry Festival and the focal point of many a dessert. Speaking of desserts, this may be just the place to scream for ice cream?Tampa is one of the top 10 markets in the nation for ice cream consumption!

Cattle roam vast acreage in nearby Orlando where orange and gold citrus add a pointillist touch to rolling hills covered with groves.

Not far away in the Florida Keys, tiny yellow 'limes' provide the makings of famed Key lime pie, and from the Atlantic coast just a few hours' drive away come pompano, tuna and a host of other bounty from the sea.

And heres a weirdy: Tampa likes to call itself the "Big Guava," a reference to its adoration for those tropically exotic yellow fruit that grow here in abundance and turn up in the Spanish cuisine of Ybor City as guava jelly, guava paste, guava shells in sweet syrup, and even pickled guavas!

Tampa Bay likes its beer: Tampa was the site of the states first brewery, the Florida Brewing Co. opened in 1897, and Anheuser-Busch brews and dispenses its suds at a special exhibit in its Busch Gardens theme park.

Add to all that the requisite melange of cultures, each out to imprint its own style on the regions cuisine, and you have an intriguing array of dining options that can whisk you from a Greek salad laced with creamy feta cheese to a platter of Spanish arroz con pollo with yellow rice, a sizzling steak or a savory selection of Italian pasta in the twinkling of a fork.

Not so long ago, the regions main claims to culinary fame were two dining mainstays. One, Floridas oldest restaurant, the sprawling Columbia Restaurant, which has been delivering its blue margaritas and Spanish flavors since 1905 in ornately magnificent dining rooms that cover an entire city block. And the other, Berns Steakhouse known worldwide for the excellence of its beef, and a wine cellar so extensive it lays claim to being the largest working wine cellar in the world with a wine list thats as hefty as a major metropolitan area telephone book!

Both those restaurants deserved the honor. Columbia Restaurant has been wining and dining the famed and the hopeful for four generations, winning dozens of awards for its ability to feed the contentment of 1,660 diners in 11 dining rooms that cover an entire city block. And Berns, which has been owned and operated by the Laxer family for more than 40 years, continues to win plaudits from judges for its stained glass lamps, its U.S. Prime beef aged up to 10 weeks in special lockers, and herbs and vegetables grown just for this restaurant?and thats not even to mention the 65-page dessert menu or the comparatively new addition, Sideberns, designed to accommodate the main restaurants overflow of diners with a taste of what it calls One World Cuisine.

While those two retain all their justifiable fame and are a virtual must-do in Tampa Bay dining, they've been joined by a host of competitors offering a wide range of dining opportunities, both elegant and casual.
Donatello features Northern Italian cuisine, served amidst glittering crystal and shiny silver by tuxedoed waiters proud to have won awards for the restaurants excellence in food and service.

Armanis rose to the heights of Tampa Bay dining, both literally and figuratively, its romantic aerie location high atop the Hyatt Regency Westshore overlooking Tampa Bay has made it a local favorite for views and equally popular for stylish Italian cuisine and a notable wine list.

With a view of the Bay that inspired its name, Oystercatchers is tucked into a 35-acre nature preserve and lures diners with a catch of the day that is just that, seafood plucked straight from the waters before you and served in an intriguing array of styles in a stylish setting.

Bistros have broken out all over, turning up by the dozen in Ybor City, where Ovo Cafe plays to the chic with a flower-bedecked dining room and soft music. Le Bordeaux turned a bungalow into a bistro and Mise en Place lives up to its name with a 'place' across from the onion domes of the whimsically magnificent Tampa Bay Hotel.

Along the serenely seductive miles of shoreline that stretch from Clearwater on the north to St. Petersburg Beach and tiny Passe-a-Grille Beach on the south are hundreds of restaurants, nearly all of them casual, easygoing, sandals-and-T-shirt stops that offer you an opportunity to roll on in at the beginning or the close of a sunny day and stoke up in sight of the sea. If theres a way to get you outside?on a deck, a patio, a sidewalk or a sunset-watching porch'they're out to see to it that you take full advantage of the regions enviable 360 or so days of sunshine each year!

Meanwhile, in Ybor City the focus is on dining in antiquity. This onetime cigar capital of the world is the regions most colorful historic district, awash in brick cigar warehouses and tiny storefront eateries whose wood floors, painted tiles and whirling fans speak of days long gone. Bernini, occupying quarters in the historic Bank of Ybor City, features a changing array of delicacies stretching from beef laced with white truffles to an upmarket Vesuvio Pizza topped with three-chili oil, sundried tomatoes, chicken and smoked mozzarella.

Greek settlers who turned a strip of oceanfront north of town into Tarpon Springs have turned the town into a site for some landmark dining awash in Greek salads, moussaka and giros. Italians have brought their spices here (more than a few of them from New York!) and Cuban cigar makers who generations ago made Tampa the bilingual spot it is today brought their special touches to the areas cookery.

Stir it all up and you've stewed up a dining arena thats out to please the palate in style as casual as a sandal or as festive as a formal gown with ingredients drawn from the bounty of a bounteous land.

Marylyn Springer