Eat like a local
Dining is one of the best things about Tampa Bay, offering a mouthwatering menu of diverse cuisines. Here’s a taste of the history that has shaped our unique dining scene, along with a few suggestions for you to eat like a local. Enjoy!
THE CIGAR CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
Ybor City, Tampa’s historic Latin quarter, earned this designation in the early 1900s at the peak of its cigar production days. It all began with Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Cuban expat and prominent cigar manufacturer, who moved his business from Key West to Tampa. Spanish cigar manufacturers followed suit and thousands of workers from Cuba, Spain and Italy poured into the area to work in more than 200 cigar factories. Tampa grew from 800 residents in 1880 to more than 15,000 in 1900.
These immigrants brought their native cuisines with them – and they’re still delighting diners today. The Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, which opened in 1905 and is now run by the 4th and 5th generation founding family members, is one of many local restaurants serving authentic Spanish, Cuban and Italian fare. A few to try nearby are The Bodega and Red Mesa Cantina in downtown St. Pete and Pia’s Trattoria in Gulfport.
THE SPONGE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
Tampa Bay’s other claim to fame in the early 20th century involved the city of Tarpon Springs and its illustrious sponge industry. The key to the prolific production was a Greek diving method introduced by John Cocoris in 1905. Spongers from the Dodecanese Islands were recruited, resulting in 1,500 Greek immigrants calling Tarpon Springs home in the following years.
Greek restaurants, bakeries, coffee houses and other Greek- inspired businesses sprang up along Dodecanese Boulevard to serve this growing population. Today, this charming sponge district hasn’t changed much. If you want to take a break from the beach to experience some bona fide Greek culture and food, it’s sure to be a delicious outing.
THE SEAFOOD CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
Okay, so maybe this has never been an official title for the Tampa Bay area, but it might as well be. Seafood is just a part of life here – one of the best parts! It’s front and center in the area’s culinary cultural fusion (fish tacos, seafood paella, lobster ravioli just to name a few) but it’s also served up in good ol’, non-pretentious Florida style at area raw bars, fish houses and crab shacks. Fresh local catches on area menus include delectable grouper, hogfish, snapper, Gulf pink shrimp, stone crab claws and bay scallops.
One old school fish house is Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, established in 1951 in South Pasadena, just over the bridge from St. Pete Beach. Smoking fish dates back to the area’s earliest locals of all, the Tocobagan Indians, as a way of preservation. Ted Peters carries on that tradition today to produce the tastiest smoked fish spread around. Eat like a local and give it a try!