Written By Lorraine Monteagut and Annalise Mabe
Photos by Skyler June
Ten years ago, save for a couple longtime strongholds, you would be hard pressed to find good eats downtown. Water Street Tampa has changed all that, and today there are dozens of fantastic spots all within comfortable walking distance from one another. It’s a perfect destination no matter the mood, and the cuisines on offer are incredibly diverse—from Mexican to Mediterranean, fast-casual to five star, healthy to decadent. The scene is now dotted with top shelf restaurants, each propelling Tampa into the national culinary scene in its own distinct way. We sent a couple longtime residents out on foot to feast and discover, with a bit of surreal wonder, a city they thought they’d had all figured out. Here are some of the highlights.
A down-to-earth spot among the high rises
Tucked in Water Street Tampa’s Raybon Plaza, across from the University of South Florida’s towering new medical school, is Naked Farmer. At first glance, it seems your typical assembly style, build-your-own-bowl, fast-casual lunch spot. But by the time you’re through picking from the colorful and hearty vegetables on display—delicate squash, roasted sweet potatoes, chilled beets, blue oyster mushrooms—you might be surprised by how effortlessly you went fully vegetarian. Naked Farmer opened its first location in St. Petersburg during the pandemic and quickly became a go-to for healthy local produce. It has continued in this vein at its Water Street location, sourcing most of its ingredients from local farms and partners for its seasonal offerings. And it’s not just lip service; according to Briant Wildes, account manager at Brick Street Farms in St. Petersburg, crops are grown from seed to meet Naked Farmer’s needs. “They know what it means to the farming community,” she says, referring to the way the restaurant fosters direct relationships with suppliers rather than relying on distribution companies. Whether you’re touring or taking a break from your workday, this is sure to be a grounding respite.
Old-style soda shop vibes with a Tampa twist
Here’s a local take on Italian ice cream, the brainchild of four siblings surnamed Chillura who dreamed of making Tampa an ice cream town. Besides a fresh-made waffle triangle served with each scoop, there are few frills at Chill Bros. The small batch ice cream made with all natural ingredients and from-scratch toppings speaks for itself—it’s delightfully silky on the tongue. Try the Bees Knees, with little bits of crystallized honey, and Guava Pastelito, a flavor ode to Tampa. And, for a short time, there’s the seasonal Malty Millionaire, classic vanilla punctuated by chocolate covered shortbread chunks and salted caramel. The menu will speak to your inner child; it’s plain to see that the Chillura siblings have fun reimagining throwbacks like floats and cookie sandwiches. Vegans will appreciate that the non-dairy options are thoughtful instead of an afterthought, made with oat milk and coconut cream. While the Water Street location is the fourth Chill Bros. in town, it’s the only one where you can take in the pastel pool scenes by photographer Mária Švarbová. In a rush? There’s a fridge full of to-go pints that you can whisk away to your hotel room.
An elegant lounge for meetups and milestones
The deep hues, tall ceilings, and exposed brick of Battery set a luxurious scene that molds to many purposes—the relaxed professionalism is perfect for a business meeting, and there’s ample space to accommodate family parties. Or meet friends on a weekend afternoon and order from the brunch menu to share. Try a charcuterie board with house-made preserves and mustards, oysters on the half shell from the raw bar, and a few small bites in lieu of your own entrees (though the Chicken & Waffles will tempt you!). You’ll each be in your own personal heaven as you explore the morsels laid before you by the highly attentive staff. The resounding star of the show, all will agree, is the generous portion of General Tso Cauliflower Bites, with its perfect sweet and sour balance and just-right crisp. The Battery describes itself as a “bourbon-forward concept,” so take advantage of a whiskey flight, like the USA Road Trip. It comes in four delicate tulip shaped glasses on a wooden board that’s sure to delight.
Happy hour, indeed
Just on the corner of Sparkman Wharf, JoToro serves up a buzzing scene and a good dose of people watching from its comfortable patio seating. The menu has an inspired selection of wood-fired tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, but be careful you don’t fill yourself on “The Three Amigos,” an unassuming appetizer of chips and salsa, guacamole, and queso that is nearly impossible to stop eating. The chips are airy and salted to perfection, and the dips feel homemade by a pro—because they are. Joe Isidori is a Michelin-starred chef who elevates Tex-Mex to fun heights. And let’s not forget JoToro is as much a tequila bar as anything else, with a menu of margaritas the likes of which you’ll dream of long after you’ve left. Try the Spicy Peyote, made with 400 Conejos Mezcal and jalapeño infused Casamigos, which serves a good kick without sacrificing taste. The pours are strong, and the vibes are high here.
A transportive experience for the books
You’ll feel like you’re walking into another world at Noble Rice, with its warm lighting and rich wooden accents that marry traditional Japanese design with modern sensibilities. Eric and Adriana Fralick’s flagship restaurant is back in a larger space, featuring an impressive wall of Japanese whiskey and the most comfortable booths in town. Executive chef Frank Anderson brings his extensive experience to an expanded menu, adding breathtaking appetizers, hearty ramen bowls, and luxurious desserts. Fans of the original Noble Rice can rest assured that the standard of quality has endured; most of the fish still comes from the Toyosu Market in Tokyo. The melt-in-your-mouth uni (sea urchin) is a must, and if you’re in the mood to splurge, you always have the choice of ordering premium cuts of sashimi. For a truly unforgettable experience, reserve the coveted omakase service, a nightly selection of chef’s choice, offered in an exclusive separate bar. Whatever you choose, end your night with the soymilk panna cotta: matcha cake crumble, burnt honey, black sesame and miso caramel served in a gorgeous ceramic vessel that is a work of art itself.
A vibrant vista true to Greek culture
Florida clouds hit different, especially from Azure, The Tampa EDITION’s Greek-forward rooftop restaurant and lounge. Start with a glass of Saint-Hilaire’s Cremant de Limoux Brut Rosé and take in the panoramic views of Tampa’s downtown cityscape, framed by deep magenta bougainvillea flowers catching the breeze. Azure faces west, which makes it the perfect spot to watch the sun melt down, reflecting orange and pink hues on nearby Heron’s laminated glass windows. Make friends with exceptional bar staff, who will guide you along an authentic Greek experience full of seafood towers (named after Greek islands Antipaxos and Crete), east and west coast oysters, summer tzatziki, roasted eggplant, lamb meatballs, delicately rolled dolmas, and in-house sourdough pita. Michelin-starred chef John Fraser is responsible for the elegant, seaside-inspired fare which also includes the shrimp saganaki, served in a black skillet and pan seared in a sweet red sauce, topped with crumbled feta. Watch as the bar transitions into an intimate, candlelit lounge, or plan to reserve one of seven different bays and terraces, perfect for a six- to eight-person dinner format, or for an exquisite date night.