The Colonnade, Tampa, Fla.
The best restaurants tend to have three things they can count as positives. As you might have guessed, the first, most important and non-negotiable one is taste, because if it doesn’t taste good, nothing else matters.
Along with taste are style and location. Style can range from elegant to budget to creative to colorful to simple, but every good restaurant has a niche of some kind. Location, the final factor of the restaurant trinity, is the one optional factor, because some restaurants simply don’t have location going for them, yet they still taste wonderful enough that people still repeatedly find their way to the building.
But location has never been a problem for the Colonnade, located right on the bay in Tampa. From your table, you have a perfect view of Tampa Bay, as you are literally right across the street from the water. The restaurant is actually on Bayshore Boulevard, which hugs Tampa Bay and allows residents of Tampa to walk along the bay. It’s a pretty beautiful sight, and a lovely scene for which to enjoy a meal. They advertise their window seats, and it’s easy to see why.
I’m pretty sure location also played a role in naming the restaurant. A colonnade is an architectural term, and it means a long row of joined columns, similar to St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican or Illinois’ Memorial Stadium. On Bayshore Boulevard, there is a long row of joined columns (albeit small ones) that adds greatly to the atmosphere of the bay. It doesn’t say on the website where the name comes from, but I’m betting it has something to do with those columns.
Even if you don’t get a table by the window, you’re still going to have a great experience here. The Colonnade’s location allows you to see the bay no matter where you are in the restaurant, and as you might have guessed from a restaurant that’s located that close to a major body of water, you’re here for one main reason: seafood.
As has been established, Tampa is one of the best places to go for great seafood, and the Colonnade certainly doesn’t disappoint. Their philosophy is to prepare all food on-site in the restaurant, which means it is all fresh and prepared that day. Fresher is almost always better by a wide margin, and this was the case from beginning to end.
First, you start off with a basket of corn muffins, which might not be seafood, but all great places have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is usually bread. The muffins are moist and flavorful, exactly what a restaurant’s bread should be. They give you eight to a basket, which means a lot of food, and we’re only getting started. As you’ve probably guessed, not a place to come for a light meal.
Up next, at Amy’s request, was the chance to try some gator bites. On my previous visit to Tampa with Amy, we both got to enjoy the greatness that is gator at Skipper’s, where the gator tastes like a high-quality pork. At the Colonnade, the gator bites are just as awesome. These pieces of gator are a lot like popcorn chicken, breaded and fried before being brought to you with a honey mustard dipping sauce.
My rule on breading is simple. It should either be thin and crunchy, or it should be tasty and flavorful, adding something different to the established taste of what you’re already eating. This falls in the latter category. The breading doesn’t change the taste of the gator meat too much, but it’s enough of a difference that it adds to the taste rather than merely getting in the way of the meat. The gator still provides that pork-like taste and texture, and the bites are just as delicious. Alligator might be one of my favorite creatures to eat.
I don’t have nearly as strong a history with the fish that I ordered for my main meal, but I had no choice on this one. Grouper is to Tampa seafood what oysters are to New Orleans or what deep-dish pizza is to Chicago. It’s considered to be Florida’s prime rib of the sea, and the Colonnade’s fried grouper sandwich has been voted the best in Tampa Bay. Yeah, that’s something that I have to find out for myself.
It was good, hot and juicy inside and cooked to perfection. The fish is light and flavorful, not cooked too long or too short. With vegetables and tartar sauce, it’s a wonderful sandwich. I probably would not have had it fried were I to get it again, but the batter was not a drawback here. Grouper is traditionally a fried fish, and it did work well after getting breaded and dropped in the fryer. All in all, this was absolutely worth finding out for myself.
But Amy’s special sandwich relegated the grouper to second place on our table. She opted for a scallop sandwich with bacon, which does not show up on the Colonnade’s normal menu, but was served as a special. Those scallops were what made this sandwich. Juicy and cooked to perfection, the scallops are simply amazing. With bacon and toppings added, this thing is a winner from start to finish. Once again, I love having her around to discover things with me, and she discovered an awesome find. By the end, despite my enjoyment of the grouper, I found myself wishing I’d opted for the scallops. It’s a wonder that the Colonnade doesn’t have it on its main menu, it’s that good.
Taste, style and location can make a restaurant become an icon in its chosen locality. Without taste, you don’t have a restaurant, but when you add location to it, you’re well on your way to entrenching yourself in the city as one of the places to go if you want a taste of your city. For nearly 80 years, the Colonnade has been giving its patrons a taste of Tampa as well as a view of Tampa. It’s a combination that should continue for years to come.
Time to go: I recommend lunch, as you can see the bay better and things have the potential to get crowded at night.
Wait during my visit: None. It wasn’t packed on a Tuesday lunch. I imagine it can get really busy.
Location: The Colonnade is at 3401 Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, Fla.
Parking: Their lot is usually enough to handle crowds. You shouldn’t have much of an issue.
Cost: It can be pricey to eat good seafood. Plan on about $15 a person, but you do get a lot of food. This can be cheaper if fish are in season.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs.
Specialty items: Seafood