Competing for diners’ attention, Tampa Bay area restaurants are taking traditional bar food classics like cheeseburgers and chicken wings to an impressive new level. Locals and tourists alike no longer have to settle for standard-issue burger patties and French fries. Instead, chefs are delighting patrons with inventive dishes like orange braised duck tacos, alligator hush puppies & lobster mac n cheese. So grab a seat (and a beer) at one of these local spots for the best bar food in town!

DATZ, Tampa

Perhaps the most universally known bar food of all is the humble potato and at this South Tampa institution you can enjoy it a number of unique ways. First off, a trip to Datz is not complete without sampling their House-Made Chips. Each and every week, these guys hand slice over a TON of Idaho potatoes to serve the masses. So many, in fact, they were once featured in the national Idaho potato ad campaign. Fried all day every day, these crispy slices of heaven are topped with salt, pepper, SUGAR and their famous house-made blue-cheese drizzle. These chips are the ultimate marriage of salty and sweet. It’s hard to resist ordering a second batch. Next up from the Datz potato family are the Fusion Fries. Best ordered as an app to share, they are fried to order and coated in a mayo blend with fresh herbs, kosher salt & fresh ground pepper. The fries are then topped with San Joaquin Gold Farmstead cheese—an award winning and extremely high quality cheese from California—and finally finished off with black truffle oil. If you can manage it, save room for dessert next door at Dough!

RED MESA CANTINA, St. Petersburg

Whether you’re looking to dine in an upbeat atmosphere indoors or prefer a laid back dinner in the garden, Red Mesa Cantina has you covered. Stop by the gorgeous brick building in the heart of downtown St. Pete for your next lunch meeting or dinner date and be sure to try their Duck Taco. This interesting take on a classic taco starts with a fresh, hand-made corn tortilla. The duck is braised low and slow for over four hours, on the bone, and in orange juice. When done at the perfect temperature the duck fat renders nicely and cooks the duck confit-style. After being hand-shredded and tossed with Red Mesa’s signature red chili jelly, the taco is then topped with grilled pineapple, goat cheese and finished off with cilantro and more of that delicious jelly. At $4.95 each you will definitely want to sample a few!

theAVENUE eat/drink, St. Petersburg

When drumming up ideas for delicious bar food in the Bay Area, theAVENUE in downtown St. Pete immediately came to mind. From the Truffle Cheese Tots to their take on Poutine, elevated bar food is what these guys do… and they do it well! Perhaps no better example is their innovative Huckleberry Burger. From its humble beginnings as a burger of the month over two years ago, this crowd pleaser quickly found a permanent home on the menu. It all begins with a brioche bun that is delivered fresh each morning and 8oz of juicy Angus beef. The Huckleberry is then topped with their signature thick-cut peppered bacon, a generous serving of brie and sweet (but not too sweet) homemade blueberry jam. Accompanied by the standard LTO and pickles, diners also get a choice between regular or Cajun fries as a side. Pair with a cold beer from the tap or their Front Porch Tea and take a seat in the back garden for a perfect Florida evening!

ELLA’S AMERICANA FOLK ART CAFÉ, Tampa

With a diverse menu ranging from hummus and curry to burgers and pizza it would be easy to get a little lost while ordering at this Seminole Heights favorite. Fear not. If you like a little Caribbean flair, try their Jerk Chicken Wings. Rubbed with a unique blend of island-inspired spices, their wings are hickory smoked and flash fried before getting tossed in Ella’s signature sweet and spicy jerk sauce. Served up with a side of lime cream, these wings are suitable either as an appetizer to share or as a light meal for one. Plan ahead and be prepared to hunt for parking during busier times.

ULELE, Tampa

If attention to detail were an Olympic sport, Ulele would take home the gold every time. From the tasteful décor to the outstanding service, dining here is an absolute treat and should be repeated as often as possible. Their Alligator Hush Puppies are no exception and a welcome twist on simple fried dough. Executive Chef Eric Lackey sources the alligator filet from Louisiana and marries it with country ham smoked over corncobs for a really unique and delicious flavor. The dish also features bacon, jalapenos, fire-roasted fresh corn and a sauce made with Datil peppers that arrive fresh from St. Augustine. Finished off with fresh-ground horseradish aioli, this dish is sure to please even the toughest critic. Pairs well with Ulele’s signature grilled oysters and a glass of their Wedding Beer that is brewed on site. Cheers!

RUMFISH GRILL, St. Pete Beach

Frequented by both tourists and locals, this larger-than-life restaurant on St. Pete Beach is definitely not your typical bar-food-style restaurant. That said, Chef Aaron Schweitzer has created an elevated mac n cheese so delicious it must be included. Available only at dinner, the Four Cheese Lobster “Mac” looks as good as it tastes. The backbone of the dish is a 10-ingredient lobster stock that takes the kitchen several hours to prepare. The stock is then combined with butter, cream and equal parts white cheddar, Parmesan, mozzarella & blue cheese to create their signature “lobster cream.” It is then married with perfectly cooked cavatappi pasta, topped with Caribbean lobster tail and served in the well-appointed dining room with a view of the 33,500-gallon aquarium. Arrive early to explore the resort and grab a couple pre-dinner cocktails at the outside bar or stay late to enjoy their nightly live music!

THE MERMAID TAVERN, Tampa

Routinely voted “Best Bar Food” in Tampa, this Seminole Heights institution is a must-visit for anyone that enjoys craft beer, wine, hipsters or truffle fries. At first glance this gastro pub may not seem like much, but there’s plenty to be thankful for–starting with the ample free parking. After choosing your favorite beverage from the 20+ craft beers on tap (or the extensive wine list) go ahead and order the Drunk Grilled Cheese. This bad boy starts off with sourdough bread and is filled with port derby, sharp cheddar and caramelized onion. Finished with a side of blackberry-mead dipping sauce, The Mermaid Tavern’s grilled cheese is beyond delicious. Pay the extra $2 to upgrade to their famous truffle fries. Insider tip: Choose your table upon entering, but note that both food and drink should be ordered directly at the bar.