Now, you'd think this wouldn't be that difficult. "It's the San Francisco Bay Area, for God's sake," you may say. (Go on, say it.) "You found good restaurants around Tampa Bay, and it couldn't possibly compare."
In one sense, that's obviously true. Find a list of the best restaurants in America, past and present, and you'll be sure to find a few names from around the greater SF Bay area: Chez Panisse. The French Laundry. The Zuni Cafe. Tra Vigne. Jardiniere. The Mandarin. You won't find restaurants like that in my old stomping grounds.
But the flip side of that is that the median restaurant in Tampa Bay may actually be higher than here. You may not be able to find "four diamond" places but you can almost trip over "three diamond" ones, from Tampa's fine dining places like Profusion, Ashley Street Grille and Blue Gardenia to Disney restaurants like Artist Point, Flying Fish and the California Grill. And the Tampa-Orlando region is virtually the home of the "casual chain restaurant": notable area escapees include Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden and Red Lobster (along with Hooters, but we don't talk about them very much). Sadly, the area's best chains like Hops and the "damn, this is owned by who and it's this good?" Bahama Breeze aren't out here. (Breeze is Darden's third chain after Olive Garden and Red Lobster.)
I have a more prosaic problem, too: I don't have time to go out and find restaurants on weekday nights given my work hours. (This problem is doubly annoying because I don't have time to cook on weekday nights.) I do some scouting at lunch, but I have an aversion to paying much then; a $10 dinner doesn't seem expensive, but a $7 lunch does.
Today I started making a list of restaurants I'd like to bumble my way toward, and in fact hit one of them, "Yung Le's Fusion" in San José--which turns out to be reminiscent of a surprisingly good restaurant back in Florida called Simply Thai. They're both modest restaurants in strip malls with great Asian food in the mostly-under-$10 range. The similarities end there, though--Yung Le's isn't Thai, it's pan-Asian, with Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese influences, and it's definitely not simple. Yung Le is apparently a well-known chef in the area who'd been at a few other restaurants (the New Bamboo, which I'd never heard of, and the Left Bank in Menlo Park, which I have heard of) before setting out on her own late last year.
I'm curious--if you're in this area, or were in this area, and think there's some particularly amazing place I need to try, I'd be interested in hearing about it. Particularly the fine dining places--places where creativity, complexity and presentation count. (This isn't code for "deathly expensive"; some of the best fine restaurants I've been to have been quite affordable.)