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Heading to Orlando, St Petersburg/Clearwater and Tampa – looking for healthy everyday eats and chow-worthy hole-in-the-wall finds

In search of:
• Chow finds for <$15 per plate
• Healthy eats for a month
• Seafood focus (fresh and preferably raw)
• Orlando/Clearwater/St Pete’s/Tampa near Hotel and Beaches
• Good grocery stores/bakeries near hotel/beaches

Greetings from up North. My family and I will be having a reunion of sorts and vacationing in Florida for a month in February. As a result, I wanted some recommendations on cheap/great value everyday eats that will keep me in a healthy condition. Being from Toronto, we are very accustomed to value eats with meals generally being under $10. I understand that will be hard to come by South of the Border, but I am sure you foodies will know where to find the gems. Most of my family prefers “safe” recommendations (seafood is a must during the trip though not exclusive, but I believe they want to keep mains < $20), whereas I would prefer to go off the beaten track and taste just about anything. Seeing as the family has one car, I would appreciate some recs that are close by to one another so that I can grab some more adventurous food, while they hit the clam shack.

They have done quite a bit of research on where to dine, and I will list them below. Please let me know if they have a good list culminated, or if there are places they should avoid/add to the list.

Here are the places we are staying at:

Orlando: 5858 International Drive
Clearwater: 22950 Hwy 19N just North of Hwy 60

Criteria:

Family: safe recs with heavy focus on seafood
Me: Anything goes though I have a rather low tolerance of heat (Indian food is great, but something like suicide wings are out of the question). As well, I would appreciate some recs on places serving healthier fare (sushi, etc.), but no salads or cold sandwiches that I could easily assemble myself. Most of the time, I would like to keep the meals within $15 for a main (a month eating out can add up), but would also be willing to try good places periodically for more ($35 a main, but of course oyster bars would be more). I love raw food (oysters, fish, beef) and dislike pork or meat heavy dishes (ribs, BBQ) with tonnes of sauces, fat or salt (but I do like gourmet burgers like Shake Shack in NYC, clam bellies from Cape Cod and poutine from Montreal). I would also welcome bakery and grocery/food specialty store recommendations so that I can make my own sandwiches and/or sushi.

I will be eating with them most of the time, so would appreciate any great value seafood recs.

Places they’ve listed to try out:
St Pete’s
• Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish
• PJ’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant
• Fetishes
• Firehouse Bar and Grille
• JoJo’s in Citta
• Garden Mediterranean Bistro
• Maritana Grille
• Shell’s Seafood
• Bonefish Grill
• Chateau France
• Café Largo
• Joe’s Stone crab
• Fourth Street Shrimp Store
• Integrity Organic restaurant
• Crabby Bill’s
• St Pete’s Beach Wharf
• Hurricane’s Seafood Restaurant
• Guppy’s Seafood Grill
• Lobster Pot
• Frenchy’s Café/Rockaway Grill
• Bobb’y Bistro and Wine Bar
Orlando
• Sushi Hatsu
• Little Saigon
• Hong Kong Vietnamese & Chinese restaurant
• Le Coq Au Vin
• Season 52
Tampa
• Carmine’s Restaurant and Bar
• Big City Tavern
• Columbia (7th Ave)
• Bob Heilman’s Beach comber
• Water Unique sushi
• TC Choy Asian Bistro
• Cappy’s Pizzeria
• Ciccio & Tony’s
• Pane Rustica
• St Bart’s Island House
• Bern’s Steak House
• The Palm
• Samurai
• Lucy Ho’s
• Golden Treasure (Poinsettia Ave) Clearwater
• Rockaway Grill

Places I am currently eyeing:
• Izziban sushi of Orlando
• Some of the recs on this thread (though quite a few are out of the way since my food quest is not a priority for them): http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/442914
• And I am looking at some value eats here: http://www.scottjosephorlando.com/

We will be hitting a variety of beaches while we are there, so recommendations near good beaches and the hotel are most welcome. As well, anywhere between those points would be great. I know this was a long post, but I wanted to make sure you had all the information I could provide in order to produce some great results. Thanks for making it through this post.

Thanks in advance for your recommendations.

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  1. First, making sure that you know that Florida is the land of urban sprawl. It takes about an hour and a half to drive from North Tampa to South Orlando. It can also take about an hour to get from North Tampa to Clearwater or downtown St Pete. You also seem to have picked a lot of chains. If that is what you are interested in, you will not be disappointed. Orlando is the home of Darden - Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze. Tampa is the home of Outback, Carraba's and Bonefish.

    Second, Lucy Ho's Bamboo Garden closed several years ago and was taken over by a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Quyen. From what I have experienced, you can get better Viet cuisine in Orlando but it's one of the best Vietnamese restaurants we have in Tampa. I believe St. Bart's closed as well. Big City was recently replaced by Teatro. The Shell's chain closed as well, and you're not missing much there.

    I enjoyed Frenchy's and Crabby Bills - you can get grouper or "grouper's cousin" sandwiches anywhere along the beach, but these are local chains that seem to please crowds. Ciccio's and their restaurant Water are partnered with Lime to be staple chains in Tampa as well. I can recommend Hurricane's for their proximity to the beach - a metered beach but one of the most beautiful and least urbanized in Pinellas County - and for their rooftop bar.

    4 Replies
    1. re: TampaAurora

      Thanks so much TampaAurora for your response. I despise chains myself, but my family adores them (I keep wondering if we're related sometimes when it comes to our food tastes!). So all of these are chains, huh? This was their research list that they created over the past several months. I have just decided to tag along at the last minute and thus are trying to weed through their list to find out what's edible and what they're missing by using you chowhounders. I remember enjoying Crabby Bill's when I was much younger, so I wasn't sure if they were still up to par - good to know you enjoy it. Are there more places in that vein? I believe that is what they are looking for.

      Thanks for the update on the restaurants that are no longer in business - my family members enjoy using out of date library books to do their research.

      Please do let me know if you have better recs!

      Also, we're spending a month in Florida and hence will be staying for about 5 days in Orlando, then heading down to St Pete's/Clearwater for the majority of the time, and then a few days in Tampa.

      1. re: BokChoi

        Your family sounds a lot like how I start my lists for traveling. Books can be helpful, but like Wikipedia should not be used alone or always believed. You sound like how my research ends - asking locals.

        In St. John's Pass, there's a small shop that makes great grouper sandwiches - anyone know the name? I wouldn't seek out Crabby Bill's - it's not really chow but its an atmosphere that is fun. Keep in mind that all I've had there is their fish, so someone else who has had their shellfish may be more helpful.

        If you are looking for Chinese, please try China Yuan or Yummy House in Tampa. You won't be disappointed in either, and our community is quite split over which is better. After giving them a second try, I would have to jump on the Yummy House bandwagon. Lucy Ho's was chinese buffet and well loved by my friends who lived for Red Lobster, Pizza Hut and chinese takeout. China Yuan and Yummy House are both real Chinese Food.

        If you do a search for any city, you can find some great places. Linked here is a posting I've found very helpful since I moved from Tampa and my restaurants near my college to a city near Clearwater. Favorites of Tampa, St. Pete and Clearwater - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/305810

        1. re: TampaAurora

          Thanks TampaAurora - I knew I could count on the 'hounds to help me plan my food adventure in Florida.

          Love grouper so the sandwich place sounds great. Crabby Bill's menu seems to be a great price point for fresh seafood - is there something more chow worthy that is similar? I don't really like how nothing is steamed, but I guess I could survive on some grilled items. Was their fish fresh though? The prices seem much more reasonable that what we're accustomed to for fresh seafood in Toronto.

          Thanks for the recs on the Chinese food - we need our greens. Yummy House seems to have a great following and the price point seems perfect. Thanks for the suggestion. The prices seem great - no posted info on the menu though. And China Yuan seems like a great standby as well - and an online menu which helps. Found this recent thread too: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/587526

          Thanks for the chowlink. I must have missed that one! Thank you so much for your suggestions. I will look up your favourites for sure and add them to our completely revamped list. If you think of any other local favourites, do let me know.

          Thanks in advance and once again for your response TampaAurora!

          1. re: TampaAurora

            I've been to that St John's Pass place - the one sort of off to the side, with a thatched roof? that place is good - good slaw, good lemonade and tea, and good sandwiches.

            but my favorite place in that area is Keegan's. It fits all your criteria:

            http://www.scoreboardgourmet.com/2007...

      2. Most of your Clearwater/Tampa pics are above 15.00 a plate. Maybe 15.00 an appetizer.

        9 Replies
        1. re: rhnault

          Thanks rhnault.

          The list was compiled by a family member and they are looking for something different than I am. I am looking for something foodie-like, however, I just wanted to make sure they are not disappointed with their food adventure while they are in Florida. I think their budget is higher than mine. I want to stick to my $15 a meal. They want to spend more and hence the list. I warned them on previous occasions that they tend to find tourist traps, but they tend to listen more to Fodor's than to me. Hoping I can steer them in the right direction with the assistance of chowhound.

          Thanks

          1. re: rhnault

            SideBern's in Tampa is a spin-off of Bern's steakhouse and in my opinion, much better.

            La Teresita is also in Tampa and is an everyday kind of place that serves cuban food. It is better than the Columbia which is over-rated and too expensive. Try to pork sandwich, moro rice and plaintains.

            1. re: b.hough

              Is SideBern's (or even Bern's) a good choice? In other words, would you go there if you were on vacation? Thanks for the suggestion. This list is their research list - and hopefully just a preliminary list. After some responses from you Chowhounders, I'm going to attempt to convince them to rethink their choices (hopefully!).

              La Teresita sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the rec on the dish to order.

              This thread has some interesting recs as well - would they be in line with common opinion?
              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/545740

              1. re: BokChoi

                On vacation, no I wouldn't go. Excellent restaurant, wonderful food. But it is a steakhouse. In FL I want to eat what is common to FL, not NY or somewhere else. It is great and you would not be dissappointed. But I want seafood, small intimate hole in the wall restaurants not chains that really represent FL and some of the cuisine. FL is very diverse but has many speciality restaurants all over. I stay away from the popular and go more for the small quiet places that usually have the best food and are not as well known.

                1. re: kchurchill5

                  Any particular favourite haunts, kchurchill5? Thanks in advance!

              2. re: b.hough

                I love both places (La Teresita and Columbia), and enjoy them on entirely different occasions. Lunch at the Columbia is a real treat. Try the new Cuban sandwich in Ybor.

                1. re: andy huse

                  Thanks for the rec andy_huse. What makes a Cuban sandwich special? I have never had one and I cannot tell from the pics on wikipedia - does this version have their pork roasted with a marinade? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_sa...

                  1. re: BokChoi

                    the ingredients in an original Tampa Cuban (ham, roast pork, salami, swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard--- are only part of the story. Back in the day, each ingredient was painstakingly prepared in-house in many of Tampa's restaurants. Very few bake/glaze their own hams, marinate and roast their own mojo pork any more. The Columbioa has begun to do this once again, and it makes a great difference in the taste.

                    1. re: andy huse

                      Thanks andy_huse. Sounds like it's definitely worth the visit then.

                      Cheers!

            2. You can do much better than Sushi Hatsu. The best sushi in the area is between Tampa and Orlando, at Zen at the Omni Resort, exit 58 off I-4.

              My personal favorite restaurant in Orlando is Memories of India, on Turkey Lake Road off Sand Lake Road, in a shopping center. I don't do spicy either, and I can tolerate most things there. Many items are mild and they can probably adjust the heat for you.

              If you're willing to do a pricier fish dinner that's worth the money, try Jiko or BlueZoo.

              On your list, Le Coq au Vin, is a must-do. Excellent, reasonably priced French food. Personally, I would skip Seasons52. Over-rated. Go down the street to Samba Room instead, for trendy upscale Cuban.

              For groceries, there is a brand new Whole Foods that just opened on Sand Lake Road, right off I-4.

              Have a great trip!

              19 Replies
              1. re: starbucksbrew

                Thanks for the suggestion starbucksbrew. I looked up Zen - there doesn't seem to be any pricing or menu information. It seems like fine dining though - how much is something like a chirashi don or sashimi platter for one?

                Memories of India is definitely on my list to try. How is the dinner though? It may be difficult for me to get there for lunch (for the buffet).

                Love fresh fish and seafood - so I'll be adding Jiko and BlueZoo to the list. Thanks for the tip. Anything more 'value' though that you would recommend?

                I believe Coq au Vin is on our Must-Do list as well. I think one of the couples have decided to book that for V-Day. Thanks for the suggestion on Samba Room and nixing Seasons52.

                I love Whole Foods - great to pick up the essentials. Thanks for the info. The rest of the family would probably be looking for something more low-end, but I'm sure we could find something to satisfy them. I was crossing my fingers for a Whole Foods.

                Thanks for the response!

                1. re: BokChoi

                  For middlebrow groceries, a Publix in what looks like an upper middle class area is generally a safe bet. Above average bakery for a chain, generally decent organics/natural selection, and no problem finding the Chef Boyardee.

                  Produce seasons can be somewhat different than Up North. It's actually just about Plant City strawberry season, so enjoy getting fresh local berries for a pretty reasonable price.

                  1. re: beachmouse

                    Thank you very much for the suggestions, beachmouse. The Publix sounds perfect for all essentials for the trip. Much appreciated! Haven't had myself some good berries since August or so, so that will be a welcome treat.

                    1. re: BokChoi

                      We are already getting early harvest berries from Plant City and they are soooooo good.
                      Make sure you spend an afternoon in Tarpon Springs at the Sponge Docks. I just got back a little while ago from lunch at Costa's. Wonderful Greek food.

                      1. re: rhnault

                        Wow, thanks for the recommendation. I was not even aware of this foodie hub. Lots to see it seems. This was the one you were mentioning right? http://www.spongedocks.net/

                        Looking forward to checking it out. Much appreciated!

                        Thanks rhnault.

                        1. re: rhnault

                          Really rhnault? Wow- we went only once to the Sponge Docks. And it was AWFUL. Total tourist trap that I don't think I'd ever recommend. But then, I don't like things like that anyway, plus we didn't eat at any of the Greek places that lined the strip. The only saving grace- we walked down to Rusty Belly's for AMAZING grouper, which we were told was freshly caught- you can see the boats from where you sit.

                          1. re: Boccone Dolce

                            What was awful about it? Was the food just not good - or nothing to see? The grouper sounds nice - it's in the same area? How did they prepare it? Was it fried like in this menu? http://www.menusearch.net/menus/1018g... I love fresh seafood and this sounds right up my alley - any other suggestions? Thanks in advance.

                            1. re: BokChoi

                              Trust me, Tarpon Springs is not awful and if you like Greek food it is a fun spot for lunch. You can search the Florida board and will see lots of positive reviews. I have eaten at Rusty Bellies and it is good if you want fresh fried seafood. I treat myself to fried seafood about once a year and usually do it at the Crab Shack on Gandy on the St Pete side of the Gandy Bridge.

                              1. re: rhnault

                                Crab Shack came up a few times - thanks for the directions. Not a huge fan of fried myself (probably for the same health reasons as you) - any suggestions for fresh raw or steamed seafood?

                                http://www.crabshack.com/menu.htm

                                Thanks rhnault.

                                1. re: BokChoi

                                  The same, Crab Shack. Most of the seafood places offer platters and entrees cooked the way you want them. Grilled, broiled, fried, steamed.

                              2. re: BokChoi

                                No disrespect to sponge dock fans!
                                It was just not something I found noteworthy-then again, we only went once. I wasn't impressed- it's basically the docks, a street with some restaurants & overpriced shops. Just my opinion. We walked all over, looked at sponges (yawn) then ducked into a bar but there was no A/C- so we kept walking!
                                I think the grouper I ordered was grilled, it was very good and as I said-you are right on the water, and we did enjoy the view. I hope you and your family have a safe and wonderful trip with plenty of laughs, great food and better memories!

                                1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                  Grilled grouper sounds great. Too funny how you described "looked at sponges (yawn)". We're there for a month so we'll probably have time to check it all out. Thanks for the rec. Anything else that's a fave spot for fresh seafood (value)?

                              3. re: Boccone Dolce

                                I like the sponge docks, and always bring visiting friends there. Bypass the yucky tourist-trap souvenir shops, spend time on a nice boat ride (I recommend Sun Line Cruise, great sunset cruises and dolphin watches), and great Greek food. I didn't like Costa's, though; I prefer either Hellas or Mykonos. And for casual seafood, Rusty Bellies, mmmm their fried oysters and hush puppies and a cold bottle of Chimay Ale. Oh, yeah, put me down for some o' that.

                                1. re: Manderley

                                  Awesome, thanks Manderley. Hope the weather will be great while we're down there so that we can take in the sights. Hush puppies seem really popular here - I have never had them. Must make a note to try them out.

                                  1. re: Manderley

                                    Hi Manderley, this isn't relevant to this thread, but if you go back to 2008, I wrote a reply about Flakowitz. I told my mom about it and she googled it and said my comment was 'rather long' and asked if I know Manderley. I don't - but if you'd like to read the comment, it's here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/533793

                        2. re: starbucksbrew

                          I have never been to Zen, but Sushi Hatsu is one of my favorites - very fresh and reasonably priced. If you go to Sushi Hatsu on Friday or Saturday night 10p - 12midnite they offer buy one get one free on ngiri, beer, wine and sake (a great deal no doubt). You will be able to stay within your budget here.

                          I agree with starbucksbrew - Memories of India is great! No lunch buffet to speak of, but they have combos at lunch. The food is always amazing and you can get it to go if you need to. And Le Coq au Vin is fantastic!!

                          I will tell you that Jiko and Bluezoo are both very pricey (Bluezoo was $300 including tip for dinner for 2 with a cocktail each and a bottle of wine - bday celebration). If you're at all into oysters, you'll have to check out Lee & Ricks; it's a hole in the wall with the best oysters in Orlando (and a concrete bar and they shuck 'em in front of you as you eat 'em) and very cheap.

                          Another newbie in the area is Mama Nems Soul Food - great fried chicken, home made mac-n-chz, corn bread, fried green tomatoes; not necessarily healthy but totally delicious!

                          I don't think I would choose Samba Room over Season's 52 - Season's 52 is a concept restaurant by Darden and everything is homemade (nothing frozen or canned ever) and under 500 calories per plate. They also have these amazing little desserts, a few bites each but so guilt free!

                          If you're looking for great cuban food on the cheap, I would head to Havana's on Palm Parkway - it's a small family owned joint in a strip mall with a Hooters but the food is superb and the price is right.

                          If you're looking for value seafood, you might want to try Salt Island Grill on International Drive - it doesn't appear to be inexpensive to look at the menu but when I tell you that portions are so huge that you can share them it seems much more of a value. Literally the desserts are big enough for 4 people to share one.

                          If you're looking for something local - try the Ale House. There are multiple locations and the prices are very reasonable. It's not gourmet food, totally basic but very consistent. They serve a great dolphin steamed in foil, the steaks are always good, their house dressing is a yummy crab ranch, they have a great fish sandwich and their entire menu is available all day and night.

                          Hope this helps! Have a great trip!!

                          1. re: VWRobin

                            Thanks so much for the recs VWRobin. The 1/2 price sushi sounds like a steal. And thanks for the warning on prices and where to pick up some oysters - how's the oyster selection?

                            I have heard that something like Mama Nem's Soul Food is something to check out for sure while I'm there. Sounds great.

                            I didn't realize that was the concept of Seasons 52 - sounds like something healthy I could nosh on. Could get pricey though I guess. The prices listed on the website are $12 to $26 for mains: http://www.seasons52.com/menu/entrees...

                            Thanks for all the value recs as well. Yeah, I would have probably thought Salt Island was a bit pricey - is this the one you were mentioning? http://www.saltislandrestaurant.com/m... But if the portions are huge, sharing might just be an option - hope they don't get upset!

                            And just to clarify - on their menu, they do mention a 'dolphin' dish - but it's Mahi Mahi (aka dolphin fish). Was that the dish you were talking about? Thanks! http://www.millersalehouse.com/

                            Much appreciated and I am sure we'll have a great trip with all these great recs. Thanks!!!

                            1. re: VWRobin

                              anybody know where mama nems is located?

                              nevermind... found it... http://www.mamanemssoulfood.com/maman...

                          2. Just a quick note that The Lobster Pot in North Redington Beach is closed.

                            Joihn

                            9 Replies
                            1. re: RibDog

                              Thanks RibDog. I'll scratch that one off their list. I read your other post on Tampa. Thanks for the rec on Crab Shack

                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/586331

                              Any more along those lines? Thanks in advance

                              1. re: BokChoi

                                I also like to go to Mid-Peninsula Seafood in St. Pete on 49th St. S. Walk in, pick out the seafood in the case you want and tell them how you want it cooked and they will get to it.

                                1. re: RibDog

                                  Thanks so much for the rec. I doubt I would have found this one on my own. I found an article about it: http://www.sptimes.com/2003/06/26/Wee... It mentions mostly deep fried options, but does mention that they do any preparation (as you pointed out as well) - do they do it well? I know that fried is the 'safest' bet, but I prefer other preparations (I read in the article that they do smoking - I was impressed). This sounds like quite a gem. Thanks for the rec. Please do let me know if you have any other similar recs.

                                  1. re: BokChoi

                                    MP will prepare the seafood fried, blackened, sauteed, grilled or baked I believe.

                                    Another place I like a good deal is Arco Iris in Tampa on Columbus. It is a Cuban restaurant which has a few Chinese fried entrees also. The Chinese entrees go back to when there were quite a few Oriental workers on the docks and the restaurant already had the makings available for fried rice.

                                    And while it may not be the most stellar BBQ, I still enjoy Jimbo's on Kennedy in Tampa.

                                    And one other place I like is Red Mesa on 4th St. N in St. Pete. Excellent Southwestern and Mexican. More Southwestern though. They also have a new place downtown I think is called Red Mesa Cafe with a little more varied Latin offerings but I have not had chance to try it yet. But based on the original location, it should be very good. BTW, Red Mesa does an excellent Southwestern breakfast on the weekends.

                                    John

                                    1. re: RibDog

                                      Thanks so much for all the recommendations, RibDog. Cuban Chinese, eh? Sounds interesting. Any suggestions on dishes to try?

                                      BBQ will probably be tried on the trip. Thanks for the recommendation. Red Mesa came up on another search of mine as well. Any dish suggestions there?

                                      These suggestions are great and I feel so much more confident in the food for the trip now that I've spoken to you all.

                                      Thanks again John.

                                      1. re: BokChoi

                                        At Red Mesa, I have never gone wrong with any of their meals there. Was just there a week ago and got the tamales. Very good! And got a mushroom cheese dip appetizer that I liked also.

                                        My favorites at Arco Iris are Steak Milinesa, Picadillo, Roast Pork, and Ropa Vieja plus any fresh fish they may have that day.

                                        And you are most welcome. Enjoy!

                                        1. re: RibDog

                                          Thanks for the suggested dishes, RibDog! Sounds unlike anything I can get in Toronto. Looking forward to it!

                                  2. re: RibDog

                                    Tried Mid-Penninsula Seafood last week. Nice seafood counter/market plus some of the freshest, cooked-to-order seafood we found in the Tampa/St. Pete area. Nothing fancy, just good eats.

                                    1. re: Iowaboy3

                                      That was definitely on my hit list. Thanks for the review.

                              2. A couple of threads you can mine for info though I haven't double checked to see how up to date they are:
                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/305810
                                http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/488790

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: rikkikm

                                  Thanks so much for the direction to these threads rikkikm. Any personal favourites you would like to draw my attention to?

                                  These are wonderful directions - thanks everyone. I will definitely report back once I return and post the photos up on my flickr site.

                                  http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...