Six 50-somethings seek taste of Florida in Tampa/Clearwater
Six of us from around the country, one a chowhound from New England, are coming to Clearwater for a meeting - for most it is their first time in Florida. We have two dinners to arrange, and are looking for something characteristically 'Florida' that one would have a hard time finding elsewhere. We are sort of past the bar-scene age, and we don't get together often so we need a place where we can sit around a table and have a good conversation, not have to shout above a crowd to be heard, and have reasonable service (i.e. not take-out or self-serve)..
The first things that jump out at me from some of the other threads on this board as 'Florida' are the seafood (grouper, stone crabs, conch, other?) and Cuban/Caribbean, but some restaurant that represents modern cuisine well or traditional food too would be good candidates as well. We're all fairly adventurous eaters in both food and venue, and price, while a factor, is not a major factor.
I'm thinking one night a somewhat casual restaurant within 10-15 miles of Clearwater, and a second night at a more special place, anywhere in the Greater Tampa area; one doing seafood well and the other, well, maybe something different, or it could be fish again. Are stone crabs in season? Is that a mallet-pouinding fun experience or is it mostly a lot of work for a little food? Is grouper mostly a sandwich special?
Here are some of the places I was thinking of, based on some other threads here.:
Casual, near Clearwater:
Salt Rock Grill
Something more special:
Columbia in Ybor City (Cuban, but not sandwich?)
Bern's (is this a don't-miss only for big steak-eaters?)
SideBern's (any local connection here?)
Mise en Place (menu too big to do it well?)
Is the Kitchen Bar up and running anywhere?
Any thoughts on these or other recommendationa?
Since you said 10 to 15mi of Clearwater, i will stick to Pinellas Co recommendations...If grouper is your wish, i would head to RustyBellies at the end of the sponge docks in TarponSprings, best grouper you will find. They also have an awesome menu top to bottom. Dont go anywhere near Frenchys, im sorry but the food sucks, its a tourist dive bar with no regard for quality to me. Ceviche i cannot speak on, but Guppys and SaltRock are both solid, solid choices. But if i had to take a pal for one memorable Florida seafood dinner, it would be RustyBellies. And just remember this about grouper, if the price seems too good to be true it probably is...can anyone say Vietnamese catfish!?!
Thanks for these responses. We ended up dining at the Island Way Grill and the Columbia restaurant in Clearwater Beach. (Any desire to wander too far from the hotel was killed by a long tedious rush-hour drive from the Tampa airport to Clearwater).
The Island Way Grill was a pleasant surprise - a larger place with nicer ambience than I had imagined from their website. We had the stone crab (yes, expensive!) calamari, an assortment of oysters, salads, a variety of fish entrees. a couple of bottles of wine (wide selection, reasonably priced) and some shared desserts - with a nice tip and all it came to around $360 for the six of us, very reasonable for what we had. As a spoiled New England hound, I was tempted to say it was more like upscale comfort food than really fine dining, because I thought the preparations lacked a certain flair and creative attention. Yet everything was solidly prepared, the service was good, and everyone in our group was very happy and satisfied.
The Columbia struck me as a step down in food quality and a step up in intensity - large, loud, almost raucous, yet in a good way if one likes that high-energy sort of thing. We enjoyed the table-side preparation of the Sangria (both red and white - the table was split as to which was the best) and the 1905 salad (good, but overrated). The gazpacho was thin and bland, although the fresh veggies spooned into it helped it. People liked the shrimp and chicken tapas and the steaks, but some of the other food was too salty and sauces sometimes smothered (in a bad way) the underlying food. The service was bustling and well-intentioned, but a bit chaotic at times. I probably wouldn't return here, yet again, everyone else in the group thought it was a fun experience and would give it a thumbs-up. It is sometimes lonely to be a hound!
Several in the group had an opportunity to try Frenchy's and described it as others have here: great for grouper sandwich and cold beer.
For what it is worth, we stayed at the Sandpearl Resort. Although we didn't have the opportunity to try out their restaurants and so can't comment on them, we did have them cater the breakfast and lunch for our meeting, and they were both excellent, easily on par or better than our evening dining. I'd give their restaurant a try on a future visit.
To me, Frenchys is a good place for drinks and an appetizer but the food isn't all that great and it is VERY touristy. Guppys is a great choice. I always have had excellent food there. Middlegrounds is good for a more upscale choice, although I find them priced a little high for what you get. I also like Island Way Grill, on the intercoastal just over the Clearwater bridge. I agree-Columbia is not that great. Mise en Place is a good choice, as well as Berns or Sideberns and one of my new favorites is Bin 27 Bistro in South Tampa. Also, I know Bonefish Grill is a chain but it is fantastic, in fact, it is the only chain restauraunt that I will eat at. There is one not too far from Clearwater. Stone Crabs are in season and they are big, so no, you dont have to do too much work to get the meat but they are expensive. I would just get them as an appetizer so you can say you've had them.
You can't miss Middle Grounds Grill in Treasure Island (a little bit south of Clearwater) for the best stone crab claws in the state (I like them even better than Joe's Stone Crab in Miami) and some of the most imaginative seafood dishes in Tampa Bay. Mise en Place is "can't miss" as well, and the Happy Hour at Sidebern's can't be beat. If you haven't been to the Harry Waugh dessert room in Bern's yet, it's a can't miss. Hope you enjoy your time here!
Re Columbia, they are Spanish/Cuban, not really Cuban. I don't think their food is anything special (my parents are Cuban so I'm pretty familiar with the food). If you eat there ask for a table near the Flamenco dancers, they put on a nice show.
It's not as nice a restaurant but I prefer La Teresita in Tampa for Cuban food. Plus it's cheaper, really all Cuban food should be inexpensive as it is peasant food.
In regards to your Clearwater picks, I'd do Frenchy's for lunch. It can get loud and the tables (original location) are cramped for 6. The location on the beach has bigger tables, but the noise level can get high too.
I'd go to Guppy's for dinner. Food & service has always been very nice and the atmosphere is what you are looking for in terms of comfortable catching up.