Sarasota to Crystal River...best stops to eat?
As said, we are driving from Sarasota to Crystal River for a manatee tour. 2 hours 20 minutes according to Google maps.
Looking for a couple chow-worthy places to stop along the way. We are interested in "regional" foods, down home cooking type places...humble and good cooking, bbq.
This is our first time in this area of the US so want to see something unique to the area.
As a place to stop along the way, Tarpon Springs just north of Tampa would be my stop. It's an old greek fishing village filled with character, greek restaurants and great bakeries, unlike anything else you'll find in Florida. The town used to be the place where most of the world's sponges were once harvested and is a cool place to see.
There really isn't much between there and Crystal River, but once you're there check out Vintage on 5th. Amazing chowhound-worthy spot. Look up reviews on the place, you'll see it's a gem. Food is amazing!
I agree with Melissssa' suggestion of Tarpon Springs. The sponge docks are bordered by a street called "Dodecanese" Street. I would suggest Mykonos or Hellas on Dodecanese Street. Mykonos has its own free parking. I would recommend the grilled calamari (squid) which takes on a wonderful smoked flavor. Also recommended is the flaming saganaki, a melted cheese dish which is doused in Greek brandy and extinguished with lemon juice, tableside. Then you spread the cheese on nondescript (unfortunately) Greek bread. I would also recommend the Greek Village salad, which is a regular Greek salad without the lettuce. Any of the seafood is good, such as the stuffed grouper.
Hellas, as half a block or so down from Mykonos has a terrific Greek bakery. Get some baklava and galactobouriko to take home. The cookies are kind of disappointing because a lot of them are not very sweet. (Otherwise, Hellas has roughly the same menu as Mykonos in a more crowded, but far more decorated setting.)
There is a new restaurant across the street from Mykonos where you can dine right on the water. I haven't had the food there, but the view is great. This is an unassuming place and prices are comparable to other Greek restaurants on Dodecanese street (which is, to say, inexpensive).
On the way back from Crystal River, I would recommend the Anna Maria Oyster Bar which is at the I-75 exit just before the Bradenton River. Exit and then go west until you reach the first intersecting street (which is apparently 14th Street West). Turn right (i.e., north). This is a few thousand feet from the expressway. There is a warren of restaurants and a gas station there. The Anna Maria Oyster Bar is just across the street from the (Pilot?) gas station.
Try the Oysters Rockefeller or the raw oysters. Try the seared on the outside and raw on the inside (intentionally) tuna sashimi, the clam chowder, the grouper sandwich, the fish and chips, or the Margarita. if you are less adventurous, they do a nice, standard group of grouper, mahi-mahi, catfish, etc. as dinners. (I like the stuffed with crabmeat Grouper Oscar.)
I had an entirely miserable experience dining at Hellas about 2 years ago, and would not wish the place on anyone. The take-out bakery pasteries, to be fair, looked good, though. When I started a Chowhound thread warning about Hellas, several Chowhound folks replied with Mykonos as a good alternative. We still need to try Mykonos based on their comments.
re: Florida Hound
I used to ride my bike from Clearwater to Tarpon as a kid in the '70's just to get my Greek craving fixed!
Hellas looks lovely and packs them in but there is much, much better food to be had else where.
Plaka, half a block east of Hellas, is rather nondescript but does a very nice job of it. Excellent Tarpon style Greek salad and souvlaki.
for manatees, you can also visit the TECO Electric Manatee Viewing Center, off of SR 672 in Apollo Beach (exit 246, Big Bend Road)
It's the thermal output from an electric plant, so the water stays warm as bathwater, and the manatees huddle shoulder to shoulder in the canal when the Bay water gets cold. Free and very popular.
Not too much in the "down home" category, but Circles Restaurant in Apollo Beach puts out upscale and very good food at very reasonable prices.