Clearwater Beach Restaurant Week begins on Monday, May 9th, and judging from yesterday’s Taste Fest, things are off to a great start. While Clearwater may be more well-known for its beach than its food, don’t forget that it is home to some of the best seafood restaurants in the world. It’s also where Hooters got its start back in 1983. The Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce did a brilliant job of bringing the best of Clearwater’s cuisine and culture to Beach Walk for this year’s Taste Fest. A total of thirty restaurants participated. Here are a few of my favorites:
The Original Hooters: Hooters got its start with a single restaurant in Clearwater, FL in 1983. Since then they have expanded to over 400 locations around the world. Their Clearwater Beach location features an upscale rooftop bar overlooking the beach. Hooters gave out buffalo chicken nuggets, chips with buffalo chicken dip, and some great coupons at this year’s Taste Fest.
Frenchy’s Saltwater Café and Gilly the grouper were there to represent Frenchy’s casual seafood empire on Clearwater Beach. The Original Frenchy’s restaurant opened on Clearwater Beach in 1981. This was followed by three additional Clearwater Beach locations: Frenchy’s Saltwater Café, Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, and Frenchy’s South Beach Café. In 2013, Frenchy’s took over the Island Outpost in Dunedin, thereby adding their first restaurant location outside of Clearwater. Frenchy’s restaurants are famous for their grouper sandwiches, smoked fish spread, and stone crab claws. I am a fan of their shrimp as well. Frenchy’s Saltwater Café was serving shrimp scampi at Taste Fest, while their mascot, Gilly the grouper, happily took photos with the neighborhood children.
The Sand Pearl’s Tate Island Grill was giving away absolutely fantastic Caribbean grouper sandwiches. This was my favorite dish at the event.
Shepard’s Ocean Flame was serving up some delicious lobster mac and cheese. I especially enjoyed the addition of a small decorative flame to their booth.
Jimmy’s Crow’s Nest, one of the best rooftop bars on Clearwater beach, was handing out their complimentary sunset shots at Taste Fest. You can get one of these for free any night you watch the sunset at Jimmy’s Crow’s Nest.
Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber has been serving classic American food in an upscale setting since 1948. They celebrated their traditions with a retro-themed booth and Grandma Heilman’s famous Back-to-the-Farm Fried Chicken.
The seared ahi tuna appetizer from SHOR was presented beautifully on blue, fish-shaped serving platters. SHOR is relatively new on the scene, opening in 2009 within the pink Hyatt Regency on Gulfview Blvd.
Baystar Restaurant Group includes some of the most popular restaurants in the area: Island Way Grill (seafood with an Asian flair), Salt Rock Tavern (Southern-style gastropub), Rumba’s (Caribbean), and Marlin Darlin (Key West grill). They opened two more restaurants this year: Salt Cracker Fish Camp (Southern restaurant on Clearwater Beach) and Marina Cantina (a Mexican restaurant at the Clearwater Marina). I can’t wait to try them. Marina Cantina’s chef, Paul Daubert, handed out snapper ceviche at Taste Fest.
If you’re looking for some great New York style pizza on Clearwater Beach, King’s Pizza has what you want. Although they weren’t present at Taste Fest, Captain’s Pizza is another great option.
Florida doesn’t really have their own hot dog tradition. So we borrow from others, like Cincinnati and Detroit, both of which are represented in Clearwater, by Skyline Chili and Detroit Coney Island, respectively. Skyline Chili was serving up coney dogs and cups of chili at Taste Fest. They just opened a new location on Gulf to Bay Blvd.
Clear Sky now has two locations in the Tampa Bay area: Clear Sky Beachside Café on Clearwater Beach and Clear Sky Draught Haus in Downtown Dunedin. I loved this plate of Southern-style pulled pork over grits with black beans and fresh greens.
Every Tampa Bay-area Taste Fest should feature a Cuban sandwich. This one’s from Surfside Taphouse on Mandalay Ave.
As far as tasting events go, this is one of the best. The only Tasting event I’ve enjoyed more than this is Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival, which is not always in the budget. It was not just the food, but also the location and the entertainment that made Clearwater Beach’s Taste Fest great. After all, Clearwater Beach was named best beach town in Florida by USA Today in 2013 and No. 1 beach in the country by Trip Advisor in 2016. Beach Walk, completed in 2008, has greatly contributed to Clearwater Beach’s appeal, hosting multiple special events throughout the year, drawing both tourists and locals to the beach.
Aerial view of Beach Walk during Taste Fest
Many attendees enjoyed their food samples picnic-style on the grassy lawn next to Beach Walk.
For entertainment, Clearwater Gas System and Shepard’s Beach Resort sponsored an outstanding performance by Eric Darius. Darius, a national recording artist who got his start in Tampa, FL, played energetic contemporary jazz to enthusiastic crowds at this year’s Taste Fest.
Don’t fret if you didn’t make it to Taste Fest this year. Many of these restaurants are participating in Clearwater’s Restaurant Week, which is actually two weeks long, from May 9-22, 2016. Go to ClearwaterBeachRestaurantWeek.com for a list of participating restaurants.