Water, water all around. The upshot? Seafood. Rivers, bays and the Gulf of Mexico provide a smorgasbord of fish and shellfish, which can be sampled at fancy emporiums of haute cuisine, scruffy-around-the-edges fish shacks or in the raw at area sushi and Asian restaurants.
Oystercatchers: It used to be that Oystercatchers at the Grand Hyatt had one of those more-is-more, stack-your-plate-to-the-rafters kinds of Sunday brunch buffets. The restaurant recently underwent a $4-million renovation and some rethinking. The results?
Spectacular. Brunch is even better than before (a little bit of a splurge at $45), but dinner is where chef Kenny Hunsberger gets to show off. Fish is the main attraction, with many entrees offered simply grilled or sauteed (sides are separate, steakhouse-style, but they're seafood-friendly sides: braised bok choy with sesame oil or caramelized fennel). There's variety, from meaty, mild grilled black grouper to more assertive pompano in parchment. Both excellent. Still, the Hereford filet is a lovely piece of meat, sitting on a chic lineup of roasted veggies. Food and beverage director Brooke Burnett has pared the wine list to include a thoughtful number of bottles and something for everyone by the glass in terms of price and varietal. A menu of house cocktails -- Floridian martini, mango mojito -- make Oystercatchers a great place to just hang out with friends. Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, 2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa. (813) 207-6815.
Mad Fish: In 2007, Dan Casey, the owner of Snapper's in St. Pete Beach, set his sights just down the road and opened Mad Fish. Ensconced in a blue neon and gleaming chrome diner, the inside has been wrapped in lustrous African mahogany. Reminiscent of the dining cars on vintage trains, it's elegant, with an extensive wine bar and an emphasis on fresh fish. Mad Fish services nearby convention and hotel business, providing a reservations-accepted alternative to Snapper's. Look for the signature shrimp Guanajuato, a tomato-based shrimp cocktail enlivened by Mexican orange soda; stacks of super-fat onion rings; and a dessert caddy of still-warm cookies served with glasses of banana milkshake. 5200 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. (727) 360-9200.
Mystic Fish: Prefer your fish more serene? Mystic Fish's interior telegraphs the kitchen's focus: shimmery rows of abalone shells, aquariums filled with darting tropical fish, chandeliers that resemble swarms of luminous sea eels. It's seafood, front and center. Owners Eugene Fuhrmann and Doug Bebell each spent years at other fabled seafood houses in these parts and they know what they're doing. This translates as grouper piccata, kona-seared Atlantic salmon and blackened Chilean sea bass with ginger-soy Hijiki sauce. Still, even the vegetarian is ably served: soy-glazed edamame and snow peas; matchstick carrots with apricot curry; tandoori grilled onions and zucchini; kona-grilled asparagus; and ajillo artichoke hearts. 3253 Tampa Rd., Palm Harbor. (727) 324-2754.
Wild Shrimp Company: The newish, order-at-the-window little shack/store, fronting the Haslam's bookstore parking lot, has an immense funk factor. Decor includes a stuffed monkey, a cap gun out of ammo and menus festooned with pictures of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi (except the idea here is, "no gumbo for you"). Its location is no accident, situated a little more than half a mile from Bama Sea Products, its chief purveyor and muse. Owners James Walton and Todd Felix have built their concept around the small, sweet wild gulf shrimp Bama sells. They come crumb-battered and deep-fried, paired with horseradish-powered cocktail sauce, or they come in gumbo, jambalaya or packed into a po' boy. 2005 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 209-0813.
Dockside Dave's Grill: Dave's legendary dive fell to development, but even in a new spot, the fish sandwiches here are still king of the beach. It's not rocket science, but the combination of snowy white locally caught grouper — battered and fried — and drippy red tomato, crisp lettuce, a few rounds of white onion and a fairly soft roll indeed approaches genius. Add in a funky waterside setting and a remarkably edible smoked amberjack spread, and we're definitely in Mensa territory. Fish-phobes can try Buffalo's own beef on 'weck and a sassy order of onion rings. 14701 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach. (727) 392-9399).
Frenchy's Saltwater Café: This cozy, hole-in-the-wall favorite on Clearwater Beach serve up seafood fresh from the boat at bargain prices. Served with cold beer, good humor and modest fixings (plus great desserts). The specialty here is a grouper reuben. It's also a major heavy hitter in the local traffic of stone crabs. The original Frenchy's Cafe opened in 1981 and many subsequent Frenchy's have dotted the landscape in Clearwater Beach, all fueled by their own fleet of commercial fishing boats. 419 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater Beach, (727) 461-6295.
Samurai Blue Sushi and Sake Bar: It's located dead center in Ybor City's Centro Ybor. As with many of the restaurants in the complex, it's a big, loud joint, but this one serves "spontaneous combustion rolls" and other kooky spins on Japanese bar staples, along with that most ludicrous of beverages, the sake bomber. Unfamiliar? First there is the cajoler, urging those weaker or more easily influenced to take the challenge. The shot glass is taken up in the left hand and dropped, in tandem with all tablemates, into the glass of beer. A moment of fizzing, small tidal waves, then the beer is hefted with the right hand and consumed in a few giant gulps. The shot glass nudging at one's lips, this is a game of speed. If those at the table are unable to say, "Geez, that was a bad idea" in Japanese, the table resorts to short whooping sounds. 1600 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City. (813) 242-6688.
Water, Unique Sushi: Picking out a favorite dining spot along South Howard's "Restaurant Row" is difficult. For casual Asian, Water, Unique Sushi, is a savvy Japanese-inspired seafood joint that has become a late-night hangout for the neighborhood's beautiful people. Water specializes in rice-paper rolled sushi (no nori) paired with punchy sauces and dynamic side dishes. A minimalist design aesthetic and a no-reservations policy cannot douse the enthusiasm for vibrant combos like unagi, banana, and avocado. Its sister restaurant next door, Ciccio & Tony's, is also a favorite around here for thin-crust pizzas and California-style wraps. 1015 ½ S. Howard Ave., Tampa. (813) 251-8406.
Pacific Wave: Downtown St. Petersburg's Pacific Wave is proof positive that a restaurant that's been around a while has had time to mature, settle-really to grow up. The restaurant's interior exudes casual elegance. It's not too loud, too frenetic or too dark. It's got "date night" written all over it, but seems equally amenable to office parties and boisterous groups. The strengths of the menu are sophisticated but traditional sushi and sashimi, but also Japanese- and Pacific Rim-inspired cooked dishes (special emphasis on Pacific fish from Hawaii) and an appealing short wine list and alluring cocktail list. A real treat, servers are polished and seasoned, they pace a meal appropriately and show a deep knowledge of the menu's ingredients and flavors. 211 Second St. S St. Petersburg. (727) 822-5235.
Kiku Japanese Fine Dining: Sushi may now be commonplace, the streets fairly paved with seared tuna, but sushi masters like Daniel Chong are and should be rare. Enter his small garden, surrender to the cool grace of humility and al pleasure will be revealed. Ask for a bagel roll or fried grouper and you will miss the best fish of your life. Say "omakase" instead, trusting fish and sake to Chong's knife and palate. Might as well surrender; you need his guidance to enjoy the rare fish, subtle sake and seasoning savvy. A sublime journey. 483 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater. (727) 461-2633.