Talk about surf and turf. Waterside dining around Tampa Bay really makes a splash while the rest of the country is mired in winter.
Woody's Waterfront: We can thank the hurricane of 1928 for Woody's Waterfront outdoor restaurant. It dates nearly as far, to 1946, when it was just a tiny bait house for anglers doing their thing along Blind Pass, a rocky little inlet carved out by that ferocious storm. Back then it was burgers and dogs. It's still burgers and dogs, and on an average weekend, the place is packed. Servers hustle through the patio, tight-set with high-gloss picnic tables and turquoise sun umbrellas, no one making it look easy as beers are dispensed, orders taken. Meanwhile, Tom Davis or another regular slides through a repertoire of familiar sing-alongs (live music six nights a week, usually a single guy who manages to sound like a whole band), and regulars settle in for a casual, waterside good time amid the condos. A fried shrimp basket sums up the kitchen's M.O.: no-fuss paper-lined basket filled with slightly pallid fries (the spicy version is better) and decent-sized shrimp, the breading a bit sweet. It's familiar, but pleasant and generous at $7.95. The house ultimate Woody burger (mushrooms, fried onions, bacon, cheese) is a monster, suitable for sharing and likely to leak. 7308 Sunset Way, St. Pete Beach, (727) 360-9165.
Caddy's on the Beach: While Woody's lacks an actual beach, Caddy's has plenty of sandy space. It's got ramshackley charm - sunsets, volleyball, kids building sand castles, all accompanied by a set-list of beachy cover-band greatest hits. The picnic tabletops are sticky, it takes a while for a server to notice you've ambled up, and if you overstay (1 1/2 hours maximum for diners) they suggest you move to the beach chairs down the way. The upside is that eating a chili cheese dog and sipping cold draft beer from a plastic cup is seldom as enjoyable as it is on this stretch of Sunset Beach. The house corned beef and brisket make for laudably tasty sandwich innards; the half-pound burger is juicy and nicely seasoned. The menu leans much more heavily to meaty barbecue than seafood. 9000 W Gulf Blvd., Sunset Beach, Treasure Island. (727) 360-4993.
Frenchy's Rockaway Grill: Grouper has resoundingly stayed front and center at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill in Clearwater Beach. Part of a small seafood empire, it benefits from the owner's foresight in buying his own production fishing dock and fishing boats. Thus, the catch is of the same just-caught freshness at the original Frenchy's, Frenchy's South Beach Cafe, Frenchy's Saltwater Cafe or the Rockaway Grill, the largest, opened in 1991. Order the grouper sandwich--fried, it's delicious. But don't miss out on the lush, velvety she-crab soup. Beyond the food and the eloquent rum runners, Rockaway boasts a wide swath of white-sand beach, a comfy pastel indoor-outdoor dining room and bands that know their way around '70s and '80s favorites. 7 Rockaway St., Clearwater Beach. (727) 446-4844.
Undertow Beach Bar: It's set back from Gulf Boulevard, two buildings and a patio squatting right on the sand. The bar, to the left, is boisterous, with a strange running-water moat inset in the long oval-shaped bar. Cocktail waitresses wear something reminiscent of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders' late-70s glory years, but the bathing-suits-and-flipflops crowd doesn't bat an eye. The outdoor patio is the place to be, weathered plywood tables set amid a cluster of pillars holding up nothing (Stonehenge motif or the remnants of an aborted patio roof?). Some nights there's live reggae, some nights canned. Settle in with a very respectable rum drink and an order of wings. Crisp, hot and delicious, it provides ballast and sustenance for revelry follow. 3850 Gulf Blvd., St Pete Beach. (727) 368-9000.
ON THE RIVER:
Rick's on the River: The Hillsborough River sluices through downtown Tampa, adding yet more watery splendor to a waterfront city. River hangouts just feel different from those where the salt air wafts. This particular one boasts cheap brews and good specials, with live music every day. Not to mention slips for boats up to 50 feet in length, with overnight docking. Docking is free while you eat and imbibe (that's Bud, Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors Light, Amberbock, Mich Ultra and Blue Moon on tap). The menu is not dissimilar to many listed above: grouper sandwich offered fried, grilled blackened or jerked; oyster po boys; and a solid burger effort. 2305 N Willow Ave., Tampa, (813) 251-0369.
ON THE CAUSEWAY:
Crabby Bill's: Every Sunday afternoon, promoters turn this Tampa beach bar and seafood spot into bikini-heavy parties known as South Beach Sundays. They haul in cabanas, beach beds and inflatable swimming pools. Hot dudes play volleyball and spin house music. Pretty girls in bikinis sell shooters. So far, the mix seems to be working, drawing about 800 to 1,200 people a week. 7700 Courtney Campbell Parkway, Tampa. (813) 281-0566.
Bahama Breeze: You can't see the Caribbean from this spot on the causeway, but you can hear the islands and get a taste of them here. Lively music makes waits on the veranda more fun. Drinks are mixed with tropical spirits, and meats and fish are done up with fire and spice. To be fair, the menu is really Caribbean-ish, from coconut shrimp to Spanish paella to artichoke-spinach dip. Great happy hours specials, a wide outdoor deck with live reggae music, and a vivacious young crowd make it loads of fun, even if the Islands accent is a little forced, mon. A froufrou tropical-drink singles hangout, it has a lush waterside setting where you will occasionally see Rays, Buccaneers and large men who could have been contenders. 3045 N Rocky Point Drive, Tampa, (813) 289-7922.
Whiskey Joe's Bar and Grill: This old-timer just reopened in a new location at the end of October, but it's historically been a local haunt for where to watch the game (10 flat screen TVs) and enjoy the Gulf-and-bay-view while indulging in a happy hour special or two. A kind of loose Cajun shanty décor, with wide decks, give it ambiance and charm, a lovely spot from which to watch a sunset. The crowd skews a little more mature (30s and 40s) than some of the other causeway stalwarts, and menu highlights include a solid po' boy grouper sandwich. Super Bowl festivities feature a pre-game party with Tampa Bay Buccaneer Stylez G. White. 7720 W Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa, (813) 281-0770.