A little Florida vocabulary lesson: A "Cracker" is something a Floridian can call him or herself, and with pride, but it's not a moniker to go slinging around lightly. There are still Florida Crackers along the Gulf Coast, and you'll probably know one when you see one.
The origins of the term are a little hazy. Some say the poor, rural people in these parts made a kind of hardtack "cracker" that filled them up. Others say Crackers were named after the cracked-corn moonshine brewed in the backwoods during Prohibition. And still others insist it was the "crack" of the whip Florida's cowhunters made.
Regardless, Old Florida folk who might fit this description are a down-home, easygoing lot. They may eat gator, cooter (that's a turtle), smoked mullet and any number of delicacies pulled out of Gulf waters (stone crabs and grouper, pink shrimp and spiny lobster). Here are some of the area's kitschy, homey Old Florida spots where you might encounter one of the breed.
Skipper's Smokehouse: Part islandy-Key West, part Cracker, it has the ambiance of a place ten times its age. It's Tampa's best live music venue (blues, alt rock, Tuvan throat singers, the gamut), with concerts held outdoors under the canopy of a huge, moss-festooned live oak. It has a lively 30s-and-up bar scene, and a ramshackle restaurant that serves a wonderful blackened grouper sandwich, gator nuggets and black beans. 910 Skipper Road, Tampa. (813) 971-0666.
Beak's Old Florida: Beak's is the kind of comfortable, good-time neighborhood joint that usually takes decades to create. On a pleasant stretch of St. Petersburg's Grand Central District, it doesn't so much have decor as an astounding accretion of yard-sale castoffs. The serious funk factor is courtesy of owners Evelyn Powell and Jamie Farquharson (the latter the founder of the Bubble Room on Captiva back in 1978) and the culinary focus is bar-food-with-a-twist (crab corndogs, smashed tamale soufflé, and a lot of dishes with PG13-rated names), most of these twists improvements upon the originals. It's a grownups-only place at night. 2451 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 321-9100.
Frenchy's Café: Forget fancy settings. This cozy, hole-in-the-wall favorite on Clearwater Beach, serves up seafood fresh from the boat at bargain prices. This tiny spot is the original. It's where to go for a maiden voyage with the local delicacy, stone crabs. Stone crabbing is big business in the state, with 1-million pounds of last year's bounty caught in Monroe County and the Florida Keys alone. Pinellas County is no slouch, bringing in nearly 300,000 pounds of claws last year. If the claws leave you cold (and that's how to eat them the Floridian way, chilled with mustard sauce), try the specialty crabby shrimp sandwich or she-crab soup. Served with cold beer, good humor and modest fixings (plus great desserts). 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. 41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach. (727) 446-3607.
Kelly's for Just about Anything: The name ain't whistling Dixie. The day's fun could start with Butterfinger muffins or French toast with chocolate and Cognac, drift through lunch of banana pancakes or Hell-burgers and head into dinner of duck breast, Emeril's escolar and house-smoked pork chops. Virgel Kelly and pals always add an extra smile and a kick, like gazpacho butter or chili onions - and the wildest silly-tinis outdoors and in the adjoining Chic-a-Boom Room. It's the kind of far-reaching comfort food menu that leaves no stone unturned, from eggplant-portobello-tomato Napoleons to butternut squash ravioli. It's a kids-welcome joint, very friendly and accommodating. 319 Main St., Dunedin. (727) 736-5284.
Fourth Street Shrimp Store: Festooned with murals and paraphernalia of all types (vaguely nautical, with a naked maidenhead heavy on the Gasparilla beads), the décor at this funky shack is shorthand for casual and fun, all at a fair price. Pass the seafood counter at the entrance and grab a seat. Next task: thick clam chowder, fried oysters, a little catfish or, when available, the local pride and joy—grouper. A wraparound porch provides limited extra seating and a full bar adds to the festivity. 1006 Fourth St N St. Petersburg. (727) 822-0325.