This project requires a tiny bit of math. Our aim: calorie-neutral dining. Before summer storms set in, take advantage of a glorious weekend day to bike and dine your way along the Fred E. Marquis Pinellas Trail. What began as a rails-to-trails conversion, it's a recreational path that heads through some of the most populous areas in Pinellas County. From Tarpon Springs in the north to St. Petersburg in the south, along the way it glides right past notable restaurants, cafes, bars and ice cream shops.
But first, the math. Go to a site like calories perhour.com or fitwatch.com to calculate how many calories you burn an hour on a bike. For my weight and size, a leisurely two-hour ride (roughly 12 mph) burns about 720 calories. From Tarpon Avenue in Tarpon Springs to Main Street in Dunedin on the Pinellas Trail is 10.3 miles one way, 20.6 miles round-trip. (We chose the northern section of the trail because it seemed most deliciously dense with dining possibilities.)
A one-scoop ice cream cone is about 200 calories, and there are 100 calories in a cafe con leche, 360 in a BLT and 175 in a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I'll have to ride a few extra miles at the end, but you're getting the idea. Lance Armstrong might raise a quizzical eyebrow at the training strategy, but it makes for a mighty fine afternoon along this astonishing local treasure.
Before you start pedaling, take stock. What are you in the mood for — Cajun, Greek, Italian or French? At Zante Café Neo you don't have to decide. Brad and Liza Sullivan serve it all, top honors going to the crawfish etouffe (there's a cyclist they call Jim the Etouffe Man who will attest) and the chicken and sausage gumbo (a small bowl for a very reasonable $3.50). It's a family restaurant with an exploded-garage-sale decorating motif, doing a brisk lunch business for a lot of local regulars since 2002.
Especially great if you're cycling with kids, Katz Restaurant and Playground is a block off the trail and features an indoor climbing course with a slide and a cool computer-projected image game that sucks children in instantly. For adults, the Karatzas family traffics in laudable burgers and Greek-inflected salads and pastas.
In what was once Bridie Gannon's Irish Pub and then fleetingly Manzoni's Ristorante Italiano, Currents is a sophisticated dinner-only spot for New American food (pedalers, this means end your ride here as the sun begins to descend). Pull up a stool at the bar, which was part of the set for the filming of the 1953 Robert Wagner sponge drama, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, and tuck into a seared fillet of salmon with blue cheese mashed potatoes, or skip straight to the dynamite crustless French cheesecake.
For some reason, the waft of barbecue perfumes the air at intervals along the Pinellas Trail. One of the more rustic stops is Bill's Real Deal Bar-B-Que. It is only open Thursday to Saturday, run by 'cue aficionado Allen Wilson for the past 10 years. A stack of wood outside awaits its fate in the smoker, counter service in the little shack serving up pork ribs ($8/quarter rack), chicken and beef along with exotica liked curried goat.
You know how they say potassium is important for athletes training in hot and humid weather? For this reason, Muzzie's Ice Cream & Sandwich Shop serves cyclists restorative banana splits. On the other hand, the BLT, set atop massive slices of homey housemade bread, will keep you adequately fueled.
Old Palm Harbor Village Center, on the other side of Alt. U.S. 19 from the trail, has a couple of sustaining stopoffs. Thai Nana features gingery-limey nam sod (ground chicken salad) or spicy beef yum salad. Both refreshing. And, opened in May, Kevin Kneffler's little Bosco's Cigar Shop offers a fine cafe con leche for $2.95 (go easy on the cigars, you've still got a long ride).
Orange Street, which runs parallel to the trail, has several pleasant options. Ozona Pig makes some fine Memphis-style pulled pork and deviled eggs. J.C. Cravers Bar & Grill backs up right onto the trail and features decent hamburgers and prime rib with good-times live bands Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights, along with wallet-friendly specials like 50-cent wings and $1 Bud Select drafts. Then there's Ozona Blue right at the edge of Home Port Marina in Smith Bayou. This is where you can start to craft your own kind of triathlon: The restaurant has a hot tub and swimming pool where diners can breaststroke their way to glory.
Head off the trail for a fish sandwich at the snack shack called the Sandbar Grill or stop for the third leg of your quirky triathlon. At the St. Andrews Links Golf Course, $10 will buy you two beers and a bucket of balls. The course pro, Paul Sylvester, also tends the little snack shop, where they sell $1.50 Bob Evans sandwiches.
What looks like a nondescript saloon from the front of CNS Plaza, Eddie's Bar and Grill markets directly to cyclists pedaling the trail. On a pretty weekend day, hundreds of bikes are leaned haphazardly along the fence, a sign for all-you-can-eat snow crab dinners the lure ($18.99).
Again, the waft of barbecue hangs people up at Eli's Bar-B-Que, only on the weekends, only cash. Elijah Crawford is a local legend, his Georgia-style goods flying out of a repurposed concrete ice cream stand. Spicy pork sausages tend to sell out first.
After the sausage, then the beer, at Jolli Mon's Grill, the patio of which abuts the bikers pumping past. Wind chimes, pennants and plastic bags filled with water and pennies (it's said to keep the flies at bay) lend an air of festivity to the restaurant, which does a brisk business in you-peel-'em shrimp, smoked fish spread and affordable fish tacos.
As the trail approaches downtown Dunedin's Main Street, the number of choices is downright dizzying. Cafe Alfresco is especially good for cycling spectators, its glassed-in patio directly on the trail path. Inside, there's a cake case that will undo all your sweaty efforts, but the combined lunch/dinner menu allows you to go as light or substantial as your mood dictates, from Cajun meatloaf to Asian shrimp salad.
Kitty-corner across the street is Casa Tina, a longtime go-to local spot for Mexican, especially for those seeking vegetarian and even vegan offerings. Owners Tina Marie and Javier Avila just transformed the space next door into a charming wood-fired pizza place, but it's dinner-only, so afternoon cyclists will have to be content with chile rellenos or veggie mole poblano enchiladas. Then, when the flan is gone? Get back on the bike and head north toward your car, in a haze of endorphins, sugar rush and deep self-satisfaction.