ST. PETE BEACH — Gail Stotts didn't feel much like celebrating her 34th wedding anniversary Sunday with a cliché meal at an overpriced "fancy restaurant."
So she and husband Dennis decided to eat chowder in a park.
The Stotts drove from Seminole to the Pass-a-Grille historic district of this beach town to try the offerings of two dozen restaurants in the inaugural Chowder Challenge at Hurley Park.
Salmon chowder, corn chowder and plenty of the clam variety were available.
Dennis Stotts, a self-described "chowder junkie," hadn't picked a favorite shortly after the blue ribbon was cut in front of the basketball court where competitors arranged themselves in a circle of creamy goodness.
But he'd know his winner when he tasted it.
"Whatever the chowder is, it needs to be the high note. If it's clam, the strongest flavor should be clam," said Dennis, 62.
Gail, 59, had one automatic disqualifier: "No grit," she said, adding that a few offerings had already failed that test.
Organizers hoped to raise at least $5,000 to benefit the volunteer-run Gulf Beaches Historical Museum, said Spencer Lucas, president of the friends of the museum. Chili cook-offs are a dime a dozen. Chowder honored the beach culture's heritage and took a different angle, he said.
At least 500 tickets had sold by the time the Star-Spangled Banner was sung and a three-piece band played a steady procession of classic rock and party music.
Representatives of Boardwalk Pasta and Seafood were there, ladling seafood chowder into small plastic cups. Owner Paul Hains said his restaurant off of the Pinellas Bayway has a regular clientele, but he was hoping a win would attract customers.
But after hours of sampling, a three-judge panel that included Mayor Steve McFarlin bestowed the "Golden Ladle" for one year to St. Petersburg's Leverock's.
McFarlin said he prepared for his role with a "slight" breakfast and a "big swig of Pepto-Bismol."
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.