CLEARWATER — The third annual Clearwater Beach Restaurant Week will launch today with a kickoff party, but it won't be on the sand.
At only age 3, the event already has grown so large that the party has moved to S Gulfview Boulevard, which will be closed in front of the Hyatt Regency Resort from 5 to 9 p.m. today.
For the party, 40 restaurant tents will line Beach Walk, each offering tastes of its menu favorites and competing to prove it is the best.
Bands will play on two different stages. And raffle tickets can be purchased for a chance to win baskets full of goodies from local sponsors such as Crabby Bill's Beachwalk Bar and Grill, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Busch Gardens, Frenchy's restaurant and Island Dog Outfitters.
Those who enjoyed the event last year will find this year's bigger and yummier, with more restaurants participating and a dozen sponsors and vendors.
Like wine? Check out the wine tasting, which will be part of Friday night's festivities.
A Live Chef's Auction will also make for an interesting evening, and after the event, which ends around dusk, fireworks will fill the sky.
Tickets for the kickoff party cost $20 a person and give the purchaser access to 40 restaurant tents, where tasty morsels will be offered for no additional charge. For those who want a wine-tasting wrist band, it's an extra $10. Want more than a taste of wine? Beer and wine will be for sale.
Tickets can be purchased during the event, or online at clearwater beachrestaurantweek.com/events-activities.html or through the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce office.
"All the restaurants are competing to see which one has the best booth," said Darlene Kole, executive director of the chamber. "It will be very entertaining. Each booth is really going all out to win that night."
But the fun won't end with the kickoff party. Starting Sunday and continuing through May 19, 26 restaurants will participate in Restaurant Week, offering special three-course, prix fixe menus ranging from $15 to $35. Restaurant patrons will have a chance to vote for their favorite food items and chef.
"The restaurants are listed on our website, along with their prix fixe menus," Kole said. "Last year we had 1,300 people attend, and this year we're anticipating over 2,000."
Check out the prix fixe menus at clearwaterbeachrestaurantweek.com/the-restaurants.html.
Patrons will be given a Restaurant Week Passport at their first restaurant. If they get stamps from four different participating restaurants by the end of the week, they can qualify for a drawing for gifts and a grand prize Clearwater Beach getaway.
"People will have an opportunity to sample tasty morsels from all their favorite restaurants," she said, "and perhaps some restaurants they've never had the opportunity to visit before."
Though the culinary creations are the focus, Restaurant Week is not just about food. It's also about supporting local restaurants and helping nonprofit organizations.
Since the event started in 2010, it has raised thousands of dollars for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Clearwater Beach Chamber. Last year the event raised $17,000 for the aquarium.