Republican National Convention delegates are going to need more than a steady diet of politics to sustain them through the August convention in Tampa.
Sure, comfy hotel beds and proximity to the convention center are important, but so are decent food and a fun place to raise a glass to the political process.
So of the 36 host hotels assigned to delegations last week, which are likely to yield the best culinary experiences? Which showcase the best Florida has to offer, preferably in settings that make shameless use of soft sand and Gulf of Mexico views?
The airport hotels are convenient and the downtown Tampa accommodations are in the thick of things, but those delegates staying a bit farther out are the likely winners in the food and drink lottery. They will find plenty of places to eat grouper sandwiches and other local favorites when they aren't on the convention floor or at official gatherings.
Georgia may have taken the top spot with its assignment at Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. The hotel has two of Tampa's shining jewels, Armani's and Oystercatchers. The hotel got a new executive chef six months ago, a dynamo named Byron Gabel who has done laudable work to put local and sustainable foods at the forefront in both restaurants. Delegates will hopefully get a great view of what Florida has to offer (although in August, local produce tends to be skimpy).
Alaska wins the most-different-from-home spot, clinching the Postcard Inn on the Beach in St. Pete Beach. Since opening in 2009, this rehabbed Travelodge has built a reputation for being Party Central for the buff and beachy. PCI's bar is the locus of mating rituals along that stretch of Gulf Boulevard, and restaurant Beachwood BBQ & Burger continues to put out good Kansas City, Memphis and St. Louis style barbecue. (It was a bit better when it was affiliated with New York City barbecue restaurant Wildwood BBQ, but the Alaskans don't have to know that.)
In a similar vein, South Dakotans won't know what hit them at Shephard's Beach Resort. With one of the largest beach bar-nightclub complexes in the area, a high-volume seafood and prime rib buffet at night and buffet breakfast in the morning, delegates may be wistful about heading back to Aberdeen or Yankton.
It may not be apparent at first that North Carolina struck it big with the Hilton St. Petersburg. There's an on-site Starbucks and a fairly pedestrian hotel restaurant called Tangerine, but this hotel sits just steps from the enormous wealth of sophisticated independent restaurants St. Petersburg has been blessed with in the past couple of years. Within a block of Z Grille, Ceviche, Red Mesa Cantina and Gratzzi, it's just a few steps more to Beach Drive's long row of sidewalk dining that rivals anything North Carolina's coastal towns can muster.
Massachusetts delegates may have to wander by the swimming pool before they realize how lucky they are with their placement at Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina. That has nothing to do with bathing beauties — the kitchen team has annexed space up there for its own organic rooftop garden, with dozens of tomato plants going gangbusters and a greenhouse for fresh herbs and lettuces. Guests can sample the goods, or other locally sourced lovelies, at the Italian Il Terrazzo or the more casual Champions Sports Bar (local organic greens on a sports bar chicken Caesar salad seems like overachieving).
And Connecticut and North Dakota hit the jackpot for their oh-so-Florida assignments at the Bilmar Beach Resort on Treasure Island. The traditional low-rise beachside hotel of old Florida postcards, it's within an easy walk of the great Cuban sandwiches of the Floridian, French/Moroccan fare at the Pearl or casual seafood at Middle Grounds. On site there's the beachy-casual Sloppy Joe's, where guests have ringside seats for Treasure Island's Sunday evening drum circle. You won't find anything like that back in Westport, Muffy.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.