The Pinellas beaches can be disorienting. Like shells strewn along the shoreline, they can all seem the same - tiny towns straddling a 25-mile stretch of car-centric Gulf Boulevard from Pass-a-Grille to Clearwater Beach. Was that Treasure Island we just passed? The dining can be equally challenging, an endless bounty of burgers, wings, ice-cold beer and fried everything. But the serious beachcomber who spends enough time here can stumble across real finds: a cozy French bistro, a romantic wine garden, a fusion of South American and the Caribbean, or a sushi master amid the T-shirt shops. For those of you settling in for the long three-day July 4th weekend or just dashing over for some sun and fireworks, here's a guide to some beach gems.
Tapas Garden and Wine Bar
321 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach
The former home of longtime French favorite La Cachette is a still-evolving but charming oasis, in contrast to the always-hopping Crabby Bill's nearby. The new owners have retained and enlivened the outdoor patio that evokes the garden in the name, where you might encounter flamenco guitar and dancing after dark. The tapas menu ranges from a crispy duck leg to fried green tomato to baked Brie in puff pastry. Entrees include lamb shank, herb-crusted rib eye and pork tenderloin.
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Salt Rock Grill
19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores
A perennial best-of-the-beaches for good reason: fresh ingredients, crisp service, lively atmosphere, a sublime view of the mangrove-lined Intracoastal Waterway and nightly specials that challenge the usual beach fare aesthetic. The 1,200-degree grill is front and center, setting the mood and jump-starting the appetite for surf or turf.
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Guppy's on the Beach
1701 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach
Not quite fine dining but far more than casual, Guppy's combines Caribbean fire, Southwestern flair and healthful ingredients. Trimmings are packed with fruits, herbs and grains. And don't worry, their prime-grade oysters are not affected by the oil gusher in the gulf.
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Keegan's Seafood Grille
1519 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach
A casual spot that has built a loyal local following over 25 years by offering seafood that goes beyond grouper sandwiches - though they have those too - with charbroiled octopus, gumbo, she-crab soup and blackened gator tail. Regulars know to check the specials on the blackboard. Featured in an episode of the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, it's hard to say it fits any of those descriptions, so don't let the strip mall location fool you.
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Kiku Japanese Restaurant
483 Mandalay Ave., No. 214, Clearwater
The St. Petersburg Times' restaurant of the year in 2005, this is more sushi zen temple than restaurant, a quiet retreat from the bustle of Clearwater Beach. You might miss it, perched on the second floor of a tourist shopping minimall. Order from the menu if you must, or simply say "omakase,'' and trust sushi master Daniel Chong's instincts. You never know what he might have - Hokkaido scallops, monkfish liver, ocean trout, baby flounder - but you'll leave happy.
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Black Palm Restaurant
109 Eighth Ave., St. Pete Beach
The menu's fusion of South American and Caribbean flavors atop a solid foundation of American ingredients reflects the roots of owners Lui and Katy Arango, who make their home behind this cozy restaurant and just marked their fifth year in business in historic Pass-a-Grille. Plantain-crusted snapper, chimichurri-marinated tenderloin, sofrito rum diver sea scallops over mofongo distinguish the menu. And margaritas made with fresh citrus? Yes!
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15225 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach
It's easy to miss this tiny French mainstay tucked in a strip shopping center in Madeira Beach, a town where the classics tend toward fried grouper and onion rings. Here they veer toward coq au vin, duck confit, lobster bisque, calf's liver and escargot served at a steady but unhurried pace by husband and wife team Mary and Frederic Herodet. She dotes on the customers, he fusses over the food, both with outstanding results.
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163 107th Ave., Treasure Island
Fine dining Treasure Island-style, meaning cloth napkins and customers in Hawaiian shirts. Chef Karim Chiadmi's Moroccan kitchen staff has been together for more than a decade, first at his eponymous restaurant at the landmark Thunderbird and for the past five years in a strip shopping center on the town's downtown main drag, 107th Avenue. The menu stretches across the whole Mediterranean, from lush French sauces and bouillabaisse to veal Marsala and on to a mezze full of hummus, eggplant, olives. The tapas menu is a great way to explore.
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Walt'z Fish Shak
224 Boardwalk Place E, Madeira Beach
While John's Pass tourists crowd into Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. on the pier, locals head to this ramshackle spot on the corner, a Caribbean dream serving some of the freshest fish on the beach. Walter Gerbase keeps preparation simple and the menu ever-changing with whatever he gets off the dock each day. Get there early and keep an eye on the blackboard; when everything is crossed off, Walt knocks off for the evening.
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7401 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach
The best breakfast at the beach is at this little spot on Gulf Boulevard at Corey Avenue, where the croissants are flaky and the marmalade on the table tastes homemade. Eggs Benedict eight ways, airy pancakes bigger than the average face, fluffy French toast, and an array of omelets (since it's the beach, the hangover omelet rules: corned beef hash topped with hollandaise sauce).
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Ocean Breeze Lounge and Tapas Grille
9524 Blind Pass Road, St. Pete Beach, (727) 360-1380
The moribund Mulligan's overlooking the Intracoastal at Blind Pass Bridge has been brightened and breezed up considerably under the new Austrian ownership of Hans Koller. This is not fine dining but casual seaside chic, with an emphasis on an intriguing tapas menu that ranges from lamb chops to oyster sliders to steak and cheese flatbread with bacon and blue cheese.