Salt Rock Grill
Before I dive into saying nice things about Salt Rock, I’d like to praise Frank Chivas’ Belleair Bluffs spot Seaweed, which opened in the middle of 2018 where Marlin’ Darlin had been. It’s a smart, edgy boon to that town. Chivas also tinkered with his Marina Cantina complex in Clearwater, with Salt Cracker Fish Camp a late addition and some talk of pizza and a tiki bar to come. He also has two locations of Rumba, with another on the way, Island Way Grill with its monster brunch buffet and Salt Rock Tavern in Oldsmar. Salt Rock Grill feels like his crown jewel, though. Looking out over the Intracoastal in Indian Shores, it has been a Pinellas County anchor restaurant for ages, largely on the strength of its dayboat seafood (Chivas has his own boats), in-house-aged prime steaks grilled over a natural oak and citrus wood pit fire, raw bar goodies, a serious big-guns wine list and three-course “supper club” (read: early bird; be seated by 5:30) dinners for $15.90. In high season it gets a bit zooish, and much of the menu isn’t charting new territory, but when it comes to surf and turf with a perfect baked potato, who needs novelty? saltrockgrill.com
Address: 19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores
Phone: (727) 593-7625
Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple
It may be Tampa’s best opportunity to confuse out-of-towners. (Thought bubble: What is this doing here?!) It’s open only on Sundays, and it’s not really a restaurant, but Wat Mongkolratanaram offers some of the area’s best Thai food along with the opportunity to meditate in a shimmering gold temple under the tutelage of chanting and berobed Buddhist monks. Volunteers (it’s a weekly fundraiser for the temple) get cooking as early as 6 a.m. so that by 10:30 everything is ready for the hungry hordes. By then, long lines of would-be diners trail from each market stall, brunchers securing their bounty to picnic family-style at the open-air tables along the river.
Divide and conquer is the best strategy: Send one person in your party to nab a green papaya salad and, one of the planet’s best foods, an order of mango with sticky rice; another should be sent to the big wok from which batter-dipped plantains, sweet potatoes and taro root are scooped and bagged; and one more should pick up a couple of curries (definitely the spicy one with pumpkin), some chicken-on-a-sticken and fresh rolls with peanut sauce. Bring cash. Also, there’s a weekly plant sale, so before you meditate you can pick up an orchid or bromeliad. After lunch, wipe your hands, remove your shoes and settle into a chair or one of the pillows set up in rows on the floor of the gorgeous temple. wattampainenglish.com
Address: 5306 Palm River Road, Tampa
Phone: (813) 621-1669
O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille
Every time I write favorably about a restaurant in Gulfport, someone comments, “What about O’Maddy’s?” I meant no slight. It’s the good-times, big-burger, cheap-beer, late-night, waterside go-to in this laid-back little town, and it has been that way for more than 35 years. People go for karaoke, to watch the fishermen haul their catch onto the Williams Pier out in Boca Ciega Bay, for live bands, for food that doesn’t take itself too seriously (case in point: mahi mahi bananas foster or peanut butter and jelly wings).
It’s LGBTQ-friendly, and you’ll encounter regulars who know each other as well as tourists just soaking up a little sun. It’s where the town assembles pre- or post-storm to fill each other in. (It was open after Hurricane Irma the next morning, no power, no water.) You’ll see Stetson students next to old-timers, well-behaved dogs hoping for a little floor snack on the patio. It’s an Irish pub only in name, the strongest menu items hailing from around Buffalo: wings, beef on weck served on authentic kummelweck rolls. omaddys.com
Address: 5405 Shore Blvd. S, Gulfport
Phone: (727) 323-8643