I stand at the crossroads. Before me, two choices: Fresh Kitchen, which serves bowls stocked with healthful blends of vegetables, chicken, tofu and more, or Daily Eats, which is offering $3 milkshakes and a hamburger happy hour. The two restaurants sit side by side in a Cooper Creek plaza building, Fresh Kitchen stretching off to the right, Daily Eats to the left. Both are part of the Ciccio Restaurant Group, a burgeoning eatery empire with locations spread throughout St. Pete, Tampa and Brandon. The company opened Fresh Kitchen and Daily Eats together in Sarasota last December.
I take a step to the right, then to the left. I scratch my chin, aim my gaze to the heavens and ask for guidance. But really, it's all an act. Who am I even kidding? Let's get a table at Daily Eats, pronto, before that milkshake deal runs dry. The healthy stuff can wait.
Daily Eats opens early, slinging breakfast from 7:30 a.m. till closing time, with a range of omelets ($9-$10), eggy bowls ($8.50-$12) and griddled grub ($7.50-$9). Lunch and dinner lean toward burgers ($9-$12), bowls laden with brown rice or quinoa ($6.50-$11) and archetypal sandwiches ($6-$11). The design hews closely to modern strip mall stilo, with white subway tiles and thin wood paneling. Olive-colored seats surround the woodgrain-pattern tables. A dozen stools sit in front of a long counter flanked by a pair of TVs with dueling sports programs. A banquette lines a back wall.
The food arrives lickety-split, fast enough to qualify as fast casual, even though my wife and sons and I have a server. In truth, the meals probably arrive so quickly because there's not much complicated about them. I'm noshing on the redundantly titled "Memphis Southern fried chicken sandwich" ($10), while my wife, Rachel, chows down on a burger ($6 for beef, $12 for bison). Theo, 4, and Felix, 1, are sharing a gargantuan grilled cheese from the restaurant's kids' menu.
What makes my sandwich Memphis-y? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure I care. It's built out of a hunk of chicken breast that's big enough to spill out of the bun in which it rests. Flavorings include sliced pickles, a lily pad of lettuce and an orange-coral-colored remoulade flecked with spices. The meat has been fried by a master. The crispy shell crunches audibly as I bite down and a rush of flavor pings around my brain. Oh happy day.
On the side: a small salad made from lettuce, cucumbers and diced tomato, dressed subtly. Also on the side: sweet potato fries ($3.5-$6), cut into long wedges shaped like popsicle sticks. A basket of them comes kissed with honey.
Rachel's burger, ordered medium rare, comes out mid-rare in the center, closer to pink along the circumference of the meat, and the patty has stayed juicy. The fries on the side are standard-issue. My sons are scarfing away on their grilled cheese, which looks appetizing even to the grownups at the table. Theo layers three half-eaten pickles into a small edifice. "Look, Mama, I made a house," he says. He taps the top pickle. "That's the roof."
We can't leave without indulging in the milkshake happy hour. Today's featured flavor is "Are U Peanuts," a peanut butter-heavy concoction mixed with either chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Dessert is thick and ultra-creamy, with a peanut-intense flavor profile that provides a rush of joy.
As we wander away from Daily Eats, I can't help gazing at the road not taken, the bright interior of Fresh Kitchen and the nutrient-dense meals of the fitter, happier, more productive patrons within. Maybe next time I'll go that route. Maybe.
Daily Eats is located at 8491 Cooper Creek Blvd., Sarasota. It is open 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Call (941) 208-3880 or visit cicciorestaurantgroup.com for more info.