That Florida Flavor

By staff April 1, 2003

Road trip!

You either love driving around Florida or you hate it.

Those of us in the former category know who we are. We're passionate about it all: Alligator Alley, Sunshine Skyway, A1A, Tamiami Trail, Overseas Highway, the sparkling waters of the Intracoastal, the big-sky vistas over the Everglades, the crossroads at Yeehaw Junction, the billboards for topless doughnut shops.

We love to explore and take different routes whenever possible. There's nothing like heading down an obscure two-lane county road for the first time, discovering landmarks, the old buildings along a bygone main street, quirky roadside attractions.

And restaurants.

I log about 15,000 business miles each year crisscrossing Florida, which means a lot of meals on the road. Which means discipline. You're tired, you're hungry, you're impatient, you spot the signs along another fast-food row, you swell up like Brando.

Besides, the franchises defeat the whole purpose, the chance to discover those one-of-a-kind, out-of-the-way local diners. So after years of wandering the state's back roads and moving from town to town like David Janssen in The Fugitive, I've compiled a list of my Top 10 Favorite Servers of Local Florida Funk:

The Moon Hut-You have to love this Cape Canaveral institution just for the retro ambience. Unfortunately, the great 1960s neon sign of a little hut on the lunar surface was destroyed in a recent storm. The restaurant is located in the bend of A1A where Cocoa Beach swings toward the cape. Astronauts and NASA employees have been coming here for years for pre-dawn breakfasts. The menu has a full selection of short order fare plus an inexplicable number of Greek dishes. The decor is half futuristic space travel, half country arts and crafts. My last table was under an Apollo capsule and a spinning loom. I went to pay the check and Annette Bening was in line in front of me at the register. Like with a David Lynch movie, don't try to make sense of it all; just let it wash over you. (7802 N. Atlantic Ave., Cape Canaveral)

Mangrove Mama's-A slice of Jamaica in the Florida Keys. If you've driven all the way down U.S. 1, you probably noticed Mama's as it went by in a fleeting glimpse at Mile Marker 20 on Sugarloaf Key. What was that cool yellow-and green place practically hidden in a nest of banana trees? But you're in a hurry to get to Key West and do the Duval Crawl. Next time, stop. The front door's almost always open for that breezy feel. Cats walk around. The decor's mismatched, in bright colors. There's a wonderful patio seating area in a lush garden. Great shrimp and scallops. Coconut seasoning. Key lime pie. Like dining in a Bertie Higgins song. (19991 Overseas Highway, Sugarloaf Key)

Jimbo's-If you're not up for a surreal adventure, stay away. Jimbo's is located in the middle of Biscayne Bay, down a long, winding dirt road that begins across the street from the Miami Seaquarium. There are no signs and you think you'll never find the place until you practically crash into it. Jimbo's has been around for half a century. It's a falling down old shrimp packinghouse on a little mangrove lagoon where they used to shoot some scenes for Flipper. They serve only two things: cans of beer and baggies of smoked fish. Actually, "served" isn't the right word. In a dark room just inside the front door sit several plastic-lined garbage cans. Help yourself. Leave money on the counter. Then go back outside and watch the old-timers play bocci or sit on a ratty couch in the driveway and catch a basketball game on a snowy TV. Not odd enough, you say? Then watch the fashion photographers at work. Wrapped around this old-Florida fish camp scene are a bunch of shotgun shacks painted up in Caribbean colors and used as backdrop for swimsuit modeling shoots. (Virginia Key, find it)

The Island Room-After Jimbo's, you might be ready to step back through the looking glass and into a more traditional dining experience. Head out into the sticks on the opposite side of the state. The Island Room features the kind of gourmet dining you'd expect at a place with a snooty maitre d', but in an unlikely location with as much stuffiness as a neighborhood burger joint. It's located on the tip of Cedar Key, on the ground floor of the Cedar Cove Hotel. For those who don't know, Cedar Key was a bustling port a hundred years ago, before the railroad tracks were extended to Tampa and the village dried up to its current rustic state. It's like walking around Key West in the 1920s. That's why people head down the dead-end, 30-mile road through the swamps and bayous. And that's why you don't expect to find the Island Room. It's here because renowned chef Peter Stefani decided to move to the island and open his own place. And, since Cedar Key touts itself as the Farm-Raised Clam Capital of the Country, the menu is no surprise. Steamed clams with androuille sauce, baked clams Rockefeller topped with spinach, clams casino, Cedar Key littleneck clams sauteed in wine. If you don't like clams, they have other food, like oysters. This one's a can't-miss. (192 Second St., Cedar Key)

Harry and the Natives-Okay, everyone, back through the looking glass. The Cypress Cabins and Restaurant opened during World War II on the shoulder of Federal Highway in Hobe Sound. Soldiers in training at the nearby state park made it a jumping joint. In 1952, a Michigan family bought the place and it thrived, until the turnpike came in, and then it didn't. The family dispersed, including son Harry MacArthur. In 1989, Harry came back and eponymously renamed the place. Harry and The Natives has typical roadhouse grille fare, but after that, where do you even begin describing the place? The decor looks as if a thermonuclear kitsch bomb were detonated in the middle of the dining room. Every Florida knickknack that has ever gone on sale at a Stuckey's is splattered on the walls. They've got live bands on the weekend, an official theme song and a giant carved wooden monkey. The menu features an alligator playing the upright bass and is sprinkled with entrées like "Canadian Breakfast ... $20 (no tip)." (11910 S.E. Federal Highway, Hobe Sound)

The Crab Pot-I grew in a small town just north of West Palm Beach called Riviera Beach. Claim to fame: childhood home of Burt Reynolds. His dad was the police chief. Burt grew up just two streets over from our house, and you know what that means? I was this close to being in Boogie Nights. Sometimes my grandfather would babysit me when I was around five or six, and as soon as we were alone we'd scheme to go get some fried catfish. I didn't know it was no big deal-that it was something we were allowed to do. Instead, my grandfather turned it into a big conspiracy. We'd drive to this little seafood joint underneath the Blue Heron Bridge. You could smell the fish-smoke a half block away. We'd get a table with a plastic tablecloth overlooking Lake Worth and stuff ourselves on fish and hush puppies and cole slaw. Then we'd rush back home before we were caught and giggle our heads off. That little seafood joint is still there. I always get the catfish. (386 E. Blue Heron Blvd., Riviera Beach)

Cabbage Key Inn-Remote mangrove island in Pine Island Sound near Fort Myers. Thirty-eight-foot Indian shell mound in the middle. Hundred-year-old Cracker house on top. Used to be the residence of writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, now a tropical restaurant. Accessible only by boat or seaplane. What more do you want? A cool pub, you say? There's The Dollar Bill Bar, wallpapered with signed currency. The dollar bill Jimmy Buffett autographed is framed with concert photo. Dine in the historic main room or on the screened porch. Proprietors Rob and Phyllis Turner make a point of saying they have no fried food or microwaves. Sample menu: Seafood Strudel, with crab, shrimp and scallops; Grouper Tortuga on a bed of spinach fettuccine; Fresh salmon with Szechuan ground peppercorns. The surrounding cottages are for rent if you want to make a night of it. Take the nature trail. Climb the antique water tower. Pure old Florida experience. (Contact the Inn for information on arranging transportation. 941-283-2278)

Rod & Reel Pier-When I was a newspaper reporter in the Sarasota bureau of The Tampa Tribune, this was my Sunday morning ritual spot. I'd drive up to the north end of Anna Maria Island, park just shy of Bean Point and trot down the fishing pier in my flip-flops. Then it was up the wooden stairs of the bait house to the tiny restaurant on the second floor, where I claimed my regular corner window seat, ordered coffee and clam chowder, spread the Sunday paper across the table and spent the morning watching cargo ships sailing between Egmont and Passage keys and into the mouth of Tampa Bay. Then I'd hang out downstairs around the hard-core fishing scene, because I love everything about the fishing scene. Call me Ishmael. There used to be a set of jaws on the wall from a record hammerhead shark caught from the pier, but it's gone. Affordable food, killer location, great bang-for-the-buck view. (875 N. Shore Drive, Anna Maria)

Snook Haven-Another one from my early days as a reporter in Sarasota. True story: One of my first assignments involved tracking down the legend of the swooping killer turtles that reputedly plagued canoeists on the Myakka River. Another long dusty road, another hot Florida day. No sign of terrifying turtles, but I found a great old fish camp on the west bank of the river. Lots of Harleys parked outside by the rental canoes. They've got your traditional two-fisted burgers and hoagies and chicken and, of course, snook, snook, snook: grilled, fried and blackened, respectively. On the way out, I saw some souvenir T-shirts for Snook Haven, "home of the killer turtles." (5000 E. Venice Ave., Venice)

Tobacco Road-"Miami's Oldest Bar, Restaurant & Cabaret, est. 1912." It's wedged in a desolate industrial stretch of the city just south of the river. Here lurk the badlands, crime lights and malt liquor bottles. That makes it all the better when you finally spot safe haven under the 1940s Mickey Spillane neon sign: Tobacco Road ... Liquor Bar ... Til 5 am. It used to be a speakeasy frequented by Al Capone when he was in Miami to create an alibi for a rubout in Chicago. The joint continued to be raided on a regular basis until the early 1980s. Looks can be deceiving, but in this case they're not. The walls still have the texture of a desperate past. Two decades ago, new management turned it respectable and began booking an all-star blues lineup with such headliners as B.B. King. There's a great patio lounge out back under the palms and the stars, and, near the front, a tight staircase bathed in dim red light that leads clandestinely to live music on the second floor. When listening to the blues, you have to eat barbecue. Try the St. Louis Ribs, which are offered "Memphis-style." (626 S. Miami Ave., Miami)

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