November in the Sunshine State is definitely cool. Alfresco dining by the water is as cool as it gets.
It’s November and finally time to enjoy alfresco dining. And why not make it a waterfront view? The glory of the Gulf of Mexico, the intricate ecosystems of our bay and estuarine systems, the timeless flow of our lazy rivers — each offers a feast for the eyes. These restaurants also offer literal feasts.
Linger Lodge Restaurant & Bar
Where: 7205 Linger Lodge Road, Bradenton
Once upon a time, this funky Florida eatery was a fishing camp on the banks of the Braden River. The river still flows, and there are plenty of fish on the menu — along with a range of other home-cooked, Sunshine State specialties.
Dig into the River Platter, stuffed to the, er, gills with gator, catfish and frogs’ legs. You can have them cooked any which way, but blackened is best. If frogs and gators aren’t your style, the most popular dish — the Linger Lodge Étouffée — is a spicy gumbo done up the New Orleans way.
Sure, you can dine inside, but the best seats in the house are on the screen-covered, skeeter-proof deck overlooking the life of the river, with all of Florida’s natural bounty in clear view.
While stuffing yourself with Florida cracker cuisine, you might also enjoy the assortment of stuffed critters on the walls. (The art of taxidermy is also alive and well here.)
On most Saturday and Sunday nights, the joint is jumping with live bluegrass, country and rock sounds. The fish are jumping all the time.
Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub
Where: 760 Broadway St., Longboat Key
At the north end of Longboat Key, the Gulf of Mexico flows into Sarasota Bay through Longboat Pass. Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub looks out at this idyllic confluence of many waters.
The splendor surrounds you in the lovingly remodeled, air-conditioned interior. But for a blissful view and al fresco experience, grab a waterside table under the shady trees, and watch sailboats tie up at the nearby dock. Order a chilled bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and the smoked fish appetizer board, and enjoy the ever-changing view of the floating world. (Bring a camera or your sketchbook, and take some of that beauty home.)
If you’re still hungry, the menu serves up vintage Florida fare, including its crowd-pleasing crab cakes. These beauties are golden brown on the outside and filled with moist stone or blue crab meat, with a piquant seasoning that tickles the tongue and warms the gullet.
Ophelia’s on the Bay
Where: 9105 Midnight Pass Road
The creative New World cuisine and legendary wine list at Siesta Key’s Ophelia’s on the Bay would be heavenly if you dined with your eyes closed. Ah, but open your eyes, and it gets even better.
Ask for a table outside in the lush tropical setting with a view of Little Sarasota Bay. Your heart will thrill at the sight of seabirds and pleasure crafts, the occasional dolphin hunting for its own sunset feast and a sunset worthy of the French impressionists.
After the sun has gone down, the fish lights on the dock turn your meal into dinner and a show. (If you’re looking to pop the big question or just celebrate that special someone, it’s the ideal idyll for ritual and romance.)
Start with the Burgundy Escargots Ophelia (with Champagne sauce, black truffle, trumpet mushrooms and basil butter), and follow up with the signature loin of lamb.
When days and nights get nippy, discreetly placed heaters will keep you toasty.
Star Fish Company Dockside Restaurant
Where: 12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez
Dockside diners enjoy a picture-perfect vision of mangroves, commercial fishing boats and barrier islands across the bay in the working fishing village of Cortez. Pinch yourself if you have to — and then it’s time to chow down. (Don’t wait on a waiter; it’s serve yourself.)
Specialties include stone crab claws (in season), conch fritters, shrimp and grits, mullet served as you like it and abundant down-home sides. (Don’t leave without trying the deep-fried cornmeal hush puppies.)
After filling up your body and soul, stop by the indoor fish market, and take a slice of paradise home with you.
O’Leary’s Tiki Bar & Grill
Where: 5 Bayfront Drive
Hungry for a rich man’s view and an Everyman’s meal? Check out O’Leary’s Tiki Bar & Grill on Island Park at the edge of Sarasota Bay in downtown Sarasota.
The setting includes sailboats, seagulls and the stunning interface of land, sea and sky. The fuss-free food is as good as it gets. We’re talking peel-and-eat shrimp, blackened mahi tacos, onion rings, fish fingers and pitchers of frosty-cold brews.
Most afternoons and evenings, a local band is playing the ballads of Jimmy Buffet or the Beach Boys. It’s a sociable scene, with convivial chatter spilling out of the Tiki hut bar a few feet away. Sociable pooches are welcome too; it’s a dog- and kid-friendly scene.
If you’re looking to renew your faith in humanity or just plain hungry for tummy-filling fare, you’ve come to the right place.