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The best hidden food finds in Southwest Florida

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Zagat may point you toward Andrea’s and Bijou Cafe (which are great choices, for the record), but where do the locals prefer to dine for a quick bite or when cooking just isn’t an option after a long day? We’ve asked our community experts to weigh in on their favorite hidden culinary gems around Florida’s Gulf Coast. Many will surprise you, but all will delight your taste buds!

Manatee County

Valentino’s Pizzeria – Handcrafted Jersey Italian | North Sarasota – Cooper Creek/UTC Malls

Dinner | Relaxed

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Pam Ali, Lakewood Ranch Office Manager

Recommended dish: The bambino pasta is to die for! Bowtie pasta, olive oil, grilled chicken, broccoli and garlic.

“Valentino’s is locally-owned and the pasta tastes like it’s made in house…and the bread is AMAZING!”

 

 

Star Fish Company – Seafood Market and Dockside Restaurant | Cortez Village

Lunch/Dinner | Rustic/Casual

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Good to know:

  • Cash only, but there is an ATM
  • No table service
  • On “island time.” Don’t go if you’re in a rush.

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Maria Christenson, Realtor®

Recommended dish: Grouper fish tacos

The Cortez fishing village is a wonderful and relaxed atmosphere. At Star Fish you can eat on picnic tables on the dock overlooking commercial fishing boats and the Bay. It’s next to the fish factory where most restaurants in the area get their fish, so you can’t go wrong with any of those dishes. Perfect for lunch or a casual dinner. You can even come by boat!”

Cathy Palmer, Realtor®

Recommended dish: Seafood! Also, the hush puppies, cheese grits and key lime pie.

They get most of their seafood from local commercial fisherman. Cortez Village is one of the few working waterfronts left in the area. Part of the area where you eat is on a floating dock with a swing at the end. Patrons can see commercial fishing fleets, mangroves, and wildlife while they dine. This used to be a hidden gem but it is a very popular place now. Sometimes it may take 30 minutes to even place your order! I love to take guests there for a casual meal, with great views and better food! They also have a seafood market.”

La Norma – Making people happy through food | Longboat Key

Dinner | Quaint; comfortable

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Beverly St. Hilaire, Realtor® GRI

Recommended dish: The homemade pasta and veal (it melts in your mouth). The Lasagna is also supposedly the best in town.

“It’s a family-owned establishment and the owners are from Sicily, as I understand it. They bought an Italian restaurant that had been here for many years (“Ciau”). We live on Longboat Key and this is our go-to neighborhood restaurant for a last minute decision to eat out. They have a unique wine list with some Sicilian wines I have never seen before along with some from other regions as well.”

Bayou Tavern – Italian restaurant & pizzaria | North Longboat Key

Dinner | Extremely casual; good ol’ fashioned Italian eats

Good to know:

  • Closed Sundays and open from 4-9 p.m. for dinner; Friday and Saturday in the winter season they stay open until 10 p.m.

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Kathy Callahan, Realtor®

Recommended dish: The homemade stuffed cannelloni and veal chop

“We just discovered Bayou Tavern and it’s some of the best Italian food ever. It’s owned by two Italian men with the most wonderful accents. They have a small bar that always seems to be busy with locals and a female bartender who knows every one of them! They have some tables outside and the dining room has some bayou viewing tables in back. My husband swears it was the best veal chop ever, and he has traveled the world and eaten at many great restaurants in Italy.”

Fully Belly Burger – It ain’t a party until someone has a full belly | Bradenton (East of 75)

Lunch/Dinner | Casual; semi-diner

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Debbie Judge, Realtor® e-PRO, GRI, AHWD

Recommended dish: The full Belvis dessert; cheddar bacon burger; blue cheese bacon burger; mushroom Swiss burger; customizable mac n cheese!

“Fully Belly Burger has a semi-diner like atmosphere. It’s family-owned and everyone working there is very friendly. Snowbirds often order these burgers to take home with them because they’re so good!” 

 

HONORABLE MENTION (Not so hidden, but a definite favorite!): Anna Maria Oyster Bar | Multiple locations

Lunch/Dinner | Casual

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Jeri Murphy, Bradenton Office Closing Coordinator  

Recommended dish: Calamari salad – lightly breaded fresh calamari on bed of romaine lettuce and served with a wasabi ranch dressing

“All of their seafood is locally sourced, so everything on the menu is wonderful. The staff is friendly and will work with larger parties – worth the wait if you get there and it’s busy.”

Sarasota County

The Main Bar Sandwich Shop | Downtown

Lunch | Friendly; simple

Photo featured in Sarasota Herald-Tribune

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Bobbie Banan, Realtor®

Recommended dish: The peasant pheasant sandwich and the Italian sub

“This sandwich shop was established in 1958 by a retired circus family from Italy and the atmosphere has not changed since then. I personally love going for a late afternoon bite just before going to see a movie.”

 

New Pass Grill & Bait Shop – A local landmark since 1929 | Lido Shores

Lunch/Dinner | Outdoor waterfront dining; casual

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Angela Adams, Realtor®

Recommended dish: New Pass burger or chicken sandwich

“New Pass Grill has an old-Florida charm and incredible atmosphere. It’s both a tackle shop and eatery and is pet-friendly, so you can enjoy a bite while with your pup.”

 

Simon’s Coffee House – A whole foods, locals restaurant | South Sarasota

Lunch/Dinner | Shabby chic cafe

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Melinda Gray, Siesta Key Office Manager

Recommended dish: The garden panini with their homemade cashew cheese

“Simon’s is great for vegans, vegetarians or someone looking for a fresh and good meal!”

 

 

Sahara Cafe 941 – Mediterranean and family-owned | Sarasota

Lunch/Dinner | Casual; family-friendly

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Kathryn Parks, Sr. Communications Specialist

Recommended dish: The Sahara Special Salad which includes delicious Baba ghanoush

I’ve been going there since I was in high school. After a trip to the Mediterranean, it brought me back to the amazing flavors I encountered across the country.” 

 

 

 JR’s Old Packing House Cafe – Lunch, dinner, music | Fruitville

Lunch/Dinner | Old-Florida dive

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Dan DeSoto, Jr, Realtor®

Recommended dish: They’re famous for their Cuban food, so the Cuban Sandwiches are amazing.

“JR’s was originally a packinghouse that was converted into a restaurant and music venue. It’s great for the family and feels like a step back in time.”

 

 

 

Lovely Square Sarasota – A taste of France in Sarasota | Gulf Gate

Breakfast/Lunch | Friendly; relaxed; casual

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Maurice Menager, Realtor® and Lin Dunn, Realtor® SRES, LSS, LSE

Recommended dish: All the crepes (sweet & savory), berries pancakes and all the omelettes

“The chef, Serafin and his wife are from Hyeres, South of France. Being French, it’s the closest to French cuisine you can get” – Maurice 

“Everyone we send their way tells us they loved it. We even met fellow Sarasotans on an elevator in Athens, Greece during a conference that asked us if we had ever been. It was their new favorite as well.” – Lin

Hob-Nob Drive In | Sarasota

Breakfast/Lunch | Casual; fun

Good to know:

  • No air-conditioning

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Steve Walter, Realtor®

Recommended dish: Hob-Nob basket with onion rings

“Hob Nob is Sarasota’s oldest drive-in and a true landmark for the city. It’s been restored to maintain its 1950’s character – a genuine blast from the past.”

Shakespeare’s – Craft Beer & Gastro Pub | Granada Park

Dinner | Friendly; casual

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Pamela Sweeney, Realtor® ABR, GRI, RRS, CNE

Recommended dish: Hamburger with caramelized onions and brie cheese

“A nice selection of craft beers and a number of British dishes give you the feeling of being in an old-world pub!”

 

 

Owen’s Fish Camp – Everything starts with great seafood | Burns Court

Dinner/Cocktails | Very casual

Good to know:

  • They don’t take reservations

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Andrea O’Brien, Realtor® MBA

Recommended dish: Kitty Mitchell fish (special kind of Grouper)

“Don’t miss the backyard atmosphere – it feels like a campsite somewhere in the Midwest. While waiting you can listen to live music and buy oysters and a few other appetizers from the grill.”

 

Charlotte County

The Ice House Pub – Authentic English pub & restaurant | Punta Gorda

Lunch/Dinner | Casual; friendly

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Karen Brown, Realtor®

Recommended dish: Beer-battered chicken tenders tossed in honey hot sauce with a blue cheese dip on the side (absolutely tender!) – delicious with their cottage fries!

“Ice House is a local favorite for me to meet friends, have a great burger or chef’s salad (even though it is considered an English-style bar). It is located in an early 1900’s ice house with high ceilings, a beautiful old wood bar and offers a lot of tap choices, TVs, darts and pool. Something for everyone!”

 

Burg’r Barn – Where friends meet | Punta Gorda

Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner | Relaxed; casual

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Karen Brown, Realtor®

Recommended dish: Stuffed coconut French toast (yum!)

“Don’t let the name fool you! Burg’r Barn offers a wide variety of breakfast choices in addition to their great burgers for lunch – from delicious eggs Benedict and omelets.”

John’s Ski House of Breakfast & Lunch | Punta Gorda

Breakfast/Lunch | Casual; friendly

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

John Ludden, Realtor®

Recommended dish: John Ski’s jumbo lump crab cake Benedict is absolutely amazing!

“A great venue where the locals meet for breakfast. Plenty of friendly conversations taking place around many tables makes this a great place to start your day. Some of the items on the menu are not for the faint of heart and some could give you enough energy for a week!”

 

Captain’s Table on Charlotte Harbor | Fisherman’s Village

Lunch/Dinner | Elegant; comfortable

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Karen Brown, Realtor®

Recommended dish: Coconut shrimp, toasted coconut salad with blackened scallops and their lobster grilled cheese sandwich

“This has always been one of my favorite spots to take customers for lunch or meet friends. The view of Charlotte Harbor is simply fantastic. They have done updating in the last year, offering a more comfortable and elegant bar. But weather permitting, sitting outside on the expansive lanai to enjoy the view and watch the boats coming in to the marina or Bass Inlet to the left, is very soothing.” 

Laishley Crab House – Seafood, sushi, steak and spirits | Laishley Park

Lunch | Relaxed waterfront

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

John Ludden, Realtor®

Recommended dish: You are in for a treat if you try their lobster roll

“If you want great views of Peace River during lunch, Laishley Crab House offers a chilled environment to enjoy a refreshing drink whilst watching boaters come and go from the Marina. Many locals and visitors frequent this establishment.”

The Perfect Caper | Punta Gorda

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Dinner/Cocktails | Casual but elegant

What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

Karen Brown, Realtor®

Recommended dish: You can’t go wrong with any order, but a favorite is their warm goat cheese appetizer. The scallops dish for dinner is also delicious –  lobster mac n’ cheese as a side dish is decadent, served with Jeanie’s incredible homemade rosemary olive focaccia bread

“Absolutely one of the top restaurants in Punta Gorda. Owner Jeanie Roland has been a 7-time semi-finalist, best chef, southern region of the James Beard award. She also beat Bobby Flay with her mussels dish, and was even on Iron Chef – both on The Food Network. Their bar is tops with Josh, the bartender, being the best in the area for knowledge of cocktails and food offerings. It’s almost like Cheers – where everyone knows your name and many of the same customers frequent it on Friday and Saturday nights. Gabe is the manager and has been there for over 10 years and is top notch, as is their entire wait staff.”

Carmelo’s Italian Ristorante | Punta Gorda Historic District

Dinner | Elegant; relaxed

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What our agents/staff are saying and ordering:

John Ludden, Realtor®

Recommended dish: Pork shank ossobuco and the lobster & shrimp fra diavolo. For those coming with a great appetite, the 24-oz porterhouse fiorentina would suffice

“Carmelo’s is a favorite restaurant to relax and enjoy an evening meal. Many locals and visitors enjoy a great glass of wine or cocktail in this converted historic building. You can either enjoy eating dinner inside or outside in the courtyards. The menu has a variety of selections. The staff are welcoming and accommodating. The chef is very accommodating to make the ultimate dish for his guests.”

 

Let us know your favorite hidden gems of Florida’s Gulf Coast in the comments section and get in touch with one of our neighborhood and real estate experts to learn about other cultural hotspots.

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The best hidden food finds in Southwest Florida was last modified: September 25th, 2019 by Samantha Emelock

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