Unique Dining

By: Kara Chalmers

Insider tips to one-of-a-kind dining experiences throughout the state.

From the Gulf to the Atlantic, Florida's varied cities offer dining experiences that are truly unique. Many restaurants have long and colorful histories, signature dishes and an atmosphere that can't be replicated. But there are also relative newcomers with much to offer the adventurous diner, such as a clothing-optional restaurant in Key West. The following unique dining options are guaranteed to keep you talking about the experience for years.

North Florida

Most nights at Picolo's - The Red Bar in Grayton Beach, you can sink into a comfy couch to hear the bar's jazz band. This funky restaurant, housed in an old general store, features funky décor including busts on the piano. The menus are simple: salads, sandwiches, a Belgian waffle and mimosas are lunch items. Choose from just six dinners -- including a fish dish and a shrimp and crawfish dish -- most of which come with a salad billed as the best on the Emerald Coast.

Feed fish right from your table at Santa Maria Restaurant in St. Augustine. The eatery, which specializes in seafood and steaks, is on the water, situated on a landing in Matanzas Bay that was once used as a commercial fishing dock. Thousands of fish teem around the landing waiting and expecting to be fed by diners. Mullet, catfish, pan fish, trout and needle fish can usually be seen from March through September. Visit www.santamariarestaurant.com or phone 904-829-6578.

Central Florida

Eat paella and drink sangria to the sound of castanets as you watch flamenco dancers perform at the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa's historic Ybor City. Columbia, which opened in 1905 and covers an entire city block, bills itself as the oldest restaurant in the state and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. The flagship Ybor City location has 15 dining rooms and can seat up to 1,700. Columbia also has locations in Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater Beach and Celebration, as well as a Columbia Cafe on the Tampa Bay Riverwalk. But the flamenco dancers perform only at the Ybor City locale. Be sure to catch a show while you're there. Visit www.columbiarestaurant.com or phone 813-248-4961.

Relax after a hearty steak and enjoy some after-dinner refreshments at the Harry Waugh Dessert Room, upstairs at Bern's Steak House in Tampa. The dessert room is actually some 50 private booths, seating two to 12. Choose from among 30 desserts, including cheesecakes, pies, mousses, chocolate creations and flambées. Also offered are several coffee drinks and literally thousands of dessert wines and spirits. That's to be expected from Bern's, which claims to have one of the largest private wine collection of any restaurant in the world. The steak house is well-known for its extensive menu and wine list. Visit www.bernssteakhouse.com or phone 813-251-2421 for more information.

From Medieval tournaments to a performance with a distinctively southern flair, the Orlando and Kissimmee area is home to several themed dinner shows. Enter Chicago's gangland at Capone's Dinner and Show (www.alcapones.com, 800-220-8428). Watch knights on horses face off as you feast at Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament (www.medievaltimes.com, 866-543-9637). There's also the Pirate's Dinner Adventure (www.piratesdinneradventure.com, 407-248-0590).

Flip your own flapjacks at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House inside De Leon Springs State Park, located just north of DeLand. Each table has its own griddle and servers bring around spatulas and pitchers of homemade pancake batter, which guests pour and flip themselves. Order blueberries, bananas, peanut butter, pecans, chocolate chips, apples or applesauce as mix-ins. The griddle house also offers sausage, bacon, ham and eggs, as well as sandwiches and salads. Breakfast is served until 4 p.m. and the place closes at 5 p.m. Visit www.planetdeland.com/sugarmill or phone 386-985-5644.

If you're in the Space Coast area, make a lunch date with an astronaut. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's Lunch with an Astronaut program is a popular dining treat for kids and parents alike. The veteran members of NASA's space exploration team answer questions ("How do you use the bathroom in space?" is one of the most popular) and share personal anecdotes of their time spent exploring the final frontier. Visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com or phone 321-449-4400 for details.

South Florida

Don't miss trying Amish food during a visit to Sarasota and Bradenton. A top pick is the family-run Miller's Dutch Kitchen, where an authentic Amish buggy has been converted into a dining booth and an electric train winds around the balcony. An on-site bakery lets visitors choose from more than 20 types of homemade fruit or cream pies as well as cakes and breads. The gift shop features hand-sewn quilts and hickory rocking chairs made by Amish craftsmen. Visit www.millersdutchkitchen.com or phone 941-746-8253.

The Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant, located in Pine Island Sound and accessible by boat, seaplane or helicopter, is rumored to have inspired the Jimmy Buffet song "Cheeseburger in Paradise." The walls of the restaurant and bar are papered with thousands of $1 bills, signed and taped up by past visitors. The restaurant boasts no fried food and no microwave and, with advance notice, will cook your catch. Cabbage Key is directly across from Marker 60 on the Intracoastal Waterway. Visit www.cabbagekey.com for more information. Phone 239-283-2278 for reservations. Also in the area is Captiva Island's multi-colored Bubble Room, where servers dress in "bubble" scout uniforms and Christmas decoration, film memorabilia and other eclectic décor fill the eatery. Phone 239-472-5558 or visit www.bubbleroomrestaurant.com.

In Fort Lauderdale, be Greek for a day, or Polynesian. At the Taverna Opa, with locations in Miami Beach and Hollywood, Florida, dance on the table with trained belly dancers to Greek music while tossing plates and napkins in the air. In between shouts of opa! make sure to sample the authentic Greek cuisine. Visit www.tavernaopa.com or phone 954-567-1630. At Mai Kai Restaurant, experience dining with a South Seas flavor. The restaurant is set up like a Polynesian village, with waterfalls, gardens and tiki torches, and you can sit outdoors amid lush greenery and lagoons. The twice-nightly Islanders Revue features Polynesian dancers and musicians in costume as well as performers juggling, twirling and even playing with fire. The Molokai Bar offers 51 frosty tropical drinks. Visit www.maikai.com or call 954-563-3272.

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