This week I received a few e-mails with various questions about Spring Training. Not the “who will make the team” or “which minor league players will break out” questions. These are the “I’m coming down to Bradenton and wanted to know what to do while I’m down there” questions. I get them every year, and much more often as Spring Training gets closer.
The last few years I have put together a post with suggestions, and it got more extensive last year, after I had lived down here for a year. This time around I’ve got even more recommendations, and as usual, these places are going to have more of a local flavor, rather than focusing on chains that you can find anywhere. I’m going to assume that if you’re coming down for Spring Training, most of your time will be spent either watching baseball, eating, or going to the beach. Therefore, I won’t include many other things in the list below.
It’s really going to hurt writing about the food and the beer this year, since I’m currently starting month two of “No Alcohol Until the End of Spring Training” and week three of “No Sugar Until the End of Spring Training.” This also happens to be week one of “No fried food or unhealthy dinners”, which rules a lot of these places out for me during Spring Training.
I might update this post as Spring Training gets closer, depending on whether I go to a new place. If you’re coming down for Spring Training, be sure to bookmark this as a reference. If you see me over at Pirate City, feel free to say hello. And if you haven’t purchased a Prospect Guide, you can buy one here before you come down, or I usually have a few of them with me in my media bag. Now, let’s start with the main attractions.
I get asked a lot about advice on things to do and places to sit at McKechnie Field, and I’m just not the person to ask for advice on this subject. Most of the time I’m getting to the field in the 5th inning, and I’m usually conducting interviews during the game, or after the game. When I’m not doing interviews, I’m working in the press box. I’d imagine you’re there to watch the game, so there’s not much advice I can give you beyond that. I will say that a good spot to watch is on the boardwalk in right field. That overlooks the bullpen down below, allowing you to look down and watch the pitchers warm up.
Two breweries have opened up around McKechnie in the last year. I’ll review them below in the “Beer” section.
If I had to pick one place to be during Spring Training, I’d choose Pirate City. It’s not just because I cover prospects. It’s because I think the action at Pirate City is much better than McKechnie Field in every way. McKechnie has the Major League players, but you’re only seeing them for about 5-6 innings. Outside of that you’re paying for the game, sitting in an assigned seat, and watching just one game.
Pirate City is free, and usually has 2-3 games going on at the same time, with all of the games starting at 1 PM. Plus, the view at Pirate City is like having seats to a Little League game, as there is usually only a fence between you and the field. If you stand in the right spot, you can watch three games at the same time. Or you can stand between the fields and watch two games at once, which is more manageable. The schedule (which I will post when I receive it) either has the Triple-A and Double-A teams at home, or the two A-ball teams at home. The short-season players will sometimes play an intra-squad game, which means you could see four minor league teams at the same time on any given day.
The Pirates don’t have names on the back of their minor league uniforms, so be sure to pick up a roster sheet. You can either get this from the security at the entrance, or in a box on the tower between all of the fields. This will let you know which player is wearing which number. I also recommend buying the 2015 Prospect Guide, and not just for shameless plug reasons. I designed the Prospect Guide specifically for places like Pirate City. You’ve got a ton of minor league players that you’re watching, you want information on them, and the Prospect Guide is a digest-size handbook that has all of that information.
There isn’t much around Pirate City as far as food. I usually eat at Mixon’s, which is right down the road. I typically get the BBQ sliders, mostly because it’s good food, it doesn’t take long to make, and I can eat it quickly and get back to the field before the games start at 1:00. If you’re going to Mixon’s, you have to try the orange juice (they have free samples), and I recommend the orange swirl ice cream, made with their orange juice.
If you’re like me, then Spring Training involves the following things:
1. Find a place to stay
2. Go and watch baseball
3. Find a place to eat
4. Maybe visit a beach (although I usually skip that in favor of more baseball)
I can’t give any recommendations on finding a place to stay. When I didn’t live down here, I just used Priceline for a blind bid and took my chances. Pretty much everything is close to either Pirate City or McKechnie.
I can give recommendations on where to eat. I tend to avoid the touristy places, and most places on the beach, since the food at these places isn’t as good. If you want a good view on the beach, go for a sunset after eating dinner at a place that has good food, rather than eating on the beach at a place with over-priced and lower quality food.
I will say that none of the places below have paid me for these reviews. Not that I wouldn’t accept payment in the form of free food. I’d totally take that from any of these places, if any of them are reading this.
Before I moved here, the most popular places I heard about were places that were on the water. A lot of people go to The Beach House, which is located on Bradenton Beach. I’ll admit that I usually take guests to The Beach House the first time they come down, just for the novelty of eating on the beach. They have a deck behind the restaurant, with a great view overlooking the water, and a beach on either side. However, the food isn’t that good, and you’re paying extra for the view.
My favorite seafood place down here would be Starfish Co. (located at 123rd St Court West off Cortez). The food is much better, more reasonably priced, they have cheap bottles of beer, and you even get a view of the water. Starfish is located just before you cross over to the island, and is located on the water on the inlet. It’s cash only, so if you’re like me and never carry cash, you might want to stop by an ATM before you go. After you order your food at the counter, you can find a spot at one of the picnic tables on the dock overlooking the water. The place is pretty busy, so you’re probably going to be sharing a table with another group (unless you are the group), and you’re probably going to be waiting awhile for your food. I recommend getting the Stone Crab and corn chowder and a beer for your wait (they serve both immediately). To give an idea of the wait, I’ve gone during the busy season and have waited an hour in line, followed by an hour at the table for the food. It’s totally worth it.
As far as the price comparison, here is an example. An order of crab cakes at The Beach House will cost you $25.99. A “hearty” order of crab cakes at Starfish Co. will cost you $13.99. And if you need more than my recommendation for the quality of the food, consider that Starfish was named one of the best seafood restaurants in the US by Travel and Leisure.
Another good place for seafood is Anna Maria Oyster Bar (6696 Cortez Road or 6906 14th St. W). They started on Anna Maria Island, but now have moved inland. The prices are good, and the food is great. I love their Oysters Rockafeller, and they have really good fish and chips.
If you’re feeling like eating on the island, The Waterfront (111 South Bay Blvd) is a good place to go. It’s on the north part of Anna Maria Island, and is a bit of a drive further from The Beach House. The advantage is that it’s a little less crowded up there. It also has some good views of the water, and good food.
I had never really eaten much Cuban food before moving to Florida. Now? Anytime I return from up north, my first meal back is at a place that has fried plantains. There are two really good Cuban restaurants that I frequent.
The best Cuban food in the area belongs to Jose’s Real Cuban (located on Cortez, on the left just past 86th Street W). Jose’s has been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives”, and for good reason. Their pork is outstanding, and if you’ve never tried it, they will make sure you have. The first time you go in, they ask if you’ve ever been there before. If you’re new, they will give you a sample of the pork. It’s kind of like how drug dealers give a free sample just to get future customers hooked. Before you know it, you’re placing an order for Pan con Lechon (roasted pork shoulder on Cuban bread), and a few minutes later you receive a sandwich piled with pork, which if we continued this drug metaphor, would only be described as a “Scarface-sized pile of pork”. Their Cuban sandwich is also the only Cuban sandwich I’ll eat in the area, even though every restaurant has a Cuban sandwich on the menu. I also recommend the plantains.
Jose’s has the best Cuban food. It’s also very reasonably priced and extremely when you’re in. There is sometimes a wait to get in, depending on when you go, but it’s never too long, since they turn things over quickly. I usually place a to-go order in the restaurant, and my food is ready before my debit card has been swiped.
Another favorite of mine, for different reasons. That favorite is Columbia Restaurant, located in St. Armand’s Circle. Don’t get me wrong when I say that Jose’s has the best food — the food at Columbia is great. What sets Columbia apart is the atmosphere and the drinks. This isn’t really in a “Beach House vs Starfish” kind of way either. I go to Jose’s if I want good Cuban food. I go to Columbia if I want good Cuban food, along with a fresh mojito, all while eating outdoors. Or, in picture form, I go for this:
The unique thing about Columbia is how they prepare most of the food. If you’re getting a Cuban sandwich, they’ll just bring it to the table already made. But if you’re getting their signature 1905 salad, they will make the salad table side. They do the same if you order a pitcher of Sangria or a mojito pitcher — they’ll bring all of the ingredients out and prepare the pitcher at your table. If you order the creme brulee, they will bring it out to the table, add the sugar on top, and caramelize it with a blow torch at the table. You get the idea. They also give you a free portion of their Cuban bread, which is amazing. It’s served hot out of the oven, and comes with butter that is almost as cold as ice cream.
Basically if you’re looking for a place with a good atmosphere, good food, and great drinks, I recommend Columbia. There are several locations in the Tampa area. The one at St. Armand’s is the closest to Bradenton, and is my favorite due to the proximity of Lido Beach (which I’ll get to in a bit). There are two sides to the St. Armand’s one. The first side is more casual, and fine if you’re coming down from the beach. The other side is more formal. The food is the same on either side.
For me, nothing beats a good burger, and I have a simple process to test a good burger. If you watch “How I Met Your Mother”, you might remember the episode about the Best Burger in New York. Anytime I watch that episode, I want a burger, but not just any burger. I want the best burger in the area. I want to bring the burger home, turn that episode on, and just spend some alone time getting familiar with the (almost always) bacon topped sandwich.
When I first moved here, I heard that the best burger was between two places on Anna Maria Island — Skinny’s and Duffy’s. Both places are pretty much the same. They’re dives with cheap beer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that the burgers remind me of McDonald’s burgers. When I first tried those burgers, after hearing that they were the best in the area, my thought was “I need to move.”
Fortunately, after many months of searching — probably using the same in-depth process to find a hidden gem that the Pirates’ scouts use to find reclamation projects for Ray Searage — I found two places with an amazing burger. Both places involved unique toppings, although the way they approach these toppings is totally different.
Square1 Burger Bar (two different locations in Sarasota) takes the traditional approach to toppings on a burger, in that they put the toppings on the burger. As for the actual toppings, that’s not traditional at all. As an example, consider my favorite: The Drunken Pig & Bull. It’s a burger topped with wild bourbon pulled pork, pepper jack cheese, three huge onion rings, and the house Sooner sauce, which tastes like the sauce you get with a bloomin’ onion. My philosophy is that the best topping for a burger is a different kind of meat and an appetizer. But they have a ton of options, including a “Rise & Shine”, which is topped with Applewood-smoked bacon, fried egg, caramelized onions and gruyère cheese, all served on a brioche bun. I also recommend the onion rings (you can get a plate for $3 on Wednesdays), the Square1 Red beer (a draft is $2 on Thursdays, or $3 if you go during Happy Hour after 9 PM), and the peanut butter and nutella milk shake.
Full Belly Stuffed Burgers (located on State Road 70 going East, just past I-75), as the name indicates, serves burgers that are stuffed. All of their toppings are in the middle of two 6.5 ounce burgers, pinched together. Anyone familiar with a Juicy Lucy knows the concept, although they take it to new extremes. My favorite is The Matty Matt, which is a burger stuffed with peanut butter and bacon. Try it with the spicy maple syrup and a side of sweet potato tots. They also have interesting deserts, like a “Full Belvis”, which is a peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwich, deep-fried in pancake batter, topped with chocolate sauce, and served with ice cream. There is also The Belly Buster, which is tater tots smothered in Mac and cheese, and topped with bacon, sour creme, and scallions. It is as fantastic as it sounds.
I’ll also throw in an additional option: Gecko’s Grill and Pub. They’ve got your traditional restaurant burger, and while it’s good, I wouldn’t pick them over Square1 or Full Belly. What I do like about Gecko’s are their homemade potato chips. They also have a ton of TVs, all tuned into sports, so it’s a great place to go for March Madness viewing. And they’re one of few places open after 10 PM.
My favorite burger place in the area is actually up in Tampa. It’s a food truck called Burger Culture, although they have recently opened up a permanent location. They have some creative burgers, including one that is served between two belgium waffles, topped with blueberry compote, goat cheese, and honey drizzle. Or there is the black and blue, which is a burger topped with Bleu cheese, granny smith apple slices, bacon, and BBQ sauce. The burgers are perfectly seasoned, and the new store is right down the road from my favorite brewery (more below), which means you can pick up some burgers, then take them to the brewery for an amazing afternoon.
You usually don’t get pizza when you’re out of town on vacation. Or at least I don’t, unless I’m in New York or Chicago. Fortunately, Bradenton has good pizza from both cities.
If you like New York pizza, then Danny’s Pizzeria (located at Manatee Avenue and 75th Street W) is the way to go. Danny grew up in New York, and worked in New York pizza places starting at age 14. His passion for good New York pizza really shows in every bite, and after I found out his approach, I realized that his pizza can only be a result of a deep knowledge of what makes New York pizza great. It really comes down to the water, which is why he not only invested in a top of the line water filtration system, but he also uses ice water to make the dough. Why ice water? Because tap water in New York comes out cold, while tap water in Florida comes out warm. The dough and the sauce are made daily, and as an avid New York pizza fan, it’s the best I’ve had outside of New York. The wings are also great, especially if you like crispy wings. My favorite flavor is the mango habanero.
If you’re into Chicago pizza, Joey D’s is the place to go (located on the corner of Cortez and 14th Street W). They’ve got all of the Chicago favorites — a Chicago dog, Italian beef, Italian sausage, and of course the deep dish pizza. My only advice for their stuffed pizza is that you either have a lot of people with you, or you have fridge space wherever you’re staying. The pizza comes with four toppings, all stuffed inside. Here is a picture, for your craving enjoyment.
Cigar City Brewery – I’m going to start with the one brewery that isn’t in Bradenton, just because it’s the best, and if you have time (and enjoy good beer), then I recommend a day trip to go try it out. Also, I’m sure that if you like beer, you’ve heard of Cigar City. That said, even if you’ve tried all of their popular beers, the brewery gives so many creative options, a lot of which are small batch beers that will probably never be tried again. They also have a lot of good guest beers, including collaborations with some guest beers. If they have Vanilla Maduro on tap when you go, I recommend trying it. It’s a different take on their popular Maduro Brown Ale, but only served at the brewery, and only two or three times a year. You can try a similar version at home by putting a teaspoon of vanilla extract in a glass, then pouring a can of Maduro.
Darwin’s Brewery – This is located across the street from McKechnie Field, on 17th avenue. Darwin’s is my favorite of the two breweries near McKechnie, as their beer is incomparably better than the options at Motorworks. They will sometimes have a food truck parked in front of the brewery, giving a place to grab some food while you drink.
Motorworks Brewery – As I mentioned above, I don’t like the beer at Motorworks. That is, I don’t like their beer. I feel it falls into the craft beer trap of getting hop bombed, and the flavors aren’t really distinguished from beer to beer. They have a large menu, with a lot of other beers on tap and in bottles. I usually get another brand when I’m there. They also have a really nice outdoor area, which usually has a food truck every night. If you’re looking for good craft beer, I’d go with Darwin’s. Motorworks is more of a really great bar than a great brewery.
Taco Bus – This is probably my favorite restaurant in the area. It’s a former food truck that now has five locations in the Tampa area, and one coming to Sarasota soon (although I don’t think it will be open during Spring Training). The closest one now is in St. Pete, down the road from the Trop, where the Rays play. These are very close to authentic Mexican street food, with my favorite being the grouper fish tacos. My other favorite is the Rajas Con Queso (strips of roasted poblano peppers in a creamy sauce with Mexican White cheese, salsa ranchera, and sweet corn). Both are pictured below. I’m not telling you how to live your life, but if you find yourself with a free day down here, go up to Tampa (via the Sunshine Skyway), stop at either Taco Bus or Burger Culture (or both), then spend a lot of time at Cigar City Brewery. It will be well worth your time.
Sweetberries – You’ve probably heard me mention Sweetberries about ten million times. It’s a frozen custard place on Manatee Avenue, between 43rd and 51st Street W. They’ve got food as well, but I’ve only had their custard. It is outstanding, to the point where it can ruin your life. During the summer, Florida is insanely hot, to the point where it’s 90+ degrees with 90% humidity, and you always have a gallon of sweat sitting in your underwear. For that reason, I usually have a few quarts of custard from Sweetberries at all times in my freezer. I recommend a concrete, which is candy mixed into the custard. If you’re getting one of their massive sundaes, then I’d recommend the Utterly Reese’s, which is a peanut butter fan’s dream. It’s vanilla custard topped with peanut butter syrup, hot fudge, probably about 4 Reese’s Cups, whipped cream, and probably also diabetes.
The Salty Dog – I’d file this under “Things to only try once”. The Salty Dog is a restaurant on City Island, between Longboat Key and St. Armand’s. It is most famous for a hot dog called “The Salty Dog”. This hot dog is deep-fried, and covered with four types of cheese, bacon, fried onions, fried mushrooms, and sauerkraut. You can choose your toppings, or you can get the works. Also, you better have nothing to do the next day.
New Pass Grill – This is right next to Salty Dog, and it’s not really great food. The draw here is cheap drinks, and a spot on the water by the docks and under the bridge. Every time I go here, I see dolphins. I’m not sure what it is about that spot, but they like to hang out there. Or maybe I just hang out long enough that it’s inevitable I’ll see a dolphin.
Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe – If you go to the beach on Anna Maria Island (at the end of Manatee Avenue), they have a cafe at the top of the beach. Not that they don’t still have the cafe if you don’t go to that beach. What I like is that every day until noon (1 PM on weekends) they have All You Can Eat pancakes for $5.99. All I can eat is usually the first three they give you, but that’s all you need, as they’re each the size of a plate. I recommend following that up with a nap on the beach, because that’s all you’re going to want to do after that breakfast.
Sage Biscuit – Speaking of breakfast, my typical breakfast each morning involves a smoothie at home while reading Twitter. But when I go out, the one place I go is this place, which I just discovered in the last year. The sage biscuits are great, especially in the biscuits and gravy.
Anna Maria Donuts – This is an amazing donut place on Anna Maria island, with a very simple, yet still creative approach. They serve cake donuts, and usually they’re right out of the fryer. From there, you customize it your way, choosing from five icings, and 25 toppings. My favorite is a maple bacon donut, which is dipped in a maple glaze, and sprinkled with pieces of chopped bacon. The toppings range from sprinkles to candy, and even include Sriracha.
I don’t go to the beach often. Before I lived here, I never went to the beach. My feeling was that I could be in the sun watching the water, and get sand all over myself and inside my car, or I could sit in the sun and watch baseball…and somehow still get sand in my car. I always picked baseball. I’m not much of a beach person, so I still don’t go often, even though I live here now. So I’ve heard Siesta Key is nice, but I have never really been motivated enough to drive down and spend a day there.
My favorite beach would be Lido Beach, which is down from St. Armand’s Circle. The sand is white and the water is clear enough to see your feet at the bottom. I took my brother there when he came down to visit, and we actually saw a flock of sting rays swimming around. We could see them from about 30 feet away, and they got within five feet of us.
Anna Maria can get pretty crowded on the main beach with the pancakes. If you’re looking for a less crowded beach, you should check out the top of the island at the point. It’s not good for swimming, since the rip currents are so strong, but it’s a good place to go and relax without having a ton of people around. Because if you go to a crowded beach, then inevitably someone near you will start feeding the birds (don’t feed the birds, ever), then every bird in Florida will swarm your area, and then you’ll want to murder the person who fed the birds, and that’s why Florida is in the news for crazy stories all the time. Also, the bath salts.
Things to Do
Like I’ve mentioned many times, I tend to stick to baseball, so this section will be short. There are two recommendations I have from personal experience, and neither involves Bradenton. The first is close to Bradenton, and is the Manatee Viewing Center up in Apollo Beach. That’s about a 30 minute drive from Bradenton, the admission is free, and you can just see manatees swimming around every day. Some days there are a dozen of them, and some days there are over a hundred. The spot is located right next to a power plant, which keeps the water warmer, which is why they gather there.
The second suggestion would be for anyone who is making a trip over to Orlando while they are down in Florida. I can’t help you with suggestions for Disney, but if you’re going to Universal, I’ve got some suggestions, as I’m an annual pass holder, and try to make it over there once a month. Universal has really stepped up their game the last few years, designing two amazing Harry Potter theme parks, and that’s coming from someone who had never seen a Harry Potter movie until recently. When you walk into the new Diagon Alley park, it’s just like the scene in the first movie (the only one I’ve seen) where they’re walking into Diagon Alley. They got every detail correct. The Hogwarts Express that takes you to the other park is like a ride, with a different experience each way, and Harry Potter things happening outside your window, and outside the door of your car (including Harry Potter and his friends talking and walking by the door, and zapping some bad guys). The original Harry Potter park is also excellent.
What Universal has done well is creating “Worlds” where it seems like you’re in the movie or show that is featured. The Simpson’s World is another example of how they have done this well. They’ve got everything, from Lard Lad donuts, to Moe’s Tavern, to the Kwik-E-Mart (which is a gift shop where you can get two for one donuts the final hour the park is open).
As for the rides, if you like roller coasters, then Universal beats Disney. The best roller coaster is the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, which allows you to listen to a song of your choice while on the ride. There is also a hidden song list, which you can access here, for more choices. The Hulk is one of my favorites, starting out with a blast up the incline that takes you from 0-40 in two seconds. The Mummy is a very innovative indoor coaster that mixes a roller coaster with a theme ride, with the roller coaster taking you from scene to scene. Men in Black is also a great ride, allowing you to shoot aliens with a laser gun, and compete with the car across from you. I like this one because it’s a different ride each time, allowing you to try and beat your own personal best score, or just beat other people in your group.
If you don’t feel like paying for Universal, but want to get the experience of one of their best new creations, check out the expanded City Walk area (you’ll still have to pay the $17 parking to get into the park). They have added a lot of great new restaurants, with my favorite being Cowfish Burger and Sushi Bar. They feature great sushi, and some creative burgers, including an Elvis-inspired burger that has peanut butter, a fried banana, and bacon on top. The milk shakes are great, with my favorite being the Rice Krispy Treat shake, featuring Rice Krispy pieces inside the shake and marshmallow covered Rice Krispys around the rim of the glass. If you sit at the bar, they have giant touch screens on the bar that allow you to play games while you eat. The bar is the place to be, because the drinks here are the best. I recommend the Buffalos and Bacon, which is Buffalo Trace bourbon, cherry liquor, honey, Angostura and orange bitters, and garnished with a piece of candied bacon.
Got questions about anything else in Bradenton? Leave them in the comments!
**John Dreker continued his 2015 draft previews today by wondering: Where are the college hitters?