First Pitch: Things to Do in Bradenton During Spring Training 2020

This week in Raleigh, we experienced a strange weather phenomenon.

On Thursday, the weather got so cold that the precipitation falling from the sky came down in frozen form. This collected on the ground and remained there for about a day until it all transitioned back into liquid form.

I believe this phenomenon is called “snow.” I’ve lived in Florida for the previous six winters, so I forgot that this was a thing that takes place in February when you move far enough north.

Personally I’d take Spring Training over snow in February. I’m sure anyone reading this would agree. Some of you might be like me, gearing up for a trip down to Bradenton to see the Pirates this spring. If so, here are all of the restaurants, breweries, and things to do in Bradenton during your trip.

The Greatest Hits – Food

When I’m traveling to a place I’ve already been to, I like to pick out my favorite food spots and plan out meals in advance, to make sure I’ve got time to hit my favorite spots. I usually leave a few meals open to try new places. In this case, I’m going to pack the list full of options for you to try in a week.

I’ve only included places that are unique to the area, and avoided chains, unless they’re local chains.

Breakfast

Sage Biscuit – The sage biscuits are great, especially in the biscuits and gravy. My favorite thing is the southwest quinoa skillet. This is the best breakfast place in town, and they have a location in downtown Bradenton about a mile from LECOM.

The Donut Experiment – This is a donut shop on Anna Maria Island where you can get custom cake donuts. They make the donuts fresh in front of you, and you choose between 5-6 icings and about 25 toppings, getting one icing and one topping on your donut. My favorite is the maple bacon donut, with second being the always-healthy-for-breakfast vanilla Oreo donut.

Coffee – I don’t drink coffee. I’ve never needed it, and hate the taste. So I deferred to my fiancee for this section. If you’re like her, and can’t stand Starbucks, then there are two independent places in the area. Her favorite is Buddy Brew in downtown Sarasota. The other one is Kahwa, which has a few locations, including one in Lakewood Ranch.

Lunch/Dinner

Charlie’s Bulgogi – I’m a bit biased here, because Charlie is a friend of mine. However, I can honestly say that this is the place I will be stopping first when I get down to Bradenton. Charlie’s used to be a very successful food truck, arguably the best in the area (and one that I frequently visited), and became so popular that he turned it into a restaurant, which has also been popular. The place isn’t too big, so you can expect a wait at times, but the food is worth it. I recommend the Bulgogi bowls, along with Chicken GangJeong. They also have grills on the tables, where you can BBQ your own short-ribs. And if the wings are an option that day, definitely get them.

Starfish Company – This is my favorite seafood place in the area. It’s just before you cross over to Anna Maria Island on Cortez Road, on 123rd St W. The seafood here is better than what you find on the island, and for half the price. Depending on when you go, you can expect a long wait to order, and then a long wait to get your food. Sitting at the bar cuts down the wait to order, if there’s a spot. I find that ordering a beer and a cup of chowder (Stone Crab and corn chowder is a must if they have it) helps with the wait for the food, as you get that immediately. My favorite thing is the blackened grouper sandwich, which has won awards. The crawfish box is also a great value.

Owen’s Fish Camp – Located in Sarasota, this is more of a sit down place than Starfish, but with an equally long wait. The good thing is that they have an outdoor area for the wait, where you can order drinks and appetizers. The best thing here is the Low Country Boil. It comes with King Crab legs, shrimp, mussels, clams, sausage, potatoes, and corn, and is a meal for two.

Mojos Real Cuban – I miss Cuban food. No Cuban sandwich I’ve found up north comes close to what we have down here. Mojos is my favorite place, located in Bradenton near Lakewood Ranch. It’s kind of like if you had a Chipotle restaurant that only served authentic Cuban food. They have a build your own bowl, where you can pick your rice, beans, and meat, plus other toppings. I could eat nothing but their yellow rice. They also have Cuban sandwiches, and medianoches, which are Cubans on sweet rolls.

Columbia Restaurant – If you want a more sit-down Cuban restaurant, Columbia is the place to go. It’s located at St. Armands Circle near Lido Beach in Sarasota. It’s not the same type of Cuban food you’d get at a place like Mojos, although they do have Cuban sandwiches. They also have great drinks and a lot of finer dining options. I recommend getting the mojito.

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. 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.

Danny’s Pizza – You can get pizza anywhere, and you’re probably not looking for that specifically on vacation. But if you’re looking for a slice for lunch one day, Danny’s is the best in town. I actually used to order this all the time when I lived in West Bradenton. It’s the closest thing to authentic New York style pizza that I’ve found down here. The wings are also really good — a lot of meat and crispy, with good sauce options.

Oak & Stone – Here’s another pizza place, but this one isn’t as traditional. Oak & Stone has regular pizzas, but they also have specialty pizzas, including a mac and cheese pizza and a buffalo chicken pizza. My favorite is the Far East, which has korean meatballs, sesame slaw, and sweet chili aioli, among other things. The best thing about this place is the beer wall. They give you a wrist band that you can use to unlock whatever tap you want and pour as much of any beer you want, with a ton of craft beer options spanning a lot of styles.

Thai Palace – If you’re noticing a theme here, it’s that I love Asian food. It drives my wife crazy, because I could eat Asian food every day of the week (Thai, Korean, Chinese, sushi, etc) while she can only do it once a week at most. My favorite Thai place is in west Bradenton, called Thai Palace. I’m pretty sure they’ve been awarded the best Thai restaurant in town, and it’s well deserved.

Full Belly Stuffed Burgers – We’re fully in the “stuff you can get at home, but these are some of my favorite places down here” territory. You can get a good burger without traveling to Bradenton. What I like about Full Belly is that they stuff their burgers with a lot of unique fillers. It’s like a juicy Lucy, except instead of putting cheddar between two patties and melting it, they put stuff like peanut butter and bacon, then serve it with spicy maple syrup and sweet potato tots. If you think that combo sounds crazy, definitely give it a shot. My wife thought peanut butter on a burger was crazy until she tried it, and now I spend most of my meal guarding my burger from her (she uses the old “I’m going to order something I want, and you order the other thing I want” trick).

Burger Culture – This is a burger food truck in Tampa, not far from Cigar City. I usually stop here before or after going to a brewery. As you’d expect, they have some unique burgers, including a waffle burger that is served between two Belgian waffles, with goat cheese and blueberry compote on top. It’s not far from the airport in Tampa if you’re looking for food on your way in or out of town.

Poppo’s – A good taco place is Poppo’s in Bradenton. They have organic and locally sourced ingredients and very fresh tacos. They’re so fresh that they press and grill the tortillas right before making your taco/burrito/quesadilla/etc. You can then get your choice of meat and toppings, kind of Chipotle style, only better quality.

Sweetberries – Save the dessert for last. Sweetberries is a must stop for me. It’s a frozen custard shop with some great sundaes and a flavor of the day. I used to live five minutes from the one in west Bradenton, and the only reason I’m still alive today and somewhat healthy is because I moved far away from that place.

Beers

If you’re coming down, you might check out one or two breweries. If you’re like me, you’re going to check out a new place each night, or multiple places. I think I’d go to every place on my list below while I’m down here, especially if they had a bottle release. But if you’re looking for my top spots, it would be Calusa in Sarasota, and Angry Chair in Tampa.

Calusa does everything well, which is hard to find for a brewery. They have some of the best IPAs in the country for my money, while also releasing some good barrel aged sours, stouts, and some more traditional styles.

I’ll also add Corporate Ladder in Palmetto as a local brewery you should try. They’ve been open a little over a year, and their stuff has gotten really good lately. I can’t wait to try them out again when I get back.

Angry Chair specializes in pastry stouts, and if you come down around Tampa Beer Week, you might have a chance at getting one of their best beers on tap (their Barrel Aged Imperial German Chocolate Cupcake Stout is one of the best beers I’ve ever had). They also do some good sours and their IPAs are good, but I defer to Calusa for that.

Golf/Entertainment

I don’t play much golf these days, outside of going to Top Golf in Tampa. My favorite course in the Bradenton area (out of the few I’ve played on) is The River Club. They’ve got a cool course, with one hole having an island green, and another having a tee box that allows you to drive through the trees into an open fairway. You can get some good rates on GolfNow for this course and others in the area.

There are more options at the bottom of the article.

Things to Do…

And now, here’s the article format you’re used to…

LECOM Park

I get asked a lot about advice on things to do or places to sit inside LECOM Park, and I’m just not the person to ask for advice on this subject. Most of the time I’m getting to LECOM from Pirate City 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.

Pirate City

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 LECOM in every way. LECOM 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.

Wilbur had a write-up on what to expect at Pirate City.

There isn’t much around Pirate City as far as food. I usually eat at Mixon’s, which is right down the road. 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.

Hotels

I typically try to find something west of 26th St W or east of 15th St E, or somewhere in the downtown Bradenton area. Pretty much everything is close to either Pirate City or LECOM. If you’re going to Pirate City, I recommend somewhere by interstate 75. If you’re going to LECOM most of the time, I recommend staying closer to the beach, or in downtown Bradenton. If you’re on the island, the traffic is probably going to be insane going back and forth.

More Food Places

Seafood

Siesta Key Oyster Bar is located on Siesta Key, which is about an hour south or more from Bradenton when you factor in the traffic this time of year. They’ve got some great seafood, including half off deals on oysters and crawfish from 3-6 PM everyday. They’re on an island, but they’re a small place and not right on the beach, so you’re paying reasonable prices, rather than paying for a view.

Cuban Food

If you’re in Tampa, a good Cuban place is West Tampa Sandwich Shop. If you’re in St. Pete, there’s a place called Bodega. If I’m rating the places, I’d go Mojos first, Bodega second, and West Tampa third.

Other

If you want Chicago style pizza, the place to go is Fratello’s. There’s another place called Joey D’s, which isn’t bad, but Fratello’s models their pizza after Lou Malnati’s, which is my favorite Chicago pizza chain. This approach makes their pizza better, with the crust being much better, and better sauce on top of the pizza.

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.

Beer

You can’t throw a full bottle of Bud Light around here (the only thing to do with a bottle of Bud Light) without hitting at least two breweries, so there is plenty to choose from. I’m going to focus on the best in the area, and places I typically go to.

Tampa

Angry Chair Brewing – This is one of my favorite breweries in the area, to the point where I’ll make the 45 minute drive to Tampa about once a week to have their beers. They specialize in dessert stouts, which are typically saved for bottle releases. Those releases happen maybe once a month on Saturday mornings at 9 AM, and usually see a line of hundreds of people getting there before that time, with bottles selling out in 30 minutes. The good thing is that you can usually get some of their stouts on tap. They also do some good New England style IPAs, and some good sours. As for food, there are a lot of good farm-to-table places nearby in the Seminole Heights area, with my favorite being The Rooster & the Till, across the street from Angry Chair.

Cigar City Brewery – Cigar City is the biggest brewery in the area, and the one that most of you know about. I actually don’t go there much anymore, as they don’t have a lot of variations on their tap list. That’s a problem if you live here and you want something new that you can’t find in stores, or that you haven’t tried in previous visits. But if you’re coming in from out of town, especially from a place that doesn’t get Cigar City yet, then it’s worth a visit. The taproom is located near the Tampa airport, so it’s a good place to stop after you fly in, or before you fly out.

Garagiste/Hidden Springs – I’m pairing these two up because they’re right next door to each other in Tampa. Garagiste does amazing meads, with the highlight being their Reboog series — a peanut butter and jelly mead that clocks in around 14%, and tastes like you’re drinking a PB&J. That’s not always on tap, but their other fruit meads are still good. Hidden Springs does some of my favorite sours in the area, along with some good stouts. Right across the street from Hidden Springs is a cool food spot called The Hall, which is a collective eatery where you can order food from five or six different mini-restaurants. My favorite thing there are the waffle fry nachos.

7venth Sun – They have two locations, one in Dunedin and one in Tampa. I usually go to the Tampa one, since it’s near Angry Chair. They have a large tap list, with good options across the board. They also sell some stuff in cans to go.

St. Pete

Cycle Brewing – This is another favorite of mine, located in St. Pete. Cycle also does some good bourbon barrel aged stouts, and they have a lot of them on tap these days, along with plenty of bottles to go. As for food, there’s a good Mediterranean restaurant across the street, and Bodega is nearby for Cuban food.

Green Bench – This is another one of my favorites in the St. Pete area. Their best stuff is in the sour and mead department. They also do some good IPAs, including some amazing sour IPAs. They’re also across the street from Bodega.

Arkane Aleworks – Located in north St. Pete, and kind of out of the way. They do some really good sours and stouts, getting creative with the flavors. At Halloween, they did candy bar stouts, with flavors like Snickers, Heath Bar, Butterfinger, Reese’s Cups, and more. They also did candy sours, like Skittles, Sour Patch, and Warheads. Those were amazing, but they rarely have those beers outside of October. Their other sours and stouts are worth the trip, especially if you’re already in the area (12 minutes from St. Pete airport).

Bradenton/Sarasota

Calusa Brewing – Calusa is located in south Sarasota, which is about a 20-30 minute drive from most places in Bradenton. However, it is worth it. I go here at least once a week. They have the best IPAs in the state of Florida, and some of the best in the country, and they’re just starting to get noticed for that, which sucks, because I enjoyed the times where I could go in a few weeks after a release and still pick up a 4-pack of cans. They’re also well-rounded, doing some really great sours, and making some good stouts. If you’re an IPA fan, you’ll want to go here, and start with anything in the Citronious category. Focus is my favorite IPA of theirs, if they have it. There’s not much around Calusa, but they usually have a different food truck every night of the week.

Corporate Ladder Brewing Company – I mentioned them above. They actually got one of Arkane’s brewers in the last year, which has greatly improved their sour beers. I hear their stouts have been good, and I’m looking forward to trying them. They’re located in Palmetto, a bit north of Bradenton.

Good Liquid Brewing Company – They just opened in Bradenton in the last year, and have gotten off to a good start, with a lot of options available, and good styles. My favorite thing they do is a Sour Patch Kids beer. The Blue Raspberry one is the best. The cherry one tastes like straight Nyquil to me, so I don’t take any blame if you don’t like that one. They’re probably my number two brewery now south of St. Pete/Tampa.

Darwin’s Brewery – This is one of two places near LECOM, located right across the street. It’s the one I prefer after games. Ayawasca, a belgian dubble, is one of my favorite beers here.

Beaches

My favorite beach in the area is 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.

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.

Got questions about anything else in Bradenton or the Tampa area? Leave them in the comments!

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Pineapple pizza FTW.

I’ll see you all on the battlefield.

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

By John Dreker

Five former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus one transaction of note.

On this date in 2000, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded outfielder Al Martin for two minor leaguers and John Vander Wal. Neither of the two minor leaguers the Pirates got made the majors. Vander Wal was 33 years old at the time of the trade. He hit .272 in 1999 with the Padres, setting career highs in homers with six and RBIs with 41. Martin had hit .277 with a career high 24 homers in 1999. He had spent eight years with the Pirates, hitting .280 with 107 homers and 152 steals in 897 games. After the trade, Martin started off strongly for the Padres hitting .306 with 11 homers and 62 runs scored through 93 games before they traded him to the Mariners. His stats fell off greatly there, hitting .237 in 142 games through the end of the 2001 season. He didn’t play in 2002, then returned for 100 games with the Devil Rays in 2003, his last year in the majors. Vandel Wal had a breakout season in 2000 with the Pirates. He hit .299 with 24 homers and 94 RBIs. He had been used as a pinch-hitter often his entire Major League career but given the chance to start in Pittsburgh, he excelled. At the 2001 trading deadline, the Pirates sent him to the San Francisco Giants in the Jason Schmidt deal.

Bobby Bonilla, 3B/OF for the 1986-91 Pirates. He was originally signed by the Pirates in 1981 as a non-drafted free agent. After five seasons in the minors, he had yet to reach Triple-A. On December 10,1985, he was taken by the Chicago White Sox in the Rule 5 draft. Bonilla spent half the year there before the Pirates reacquired him in exchange for Jose DeLeon. In 138 games during his rookie season, he hit .256 with just three homers. In 1987 he had a strong sophomore showing, batting .300 with 15 homers and 77 RBIs. He was playing third base and outfield prior to 1988, but that season he took over full-time at third base and put up a strong season at the plate. He drove in 100 runs, scored 87 times, hit 24 homers and drew 85 walks. He made the All-Star team that year, finished 14th in the NL MVP voting and won the Silver Slugger award.

In 1989 Bonilla hit .281 with 24 homers and 96 runs scored. He made his second of four straight All-Star appearances and finished 16th in the NL MVP voting. The 1990 season was the best of his career. He set career highs in both runs scored with 112 and RBIs with 120. He finished second to teammate Barry Bonds in the MVP voting, as they helped the Pirates to their first playoff appearance since winning the 1979 World Series. In the six game NLCS that year he hit .190 with one RBI. In 1991 Bobby had another outstanding season, scoring 102 runs, driving in 100 and leading the league in doubles with 44, all while taking a career high 90 walks. In the NLCS that postseason he hit .304 with six walks. In that off-season, he signed a lucrative free agent deal with the New York Mets, which he still makes money on to this day. Bonilla played in the majors through the 2001 season, finishing with a .279 average, 1,084 runs scored, 2,010 hits, 1,173 RBIs and 287 homers.

Jaff Decker, outfielder for the 2014-15 Pirates. He was a 2008 first round pick, who was acquired by the Pirates in November of 2013 from the San Diego Padres. Decker had 13 games of big league experience before joining Pittsburgh. During the 2014 season, he played just five games in the majors, going 0-for-5 at the plate. He batted .214 over 23 games in 2015, then the Pirates released him after the season. Decker also saw brief big league time with the 2016 Tampa Bay Rays and the 2017 Oakland A’s.

Jason Boyd, pitcher for the Pirates in 1999 and then again in 2004. He was originally an eighth round draft pick of the Phillies in 1994. Boyd was then picked by the Diamondbacks in the 1997 expansion draft. The Pirates acquired him from Arizona on August 25,1999 in the Tony Womack trade, which happened exactly six months earlier. Boyd made his Major League debut two weeks later, pitching a total of four September games in relief. Near the end of spring training in 2000, the Pirates put him on waivers, where he was taken by the Brewers. They immediately put him back on waivers, where he was picked up by the Phillies. After pitching parts of three seasons in the majors with three different teams, the Pirates took him off waivers from the Indians on October 1, 2003. In 2004 for the Pirates, he pitched 12 games in the majors, going 1-0 5.54 in 13 innings. He was granted free agency following the season and he finished out his pro career in Triple-A for the Rangers in 2005.

Mike Smith, pitcher for the Pirates in 1989. He was signed by the Reds as a non-drafted amateur free agent in 1981. He made the Reds Opening Day roster in 1984, but he pitched just 12 big league games from 1984 through 1986. The Reds traded him to the Expos, where he got five more MLB appearances. On November 14, 1988 the Expos traded him to the Orioles, who in turn dealt him to the Pirates on June 22,1989 in exchange for longtime Pirates minor league outfielder Tony Chance. Smith pitched 16 games in relief for the Pirates, throwing 24 innings total, with a 0-1, 3.75 record. That loss was the only one of his Major League career. His pitched 33 games in the majors over his five seasons and his teams went 8-25 in those games. He was released by the Pirates after the 1989 season and pitched one more year in the minors before a five-year layoff. He returned to play in Independent ball in 1996, then again from 1998 until 2000.

Eddie Vargas, first baseman for the Pirates in 1982 and 1984. He originally signed with the Pirates as an amateur free agent in 1977. Vargas had a breakout season in the low minors in 1979, hitting .282 with 31 homers. In Double-A the next year he slugged 24 homers and drove in 87 runs. Despite those strong power numbers he repeated the level in 1981 and hit .274 with 25 homers and 84 RBIs. He reached Triple-A for the first time in 1982 and hit .311 with 28 homers and 80 RBIs. The Pirates called him up in September and gave him nine plate appearances in eight games. He singled in his first two at-bats in the majors, both as a pinch-hitter. He was injured for the first two months of the 1983 season, but managed to hit .338 with 14 homers in 73 games after he returned in June. The Pirates recalled him in September with 23 games left on the schedule, though he sat on the bench the entire time. Vargas began the 1984 season on the Opening Day roster, but struggled in limited playing time and was sent down to the minors. The Pirates called him back up in August and he hit .333 the rest of the way, finishing with a .226 average in what would be his last season in the majors. He spent all of 1985 in the minors before the Pirates released him. Vargas finished his pro career in 1989.

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