Eat (and retreat) at these open-air escapes.
It won’t be long before the hot weather chases us indoors, but in March and April it’s still a pleasure to eat, as the artists say, à plein air — and with so many restaurants adding sidewalk seating, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. But sometimes you don’t want to be in the thick of things (including traffic, pedestrian and otherwise). So for this list we focused on spots that, even when nearby the hustle and bustle of a downtown or the beaches, provide a rare kind of oasis. (And yes, three — count ’em three — have “Sandbar” in their names.)
The welcoming, unpretentious indoor dining room has appeal, but the trellis-covered back courtyard, strung with lights and bordered by abundant bougainvillea, is the real find. No matter where you sit, the food at Alésia is unfailingly delicious — a fusion of French and Vietnamese influences that always tastes fresh. 7024 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-345-9701, alesiarestaurant.com.
A surprisingly chill getaway in the midst of the Edge District at the former site of Kings Street Food Counter, whose owner, Steve Schrutt, shifted from classic diner grub to what he calls a “Florida motel vibe.” The noise level rises as the sun goes down, but during the day the patio is a swell place to hang in the sunshine, eat tasty tacos and day-drink in a plastic lawn chair. 937 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-308-7878.
Until the Vinoy Renaissance Resort opened up Paul’s Landing across from the Vinoy Marina a year ago, we didn’t know what mealtime views we were missing. Now we do — sweeping vistas of the downtown skyline, the fancy boats and the bay, all while snacking on delicious items like shrimp toast and grilled oysters. Vinoy Renaissance, 501 5th Ave. NE, 727-824-8007, St. Petersburg, paulslandingstpete.com
Red Mesa Cantina
According to the Tampa Bay Times’s former food editor Laura Reiley, who recently left us for the Washington Post (sigh), Red Mesa Cantina is a favorite spot for Times journalists’ farewell parties. So yes, it’s liable to be very busy. But no matter how many diners share the space with you, the Cantina’s shady, brick-lined courtyard feels like a secluded hacienda, complete with burbling fountain and waterfall — plus killer margaritas. 128 3rd St. S., 727-896-8226, St. Petersburg, redmesacantina.com.
Salt Rock Grill
The food is renowned at this Frank Chivas-owned favorite, but you’d never know from the crowded parking lot (unless, of course, you sailed up on your boat) that the Salt Rock also has one of the nicest outdoor dining areas around. The views of the Intracoastal Waterway are sublime, as are the seafood and the steaks. 19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores, 727-593-7625, saltrockgrill.com.
Sandbar at Opal Sands Resort
Cross Opal Sands’ gleaming lobby, navigate past the pool, and surprise! You’re in a relaxed yet elegant beach bar just above the water. True to its name, there’s sand underfoot, a Tiki bar and a menu of expertly rendered versions of familiar beachside fare, and — best of all — a row of rocking chairs with a sunset view. 430 S. Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach, 727-450-0380, opalsands.com.
Sandbar Bill’s Bar & Grille
The best way to approach Sandbar Bill’s is from the beach (finding a space in the parking lot of the popular, family-friendly Bon-Aire Resort can be a trial). Follow your nose to their prize-winning burgers, step off the sand onto the small patio, place your order, settle into a table and sigh at the view. You may think you’ve stumbled into somebody’s private cookout, but not to worry — everyone’s welcome. Bon-Aire Resort, 4350 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, bonaireresort.com.
So instantly popular and densely populated that it can’t exactly be called an oasis — but maybe a mirage? Because the first time you come upon Sparkman Wharf’s expansive waterfront site, with its wide lawn, frolicking kids, live music stage and all-star lineup of restaurateurs serving up grub from shipping containers, it’s definitely a pinch-me-I’m-in-downtown-Tampa? moment. Best idea: Avoid the crowds by getting there early for lunch on a Saturday morning; if you’re coming in from St. Pete, take the 10 a.m. ferry, which docks at the Florida Aquarium, a short walk away from Sparkman. 615 Channelside Drive, Tampa, 813-345-5881, sparkmanwharf.com.
The Sandbar Restaurant
At the Sandbar on Anna Maria Island, you’re not just eating at the beach, you’re eating on the beach, with many tables perched right on the sand. The lines can be anything but soothing (they don’t take reservations), but once you’re seated, the dining experience is about as quintessentially beachy as you can get. 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria, 941-778-0444, sandbar.groupersandwich.com.
A casual fish shack with boat-fresh seafood that’s nowhere near the water — it’s tucked into an outdoor courtyard and bar in the busy Grand Central business district. The fish is no-frills delicious and the cocktails, reflecting the owners’ pedigree (they co-founded Mandarin Hide), are as sophisticated as their nautical monikers are groanworthy. Case in point: The Fin & Tonic, a bar staple transformed into a thing of beauty. 2060 Central Ave., St Petersburg, trophyfishstpete.com (open Thursday-Sunday only).