Dunedin's main course 

A taste of four restaurant stalwarts at the heart of Dunedin.

In 2010, I was at a crossroads, living in D.C. and facing one of life’s “curve balls” where transition is at hand. So, like any self-respecting decision-maker, I turned to Google for sage advice. Where, pray tell, in this great country of ours, should the next chapter in my life unfold?

When the search engine spit out “Dunedin, Florida,” I laughed out loud.

I graduated from Dunedin High School back when Countryside was orange groves and Main Street was not the delightful Dunedin it is today. So, when I returned after an absence of decades and walked into Casa Tina, you could have knocked me over with a feather. The hip décor, with brilliantly colored walls hung with huge gold picture frames, was disorienting. I might as well have been visiting friends in Greenwich Village.

And now Downtown Dunedin is home to an unmatched string of restaurants beginning at the marina and stretching half a mile east. There’re more craft beers and designer martinis than you can count and food options for every palate. In the past year, I’ve reviewed a number of Dunedin spots, including the very different but equally invaluable Black Pearl and Eli’s Bar-B-Que (each worthy of a four-star rating); the deservedly popular Sea Sea Riders; and one of the newest kids on the block, the exemplary Italian bistro Pensare. Now’s the time, with CL devoting this issue to Dunedin, to look at four stalwarts that serve as culinary/cultural anchors.

Kelly’s

Kelly’s is a kick. And as part of a troika of adjacent joints, it does, as the name promises, offer “just about anything.” The hip diner features a terrific breakfast menu, convenient lunch specials, and creative dinner options. The middle Chic-a-Boom Room has a window bar that opens to the street, shares Kelly’s outdoor terrace, and features eight rotating seasonal craft beers on tap plus 85 bottle beers that span the globe. Add 30 cheeky martinis with names like Mexican Wanker, Miso Horny, and Too Drunk to-Walka, plus a Wine Spectator award-winning list that features over 150 bottles, and how can you not find happiness in your glass?

So what can the third side of the triangle, Blur Nightclub and Showbar, add? Three words: Drag Queen Bingo. I defy you to have more laughs on a Tuesday night. Where else but Kelly’s can you get a half rack of baby back ribs paired with half a Cornish game hen? When my brother comes for an annual visit, he always begs for a Clearwater beach outing to snag a grouper sandwich at Frenchy’s. But I must say, next year we’re going to Kelly’s. Their grouper sandwich is the best I can remember; I can’t award BOTB status without more research, but I am wowed. Every element is just right: the moist grilled fish, perfect lettuce and tomato garnish, the surprise of cheddar cheese and creamy homemade tartar sauce. Yum’s the word.

Casa Tina

The colored walls and “Dia de los Muertos” mariachi mural catch my eye as soon as I cross the threshold into Casa Tina. What makes me return is a salt-rimmed frozen margarita with bracing lime and plenty of zip. Or sizzling faijitas that I can load onto warm tortillas with shredded cheese, creamy guacamole, roasted tomato salsa and sour cream.

Or perhaps the los dos moles with sweet and spicy poblano mole teamed with savory mole verde, brimming with the flavors of green tomatillos, toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds enlivened with jalapeño and a touch of garlic. There are so many Mexican favorites lovingly presented, that you can understand why Casa Tina’s is undergoing yet another expansion (see the story on p. 32). It’s crowded and often loud, but so is Mexico City. Owner Javier Avila’s solution? “Shout for service!!! It sometimes get noisy and only the strong-voiced survive.”

Café Alfresco

Nestled next to the Pinellas Trail, Café Alfresco’s glassed-in patio glows in the morning sun. It’s no wonder, then, that the brunch menu is one of the restaurant’s strong points. Choose from a range of omelets or eggs Benedict with traditional ham, smoked salmon, or crab cake options. French toast à la Ritz with cloverleaf honey and powdered sugar is also a local favorite. The atmosphere is decidedly relaxed with a preppy server core of middle-aged gents in baby blue button-down shirts and khaki shorts. The dinner menu reflects the same All-American vibe, which of course now includes international influences, but the food retains mainstream appeal. Café Alfresco also has regular specials: rib fest Saturdays, prime rib Sundays, pasta Wednesdays, and crunchy beer-battered New England cod for Friday’s fish fry.

Our swordfish steak is nicely grilled and topped with a zigzag of pesto; the accompaniment is a molded timbale of generic rice pilaf. A bit zippier is jumbo shrimp with spicy andouille sausage, simmered in tangy Creole sauce dotted with red and green peppers. It’s served with a mound of the same rice — which sums up the food. It’s comfortable, predictable, with no surprises. That’s not a bad thing.

Bon Appetit

After several visits, I have to say that Bon Appetit is just not my cup of tea. But, to be fair, the crowds that fill the place seem perfectly happy with their meals as they enjoy what is undeniably a stunning view of St. Joseph Sound.

Perhaps because the sophisticated white tablecloth décor raises my expectations for an exciting new cuisine, I’m disappointed by the premade, old-fashioned generic salad and the lackluster chocolate mousse, raspberry pudding, and key lime shooters. While these bookends to a $21 three-course prix fixe seem lacking to me, my fellow season ticket holders at Blue Jays spring training look forward to their regular post-game BA nosh with friends.

The price is certainly right, but the chicken goulash soup reeks of chili powder, the Gulf shrimp snuggles up with canned artichokes, and the rack of lamb walks hand in hand with a soggy potato pancake. The roasted red snapper with lobster hash fares better, but that’s at the à la carte prices.

I prefer to enjoy fresh fish outdoors while awed by the sunsets at their Marina Terrace Café. And the “In the Loop” bar is a perfect place to begin any evening in delightful Dunedin.

NEXT WEEK: Donatello

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