Ocean Side Brunch 

Easter is as good an excuse as any to throw a big dinner for family or friends, spend a leisurely day at the beach, indulge in religious contemplation, sample one of the lavish brunches many restaurants offer -- or all of the above. And at two well-situated local restaurants, you can even combine a truly gut-busting Sunday brunch and a day at the beach. We'll discuss that in a moment, but first, allow me to suggest that wherever you choose, make reservations well ahead, as restaurant tables are at a premium. Secondly, do go early, when the buffet tables are still pristine -- before they are mauled by crowds in full feeding frenzy.

Most of the big hotels are open during the holiday, and they put on particularly fancy brunches, with elaborate floral arrangements and ice sculptures, sometimes live music, displays of colored eggs and creative dishes. And some of the larger stand-alone restaurants, as befits a holiday, offer specials to help customers celebrate the occasion.

One such restaurant is The Castaway, perched on the beach overlooking Tampa Bay. Each Sunday, the 400-seat eatery does an almost embarrassingly complex brunch buffet, which it repeats on Easter Day with slightly different hours and prices. A shameless exercise in excess, it entails more than 60 different dishes spread across a whole room, dozens of pastries and rolls, waffles and omelets, fruit, seafood, hot dishes, cold dishes, 20 different types of dessert and a carving station with three kinds of meat.

At Easter, brunch costs $25.95 per person for adults, $8.95 for children 3-10 and is free for children 2 and younger; it lasts from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (The restaurant's regular Sunday brunch costs $22.95 and $7.95 for children, and lasts from 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Adults arriving between 9:30-10:30 a.m. get the early bird price: $16.95.)

The restaurant provides a fabulous view from almost every table -- it looks straight out toward the bay, and even has an outdoor patio where you can dine amid the sea breeze. Inside, The Castaway needs attention, though: Its decor is dark and cluttered, with that cliched 1970s look -- crab traps and sea-shelled lampshades.

The food is fresh, but middle-of-the road, with a couple of notable exceptions: the tiny, colorful sushi and zingy companion wasabi dip; and unusually well-done dessert waffles, handmade by a chef and served with two rich scoops of ice cream, topped with hot bananas Foster or Cherries Jubilee.

The restaurant's specialty is seafood, and it does it well, if unremarkably: stuffed flounder ladled with a creamy bearnaise sauce, mounds of boiled shrimp, crawfish, king crab, all tasting as if they had just crawled out of the bay.

We also sampled what seemed like mountains of berries, pineapple and melon, and light nests of eggs, crackling bacon, and expertly homemade olive bread, slathered with cold butter. As a whole, the desserts flopped -- sentimentally gooey chocolate cake and limp Key lime pie -- but by the time I got to final course, I was almost too stuffed to care.

Tip to beach lovers: Since the restaurant overlooks the bay, and abuts Ben T. Davis Beach, you can dine early, dressed casually for brunch with your swimsuit underneath or tucked into a beach bag, then meander next door, and spend the rest of the day digesting in the sand.

Another restaurant, called Rusty's, at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort, offers a great beach-brunch combination. The resort is situated on a breathtaking stretch of white-sugar sand, so warm and welcoming, framed with patches of jaunty sea oats and washed by opaline waters.

The hotel abuts Sand Key Park, one of the few "naturally preserved" beaches anywhere in the Bay area, and thus it's my pick for those of you who might want to "double-do" at Easter: Get up early and partake of Rusty's very reasonably priced breakfast/brunch, then adjourn to the park to frolic in the sand, lie in the sun, lounge in the gulf's warm current, or sleep off all that food.

A caveat: You may want to steel yourself for the 200-seat restaurant's cranky hostess, who led us to the worst table in the house, inches from an open door to what I thought were bathrooms.

"I don't want to sit near the bathrooms," I said, balking.

She fixed me with a glare.

"They're not bathrooms," she snapped, refusing to budge. From the doorway came a most unpleasant banging noise -- it became all-too-apparent that just around the corner was the working end of the busy kitchen.

"I do not want to sit at this table; would you please seat me at another?" I countered.

She looked at me doubtfully, and for a moment I thought she'd throw us out, but she finally turned and grumpily led us to a better table.

Once we were seated in the catbird seat, atop a built-in, three-tiered seating arrangement, our meal was quite satisfactory. Inside, Rusty's is pretty and bright, with orange-and-beige striped chairs, substantial wood furniture and lots of planters; however, the room lacks windows of any kind, a particular crime because your mind's eye can imagine how gorgeous the view would be.

With the dutiful attention of two servers, we began to relax, and the brunch itself, though smaller than the monster at The Castaway, certainly was perfectly sufficient, with 36 different dishes.

It featured platters of fresh fruit, cold cereal, granola, eggs, potatoes, oatmeal, bacon, sausage, toast, English muffins and bagels with a half-dozen toppings; doughnuts, Danish and waffles. The food is typical hotel fare -- filling, but far from remarkable. Still, I was happy with a simple dip of scrambled eggs, a knot of plain grits and a bite of crispy, Belgian waffle. I particularly enjoyed the hand-squeezed orange juice and the hot, bottomless cup of coffee the restaurant provides via a do-it-yourself thermal container.

My teenage companions, on the other hand, hit the buffet as if they were the Tampa Bay Bucs just let out of practice: After a swing through, they returned, loaded with great mounds of bacon and eggs, double helpings of strawberries and honeydew, muffins and sausage. When they went back for seconds, the supply of waffles and a basketful of doughnuts took a beating.

Still, the cost was very reasonable at $9.95 per adult, including coffee and juice; $5.95 for children 5-10, and free for children 4 and younger; it lasts from 7 a.m. to noon.

On Easter Sunday, the restaurant also does a popular dinner buffet from 1 to 9 p.m. This year, the meal will include, among other things, pheasant and wild rice soup; deviled eggs; ham with apricot mustard glaze; prime rib; marinated roast leg of lamb with couscous; lobster-stuffed salmon Wellington; chicken breast; penne pasta; shrimp primavera; and potatoes Anna. Dessert will be apple crisp, cake, pie and cheesecake.

It costs $24.95 for adults; $10.95 for children 5-10 and free for children 3 and younger.

And there's always the beach out the back door, in case you need to walk it off.

.

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