Florida’s cuisine is a blend of Southern recipes, Latin American influences and old-school Floridian techniques (fried gator tail, anyone?). Add tropical fruits and the seafood bounty from the Gulf and the Atlantic coasts, and you have the makings for one of the best US dining destinations.
Memorable meals in Florida can range from casual affairs – snacking on fish sandwiches at a dockside restaurant – to multi-course feasts in a Michelin-starred restaurant overlooking the crashing waves. Complementing the culinary scene is Florida’s cocktail culture, which makes dramatic use of the state’s beachfront views and unrivaled sunsets.
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Feast on southern cooking
Ironically, the further north in Florida you go, the more southern the cooking gets. By southern, we mean the tried-and-true comfort fare of the American South: fried chicken, catfish, barbecued ribs, chicken-fried steak and even chitlins (hog’s intestines). These main dishes are often accompanied by belly-filling sides like cheese grits (a sort of cornmeal polenta), cornbread, coleslaw, black-eyed peas, fried green tomatoes, collard greens or butter-slathered corn. For pure decadence, finish things off with a slice of pecan pie – topped, of course, with a big dollop of whipped cream.
Where to try it: Jacksonville’s Southern Charm is one of Florida’s best places for a blow-out meal. On Saturdays, wise-cracking chef Art Jennette spreads a buffet of smoked ribs, blackened shrimp, pulled pork, cornmeal fried whiting and loads of other temptations.
Indulge in market-fresh seafood
Florida has a sterling and well-deserved reputation for its seafood, which is not surprising given its 1350-mile coastline. In fact, wherever you go, you’re never far from a great seafood meal. This might entail something as simple (but utterly delicious) as a grouper sandwich, a pre-dinner snack of peel-and-eat shrimp, or something more elaborate like a platter of oysters, clams, blue crabs and other delicacies.
Where to try it: In Sarasota, the iconic Owen’s Fish Camp serves fried seafood baskets, shrimp-and-oyster po’ boys (submarine sandwiches), spicy Creole fish gumbo and plenty of surf-and-turf combos — like seared scallops with braised pork.
Little Havana in Miami is the best spot to sample some classic Cuban dishes © Boogich / Getty Images
Taste your way across Latin America in the south of Florida
Many locals proudly proclaim Miami as “the capital of Latin America.” Given the ubiquity of Spanish and the panoply of people from every corner of Central and South America, it makes perfect sense — particularly when you explore the city’s incredible dining scene. Here, you can grab a seat in a loncheria (snack bar) and order a classic Cuban sandwich: a buttered, grilled baguette stuffed with ham, roast pork, cheese, mustard and pickles.
You’ll also find arepas, corn flour cakes that are either stuffed (Venezuelan-style) or topped (Colombian-style) with chicken, beef, cheese, vegetables or other ingredients. The list of specialties is nearly endless as you delve deeper, with different restaurants doling out Peruvian ceviche, Mexican gorditas (stuffed corn griddle cakes), Haitian griot (marinated fried pork), Jamaican jerk chicken, Brazilian moqueca (seafood stew), Central American gallo pinto (red beans and rice) and Nicaraguan tres leches (“three milks” cake).
Where to try it: At the famed Versailles in Little Havana, you’ll find all the iconic Cuban dishes. For Peruvian fare, CVI.CHE 105 wins all the awards. Out in Coconut Grove, Jaguar serves pan-Latin cuisine, with a wide-ranging menu of Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian and Argentine dishes.
Any visitor to Key West should try a local slice of Key lime pie – better yet, try it frozen on a stick! © MichaelWarrenPix / Getty Images
Sweeten your day with a slice of Key lime pie
According to tradition, Key lime pie was invented sometime in the late 19th century in Key West. The small, tart limes that once grew in abundance in the Keys were transformed into one of the world’s best desserts, owing to the simple combination of lime juice, zest, egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk. After one forkful of the creamy, rich pie, you’ll be asking for the recipe. Key lime pie is justly famed up and down the Florida Keys, though you can also find it at other dessert shops across Florida.
Where to try it: In Key West, Blue Heaven serves up the best Key lime pie on the planet — it’s topped with a tall meringue and tastes all the better in backyard restaurants with roosters running underfoot. Kermit’s sells all things Key lime-flavored, from sauces and body lotions to cookies and dog biscuits. The attached cafe serves up excellent pie by the slice, as well as their signature Key lime pie on a stick — a frozen pie slice dipped in chocolate and eaten like a popsicle.
Watch the sunset while sipping a tropical cocktail
Florida loves its cocktails, with a fair number of residents believing there’s no better way to cap the end of the day than watching the sunset with a tropical libation in hand. Cuban bartenders became celebrities in the 1920s for what they did with all that sugarcane and citrus; the two classics are the Cuba libre (rum, lime and cola) and the mojito (rum, sugar, mint, lime and club soda). Former Key West resident Ernest Hemingway favored piña coladas – lots of them. Jimmy Buffett, meanwhile, memorialized the margarita so that now every beach bar along the peninsula claims to make the “best.”
Where to try it: Sip a Key lime mojito or a Jalisco mule in Key Largo while enjoying the daily spectacle of the sun sinking into the sea at aptly named Sundowners. At the Beach Bar on Fort Myers Beach, you can dig your heels in the sand while sipping frozen margaritas and listening to the local bands tearing it up onstage.
Whether grilled or fried, alligator is delicious on sandwiches, salads and more © Flander / Getty Images
Munch on fried alligator
Alligator tastes like a cross between fish and pork. It’s healthier than chicken, with as much protein but half the fat, fewer calories and less cholesterol. The meat comes from the tail and is sometimes served as deep-fried nuggets, though purists say grilling is the best way to prepare it. Most alligator is legally harvested on farms and is often sold in grocery stores.
Where to try it: Near the edge of the Everglades, the Gator Grill serves up its namesake dish in a variety of ways: you can have gator tacos, gator stir fry and even gator Caesar salad. There are also options for non-reptile eaters, including conch fritters, Mahi sandwiches and meat or veggie burgers.
Vegetarians and vegans
Despite Florida’s love for seafood and meat, it’s not hard to maintain a plant-based diet when traveling in the state. Apart from a few diehard steakhouses, most restaurants have vegetarian options, and an increasing number of places also serve vegan-friendly dishes. Orlando, Tampa and Miami have the broadest assortment of plant-based restaurants.
Where to try it: In Miami, check out the Last Carrot, a vegetarian joint known for its fresh juices, sandwiches and spinach pies. The Café is Key West’s oldest vegetarian place, serving a wide range of incredible dishes for lunch and dinner. Darbster in West Palm Beach is a tasty, 100% vegan restaurant that donates all profits to its own animal welfare foundation.