A quick 20-minutes west of Tampa, Florida lies a full two-and-a-half miles of cocaine-white sand named Clearwater Beach. It’s an easily accessible, subtropical paradise that makes everyone who visits forget their troubles, worries and — judging from the tourists we saw — their fashion sense.
Located along the Gulf Coast’s warm, azure waters, Clearwater Beach has been named one of America’s best beaches ever since people began naming best beaches. And unlike the amazing beaches in The Galapagos Islands, Hawaii’s Big Island, Bali Indonesia, or Sint Maarten, Clearwater Beach is easy for any American to visit without needing a passport.
And that’s the beach’s biggest problem. In recent years, Clearwater Beach has become a victim of its own success.
Residing at the southern end of I-75, Florida’s Gulf Coast is a veritable dumping ground for the Midwest’s transients, booze-addled Parrotheads and pre-diabetics.
To be clear, Clearwater doesn’t encourage classless behavior and tacky fashion as much as it caters to them. (Local t-shirt shops boast “witty” sayings like “Well, it isn’t going to lick itself”.) Until their new economic development plans take effect, Clearwater Beach is extremely dependent on tourists, so they’re in no position to alienate the black socks and sandals wearing golden goose.
Luckily, you only see those people when you’re upright, conscious or sober — three odious afflictions to which Clearwater has highly effective, time-honored solutions.
First, there’s Clearwater Beach itself. Its blindingly white, powdery sand causes visual mirages that make you think you’re somewhere far more exotic. Then, there’s the 24/7 sunshine that all but forces you to bask in it, relaxing your way to a glorious tan and early stage melanoma.
Lastly, and most importantly, you can find alcohol more easily than you can find a Starbucks in Seattle. And after six or seven of those fruity, umbrella cocktails you won’t care about other people spoiling your vacation — it’ll probably be the other way around.
Still, you can’t spend your entire time soaking up the sun and getting into drunken fights. Eventually, you’ll have to eat and that often involves wearing pants (though not often enough, unfortunately). There are several respectable restaurants in Clearwater, but if you’re looking for haute cuisine, rent a car and drive to Miami.
Most of Clearwater’s restaurants offer second-tier city fare at first-tier city prices. Seafood, while generally fresh, can be over-cooked and over-seasoned even at the fanciest places. Sadly, Clearwater is a steakhouse town, so local chefs are more successful grilling massive, artery-clogging steaks and chops than anything else.
Most of the better restaurants in the area are inland and require a car to visit. For breakfast or brunch, venture inland to try Wildflower Cafe. For lunch, try Cristino’s Coal Oven Pizza. Or for healthy Latin food, Pico Rojo. For dinner, drive to Dunedin to the Black Pearl. Travel a little south to Indian Rocks Beach for the pleasantly surprising Tapas Garden Bistro & Wine Bar.
But if you don’t care about fine dining, or your health, definitely try Clearwater’s contribution to world cuisine: the Buffalo Grouper sandwich. This tasty bastardization of the ubiquitous Buffalo Chicken sandwich has achieved near legendary status thanks to Frenchy’s, a local chain of seafood shanties.
The sandwich is essentially a deep-fried filet of a locally caught white fish called grouper. And, like the chicken wings you’ll find at countless restaurants all over Western New York, it’s drowned in “Buffalo” sauce, a mixture of butter and hot sauce ranging in spiciness from Mild all the way up to Colorectal Cancer. The Buffalo Grouper sandwich’s awesomeness is irrefutable and if you haven’t had one yet, you probably haven’t had the fire-shits, either (totally worth it, though).
Buffalo sauce has been a cornerstone of Clearwater cuisine ever since it motivated some local businessmen to create the area’s most iconic restaurant, Hooter’s. The story of how Hooters got started — at least, as I heard it* — is a fascinating riches-to-rags-to-write-off story of sex, tax dodging and the gross overestimation of Florida’s moral outrage.
Started in 1983, Hooter’s is world-renown for its busty waitresses in tight white t-shirts and even tighter, orange ’80s-era polyester hot-pants.
Oh, and…I think they serve some kind of food or something.
Clearwater is home to the very first Hooter’s restaurant on Gulf-To-Bay Boulevard. Built on the site of another failed restaurant (“World’s Worst Pizza,” I kid you not), Hooters was the brainchild of six Clearwater businessmen allegedly looking for a tax write-off. Much like the play/movie, “The Producers,” these guys were advised by their accountant to start a business that was guaranteed to fail (allowing them to write the costs off their taxes). To that end, they purposely chose the offensive name, “Hooters” — American slang for women’s breasts (see a more complete list of names here).
The businessmen’s plan to fail most likely would’ve succeeded had it not been for a large-breasted waitress named Lynne Austin (not to be confused with Lynn Austin, the smaller-breasted religious novelist). While employed as a “Hooter’s girl,” Lynne came to the attention of Playboy magazine who asked her to appear and mentioned her occupation as a Hooter’s restaurant waitress.
Not surprisingly, this detail did not go unnoticed by the magazine’s observant subscribers and, in no time, Hooters was a national media sensation. Instead of flying under the radar and closing down quickly as originally planned, the owners had a major success on their hands.
Had the owners opened Hooter’s in any other town, the morally outraged citizenry would’ve picketed them out of business before they even opened. Had they opened Hooter’s in a less sexually repressed time, the media wouldn’t have found the restaurant’s theme so salacious.
Thanks to the owner’s extremely bad luck (or was it good?), Hooter’s is today a global operation and a household name among the world’s horny, 50-year old divorced guys and hundreds of silicone-implanted young blondes. Regardless, you should visit the place, because the buffalo wings are pretty damn good.
Any way you look at it, Clearwater has a lot to offer Americans who are afraid of flying. So if your family is looking for a drivable beach vacation with the amenities of a Midwestern suburb and only a limited number of foreigners, then Clearwater deserves your serious consideration.
However, if you’re looking for something more secluded and restful, I’d suggest you find a place a little further south. Like Indian Rocks Beach.
Or maybe Cuba. I hear that’s nice.
*In hindsight, the Hooter’s story may be total bullshit, as I can’t find any corroboration for it online. Whatever.