Overhead shot of restaurant dishesOsteria Tulia in Naples, Florida.

Our Insider’s Guide To Florida’s Unexpected And Historic Culinary Scene

Savour the Sunshine State through its diverse culinary and cultural landscape that tells Florida’s unique story, one delicious dish at a time.
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While Florida is well known for its beaches and theme parks, it also has a rich history of crave-worthy cuisine. From the Panhandle to Miami, The Keys and Key West, and from Crystal River to Cocoa Beach, Florida’s cultural touch points are best experienced through taste. With incredible fresh fare, favourite neighbourhood joints and 137 restaurants listed in the Florida Michelin Guide, locals and tourists alike are spoiled for choice when dining out across the Sunshine State.

NORTH FLORIDA: Southern classics, oyster-fishing camps and a soupçon of French influence

A blend of bayou and big city, the Florida Panhandle and the state’s northernmost counties are distinctly Southern. Such staples as fried chicken, fresh succotash, stewed okra and fluffy biscuits abound on casual and upscale menus alike. 

When you’re craving a serious food and drink scene, Pensacola will satisfy your hunger for everything from the finest fresh seafood and specialty coffees to those mouth-watering southern flavours of Cajun and Creole-style cuisine. Get your fill, from the beach bars to the downtown fine dining restaurants, or experience the city’s charms at one of its food festivals, including the Pensacola Seafood Festival, Taste of the Beach or the Pensacola Crawfish Festival.

Seafood dishes from Savour restaurantSavour restaurant in Tallahassee.

Florida Trend Golden Spoon Award winner chef Brian Knepper brings the skills he honed at the famous Commander’s Palace in New Orleans to Savour, one of Tallahassee’s buzziest eateries. Here, perennial comfort favourites get a chic upgrade with plenty of locally grown freshness. Definitely save room for the key lime pie like no other, flaunting a filling spiked with Patron Silver tequila and Grand Marnier. 

If you’re driving the pine-lined I-10 that stretches the length of the Panhandle from Pensacola to Jacksonville, we suggest veering slightly off course. You won’t regret a slow cruise to Apalachicola, the seat of Florida’s famed oyster land. Avenue E (also known as Highway 98), is adorned with outstanding oyster-forward fish camps you won’t want to miss, including Up the Creek Raw Bar, Half Shell Dockside and The Station Raw Bar.

View of the Ara Rooftop bar in FloridaAra Rooftop Pool & Lounge

Happen to find yourself on the Destin shores? Treat yourself to a visit to Ovide, the cozy and cool signature restaurant at the sleek Hotel Effie. Conceptualized with the hotel team and highly acclaimed, award-winning Georgia-native chef Hugh Acheson, the menu embraces the local seafood of the Gulf Coast with a flicker of French influence. Then head up to the Ara Rooftop Pool & Lounge for panoramic views and three different old fashioneds. 

Count Jacksonville on the list of great Southern food cities along I-95. You’ll find some of the best home cooking in the restaurants of this vibrant metro area, including the no-frills, all-fabulous Shut ’Em Down Authentic Southern Restaurant, a Jax favourite for almost three decades. Sweet Mama’s Southern Homestyle Cookin’ is another spot where you’ll be glad to see your to-go container filled with fried chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese, and Ida Claire puts the South in your mouth with an unforgettable brunch menu complete with hot chicken and waffles and a full list of morning libations.

A man and woman standing in aqua blue water in Florida with a fishing pole.Islamorada

CENTRAL FLORIDA: Serving up Greek, game fishing and global eateries

Thanks to decades of cultural melding, you’ll find a diverse buffet in Florida’s midsection. Visit Tarpon Springs to walk down Dodecanese Boulevard and take your pick of a dozen Greek tavernas along the sponge docks, like Yianni’s Seafood & Greek Cuisine. In the 1890s, groups of Greek immigrants arrived in Tarpon Springs to work in the sponge industry and, thankfully for us, make incredible food. 

About an hour north, you’ll find a haven for seafood lovers, namely Crystal River and Cedar Key. Stop by Crystal River during the summer months to go scalloping on one of the many boat charters—it’s easy and fun to catch the little bivalves and then take the fruits of your labour to a catch-and-cook restaurant, like Crackers Bar & Grill, for lunch. Cedar Key is famous for its shrimping, and Gulf shrimp are among the sweetest in the world. You’ll want to post up at the Cedar Key fishing pier to watch the boats come in with their bounty while you enjoy all the peel-and-eat crustaceans you like. 

On the Atlantic coast, it’s all about game fishing with sport fishers boarding charters from Cape Canaveral to hook marlin, mahi mahi, grouper, kingfish and more. If you want the delicious payoff without the water work, head to one of the seafood haunts serving many of the fresh catches from right offshore, including Florida’s Seafood Bar & Grill or Florida’s Fresh Grill

Inn On The Lakes hotel in Sebring, Florida.Inn On The Lakes hotel in Sebring.

The town of Sebring continues to experience tremendous growth, but maintains its old Florida agrarian charm, especially in its adorable downtown district. Stay at the idyllic Tuscan-inspired boutique hotel Inn on the Lakes, then grab some grub at Cowpoke’s Watering Hole, a real hometown haunt that will give you an idea of the city’s origins. The casual steak spot features local country music acts almost every night of the week. It’s conveniently on the way to or from the Sebring International Speedway, too, so after the race, kick back with a few cold ones to watch the show.

Steak dish from Chicanes restaurant in FloridaFine dining at Chicanes Restaurant at the Inn On The Lakes hotel.
Shrimp dish from Chicanes restaurant in Florida

Naturally, your time in Orlando will likely include a trip down International Drive. While on the surface it seems like a tourism hub full of bright lights and vibrant restaurants packed with tuckered-out theme parkers (and it is!), those in the know will also enjoy its incredible global eateries. You won’t want to miss Nile Ethiopian, a beautiful spot filled with plush cushions and glowing bronze serving ware; Hanamizuki, with a menu full of hand rolls, noodle soups and hot pot; the welcoming and worthy Moroccan kitchen Merguez; and Q’Kenan, a Venezuelan restaurant where you can chow down on fully stuffed arepas and dine to live salsa music most nights of the week. 

SOUTH FLORIDA: A culinary tour of Cuban, Peruvian and Chinese eats

Florida’s southernmost cities are where fun is at the top of the menu. You’ll soak up plenty of SoFlo flavour at Cuban restaurant Cafe La Trova, a nondescript building on the famous Calle Ocho. You’d never know from the facade that the restaurant inside is helmed by James Beard Award-winner Michelle Bernstein and the famed mojito bar run by cantinero Julio Cabrera. Enjoy live salsa music on stage every night of the week while you sip a mojito and scarf Bernstein’s version of the Cuban classic ropa vieja.

In-the-know fans of Peruvian-style ceviche head to Dr. Limon, a whimsical restaurant with eight locations serving striking and memorable dishes packing a punch. There, the causa acevichada, a mashed potato dish layered with silky purée, avocado and fresh corvina ceviche, is a must-try. To explore another side of Peru’s culinary heritage, head to Chifa Konakai in Sunrise, just inland from Fort Lauderdale. The restaurant features dishes that meld classic Chinese cuisine with Peruvian flavours for an unexpected fusion experience. 

Our Insider’s Guide To Florida’s Unexpected And Historic Culinary SceneConchy Joe's in Martin County.

To the north, in Martin County, Jensen Beach is home to a seafood spot that’s been serving up top quality, Bahamian-style seafood in a fun, convivial atmosphere for four decades: Conchy Joe’s. But the story of the building goes even further back, to the 1930s, when the site was used for rip-roaring parties and rum running during Prohibition when it was a fish camp called Seymour’s Dine & Dance. Ask your server to tell you the whole story for a side of intrigue and mystery to accompany your meal.

Across the stretch of I-75 known as Alligator Alley, you’ll reach swanky Naples on the other side of the state. Visit the Tin City district, where boats come in with their Gulf Coast catch by the hour and deliver to one of the seafood “shacks” lining the canals. The Riverwalk at Tin City serves some of the freshest seafood and coldest beer around, and if you’re lucky enough to score a catch, they’ll cook it right up for you in any style you like.  

Florida’s culinary and cultural scene is as diverse as the grains of sand on the 1,350 miles of coastline surrounding the peninsula. Everywhere you turn, there’s a memorable meal that gives insight into the state’s layered history, if you know where to look. 

Excited to discover the path less travelled in Florida? Enter here for your chance to win our Florida Flyaway Contest to Sebring and enjoy a vacation package for two! 

Learn more about Florida’s incredible hidden gems here, including the best places to eat, stay and play across the state.