I get asked a few times per week for advice on things to do during Spring Training — whether it’s tips on McKechnie Field and Pirate City, or just places to eat. A few years ago I put together a post, based on my limited time in Bradenton. I’ve been living here for the past year, and now have a much better idea of some of the best places to go in the area. I’m going to assume that if you’re coming down for Spring Training, most of your time will be spent either watching baseball, eating, or going to the beach. Therefore, I won’t include many other things in the list below.
I might update this post as Spring Training gets closer, depending on whether I go to a new place. If you’re coming down for Spring Training, be sure to bookmark this as a reference. If you see me over at Pirate City, feel free to say hello. And if you haven’t purchased a Prospect Guide, I usually have a few of them with me in my media bag. Now, let’s start with the main attractions.
To be honest, I’m not the person to ask for advice on things to do at McKechnie Field during Spring Training. Most of the time I’m getting to the field in the 5th inning, and I’m usually conducting interviews during the game, or after the game. When I’m not doing interviews, I’m working in the press box. I’d imagine you’re there to watch the game, so there’s not much advice I can give you beyond that. I will say that a good spot to watch is on the boardwalk in right field. That overlooks the bullpen down below, allowing you to look down and watch the pitchers warm up. On the back of the boardwalk you can get a good view of the batting cages and the practice fields.
In the past there hasn’t been much to do around McKechnie. Apparently that will be changing this year, as they’re opening some new restaurants and breweries in the neighborhood. One of the breweries, Darwin’s, is excellent. I’ve been to the one in Sarasota, and I’m looking forward to them coming to Bradenton. The food in Sarasota is pretty good, but I haven’t heard yet if the place in Bradenton will serve food, or just be a brewery. I’d imagine it will be a restaurant like in Sarasota. If it is, I recommend the oven roasted pork tacos.
If I had to pick one place to be during Spring Training, I’d choose Pirate City. It’s not just because I cover prospects. It’s because I think the action at Pirate City is much better than McKechnie Field in every way. McKechnie has the Major League players, but you’re only seeing them for about 5-6 innings. Outside of that you’re paying for the game, sitting in an assigned seat, and watching just one game.
Pirate City is free, and usually has 2-3 games going on at the same time, with all of the games starting at 1 PM. Plus, the view at Pirate City is like having seats to a Little League game, as there is usually only a fence between you and the field. If you stand in the right spot, you can watch three games at the same time. Or you can stand between the fields and watch two games at once, which is more manageable. The schedule (which I will post when I receive it) either has the Triple-A and Double-A teams at home, or the two A-ball teams at home. The short-season players will sometimes play an intra-squad game, which means you could see four minor league teams at the same time on any given day.
The Pirates don’t have names on the back of their minor league uniforms, so be sure to pick up a roster sheet. You can either get this from the security at the entrance, or in a box on the tower between all of the fields. This will let you know which player is wearing which number. I also recommend buying the 2014 Prospect Guide, and not just for shameless plug reasons. I designed the Prospect Guide specifically for places like Pirate City. You’ve got a ton of minor league players that you’re watching, you want information on them, and the Prospect Guide is a digest-size handbook that has all of that information.
There isn’t much around Pirate City as far as food. I usually eat at Mixon’s, which is right down the road. I typically get the BBQ sliders, mostly because it’s good food, it doesn’t take long to make, and I can eat it quickly and get back to the field before the games start at 1:00. If you’re going to Mixon’s, you have to try the orange juice (they have free samples), and I recommend the orange swirl ice cream, made with their orange juice.
If you’re like me, then Spring Training involves the following things:
1. Find a place to stay
2. Go and watch baseball
3. Find a place to eat
4. Maybe visit a beach if you’d rather sit in the sun and watch water, instead of sit in the sun and watch baseball
I can’t give any recommendations on finding a place to stay. When I didn’t live down here, I just used Priceline for a blind bid and took my chances. Pretty much everything is close to either Pirate City or McKechnie.
I can give recommendations on where to eat. I will say that these probably aren’t the recommendations that you’ll hear from people who have visited Bradenton in the past. I tend to avoid the touristy places, and most places on the beach, since the food at these places isn’t as good. If you want a good view on the beach, go for a sunset after eating dinner at a place that has good food, rather than eating on the beach at a place with over-priced and lower quality food.
The list of places below not only have my approval, but have the approval of my friends, who happen to get a weekly “Places to Go in Bradenton” update from me. I will say that none of these places have paid me for these reviews. Not that I wouldn’t accept payment in the form of free food. I’d totally take that from any of these places.
Before I moved here, the most popular places I heard about were places that were on the water. A lot of people go to The Beach House, which is located on Bradenton Beach. I’ll admit that I usually take guests to The Beach House the first time they come down, just for the novelty of eating on the beach. They have a deck behind the restaurant, with a great view overlooking the water, and a beach on either side. However, the food isn’t that good, and you’re paying extra for the view.
My favorite seafood place down here would be Starfish Co. (located at 123rd St Court West off Cortez). The food is much better, more reasonably priced, and you even get a view of the water. Starfish is located just before you cross over to the island, and is located on the water on the inlet. It’s cash only, so if you’re like me and never carry cash, you might want to stop by an ATM before you go. After you order your food at the counter, you can find a spot at one of the picnic tables on the dock overlooking the water. The place is pretty busy, so you’re probably going to be sharing a table with another group (unless you are the group).
As far as the price comparison, here is an example. An order of crab cakes at The Beach House will cost you $25.99. A “hearty” order of crab cakes at Starfish Co. will cost you $13.99. And if you need more than my recommendation for the quality of the food, consider that Starfish was named one of the best seafood restaurants in the US by Travel and Leisure.
I had never really eaten much Cuban food before moving to Florida. Now? Anytime I return from up north, my first meal back is at a place that has fried plantains. There are two really good Cuban restaurants that I frequent.
The best Cuban food in the area belongs to Jose’s Real Cuban (located on Cortez, on the left just past 86th Street W). Jose’s has been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives”, and for good reason. Their pork is outstanding, and if you’ve never tried it, they will make sure you have. The first time you go in, they ask if you’ve ever been there before. If you’re new, they will give you a sample of the pork. It’s kind of like how drug dealers give a free sample just to get future customers hooked. Before you know it, you’re placing an order for Pan con Lechon (roasted pork shoulder on Cuban bread), and a few minutes later you receive a sandwich piled with pork, which if we continued this drug metaphor, would only be described as a “Scarface-sized pile of pork”. Their Cuban sandwich is also the only Cuban sandwich I’ll eat in the area, even though every restaurant has a Cuban sandwich on the menu. I also recommend the plantains.
Jose’s has the best Cuban food. It’s also very reasonably priced and extremely fast. I usually place a to-go order in the restaurant, and my food is ready before my debit card has been swiped. That said, there’s another favorite of mine, for different reasons. That favorite is Columbia Restaurant, located in St. Armand’s Circle.
Don’t get me wrong when I say that Jose’s has the best food — the food at Columbia is great. What sets Columbia apart is the atmosphere and the drinks. This isn’t really in a “Beach House vs Starfish” kind of way either. I go to Jose’s if I want good Cuban food. I go to Columbia if I want Cuban food, along with a fresh mojito, all while eating outdoors. Or, in picture form, I go for this:
The unique thing about Columbia is how they prepare most of the food. If you’re getting a Cuban sandwich, they’ll just bring it to the table already made. But if you’re getting their signature 1905 salad, they will make the salad table side. They do the same if you order a pitcher of Sangria or a mojito pitcher — they’ll bring all of the ingredients out and prepare the pitcher at your table. If you order the creme brulee, they will bring it out to the table, add the sugar on top, and caramelize it with a blow torch at the table. You get the idea. They also give you a free portion of their Cuban bread, which is amazing. It’s served hot out of the oven, and comes with butter that is almost as cold as ice cream.
Basically if you’re looking for a place with a good atmosphere, good food, and great drinks, I recommend Columbia. There are several locations in the Tampa area. The one at St. Armand’s is the closest to Bradenton, and is my favorite due to the proximity of Lido Beach (which I’ll get to in a bit).
For me, nothing beats a good burger, and I have a simple process to test a good burger. If you watch “How I Met Your Mother”, you might remember the episode about the Best Burger in New York. Anytime I watch that episode, I want a burger, but not just any burger. I want the best burger in the area. I want to bring the burger home, turn that episode on, and just spend some alone time getting familiar with the (almost always) bacon topped sandwich.
When I first moved here, I heard that the best burger was between two places on Anna Maria Island — Skinny’s and Duffy’s. Both places are pretty much the same. They’re dives with cheap beer, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that the burgers remind me of McDonald’s burgers. When I first tried those burgers, after hearing that they were the best in the area, my thought was “I need to move”.
Fortunately, after many months of searching — I’d imagine it was a similar search as the search for the prison between seasons two and three of The Walking Dead — I found two places with an amazing burger. Both places involved unique toppings, although the way they approach these toppings is totally different.
Square1 Burger Bar (two different locations in Sarasota) takes the traditional approach to toppings on a burger, in that they put the toppings on the burger. As for the actual toppings, that’s not traditional at all. As an example, consider my favorite: The Drunken Pig & Bull. It’s a burger topped with wild bourbon pulled pork, pepper jack cheese, three huge onion rings, and the house Sooner sauce, which tastes like the sauce you get with a bloomin’ onion. My philosophy is that the best topping for a burger is a different kind of meat. But they have a ton of options, including a “Rise & Shine”, which is topped with Applewood-smoked bacon, fried egg, caramelized onions and gruyère cheese, all served on a brioche bun. I also recommend the onion rings (you can get a plate for $3 on Wednesdays), the Square1 Red beer (a draft is $2 on Thursdays, or $3 if you go during Happy Hour after 9 PM), and the peanut butter and nutella milk shake.
Full Belly Stuffed Burgers (located on State Road 70 going East, just past I-75), as the name indicates, serves burgers that are stuffed. All of their toppings are in the middle of two 6.5 ounce burgers, pinched together. Anyone familiar with a Juicy Lucy knows the concept, although they take it to new extremes. My favorite is The Matty Matt, which is a burger stuffed with peanut butter and bacon. Try it with the spicy maple syrup and a side of sweet potato tots. They also come up with new creations that aren’t on the menu. The last time I was there, they had a dessert that wasn’t on the menu — a peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwich, deep fried in pancake batter, topped with chocolate sauce, and served with ice cream. I didn’t order this, which is how I’m alive and able to write this article today. I have split an order of The Belly Buster, which is tater tots smothered in Mac and cheese, and topped with bacon, sour creme, and scallions. It was as fantastic as it sounds.
I’ll also throw in an additional option: Gecko’s Grill and Pub. They’ve got your traditional restaurant burger, and while it’s good, I wouldn’t pick them over Square1 or Full Belly. What I do like about Gecko’s are their homemade potato chips. They also have a ton of TVs, all tuned into sports, so it’s a great place to go for March Madness viewing. And they’re one of few places open after 10 PM.
You usually don’t get pizza when you’re out of town on vacation. Or at least I don’t, unless I’m in New York or Chicago. Fortunately, Bradenton has good pizza from both cities.
If you’re into Chicago pizza, Joey D’s is the place to go (located on the corner of Cortez and 14th Street W). They’ve got all of the Chicago favorites — a Chicago dog, Italian beef, Italian sausage, and of course the deep dish pizza. My only advice for their stuffed pizza is that you either have a lot of people with you, or you have fridge space wherever you’re staying. The pizza comes with four toppings, all stuffed inside. Here is a picture, for your craving enjoyment.
If you like New York pizza, then Danny’s Pizzeria (located at Manatee Avenue and 75th Street W) is the way to go. Danny grew up in New York, and worked in New York pizza places starting at age 14. His passion for good New York pizza really shows in every bite, and after I found out his approach, I realized that his pizza can only be a result of a deep knowledge of what makes New York pizza great. It really comes down to the water, which is why he not only invested in a top of the line water filtration system, but he also uses ice water to make the dough. Why ice water? Because tap water in New York comes out cold, while tap water in Florida comes out warm. The dough and the sauce are made daily, and as an avid New York pizza fan, it’s the best I’ve had outside of New York.
Sweetberries – You’ve probably heard me mention Sweetberries about ten million times. It’s a frozen custard place on Manatee Avenue, between 43rd and 51st Street W. They’ve got food as well, but I’ve only had their custard. It is outstanding, to the point where it can ruin your life. During the summer, Florida is insanely hot, to the point where it’s 90+ degrees with 90% humidity, and you always have a gallon of sweat sitting in your underwear. For that reason, I usually have a few quarts of custard from Sweetberries at all times in my freezer. I recommend a concrete, which is candy mixed into the custard. If you’re getting one of their massive sundaes, then I’d recommend the Utterly Reese’s, which is a peanut butter fan’s dream. It’s vanilla custard topped with peanut butter syrup, hot fudge, probably about 4 Reese’s Cups, whipped cream, and probably also diabetes. It actually hurts me to write about Sweetberries right now. I’ve only been there once since early December, in my quest to get in the best shape of my life before Spring Training.
Cigar City Beer – This isn’t a restaurant (unless you want to go up to the brewery in Tampa), but if you like beer, I recommend anything by Cigar City. It’s usually on tap everywhere in Bradenton. If you can find it, I recommend the Imperial Stout. The only place I’ve found it was at “Eat Here” in downtown Sarasota. It was about $11 for a glass, but it might have been one of the best beers I’ve ever had.
The Salty Dog – I’d file this under “Things to only try once”. The Salty Dog is a restaurant on City Island, between Longboat Key and St. Armand’s. It is most famous for a hot dog called “The Salty Dog”. This hot dog is deep fried, and covered with four types of cheese, bacon, fried onions, fried mushrooms, and sauerkraut. You can choose your toppings, or you can get the works. Also, you better have nothing to do the next day.
Anna Maria Island Beach Cafe – If you go to the beach on Anna Maria Island (at the end of Manatee Avenue), they have a cafe at the top of the beach. Not that they don’t still have the cafe if you don’t go to that beach. What I like is that every day until noon (1 PM on weekends) they have All You Can Eat pancakes for $5.99. All I can eat is usually the first three they give you, but that’s all you need. I recommend following that up with a nap on the beach, because that’s all you’re going to want to do after that breakfast.
I don’t go to the beach often. Before I lived here, I never went to the beach. My feeling was that I could be in the sun watching the water, and get sand all over myself and inside my car, or I could sit in the sun and watch baseball…and somehow still get sand in my car. I always picked baseball. I’m not much of a beach person, so I still don’t go often, even though I live here now. So I’ve heard Siesta Key is nice, but I have never really been motivated enough to drive down and spend a day there.
My favorite beach would be Lido Beach, which is down from St. Armand’s Circle. The sand is white and the water is clear enough to see your feet at the bottom. I took my brother there when he came down to visit, and we actually saw a flock of sting rays swimming around. We could see them from about 30 feet away, and they got within five feet of us.
Anna Maria can get pretty crowded on the main beach with the pancakes. If you’re looking for a less crowded beach, you should check out the top of the island at the point. It’s not good for swimming, since the rip currents are so strong, but it’s a good place to go and relax without having a ton of people around. Because if you go to a crowded beach, then inevitably someone near you will start feeding the birds, then every bird in Florida will swarm your area, and then you’ll want to murder the person who fed the birds, and that can ruin a vacation. Also, don’t feed the birds. At all.
Got questions about anything else in Bradenton? Leave them in the comments!
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.
**We have been releasing our top 20 prospects for the 2014 season, and this week we conclude the countdown with the top five. Today the countdown resumed with #5 – Alen Hanson.