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.