Food Critic, Florida Girl

Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill

The balmy weather, the white stretches of beach, the multitudes of bikini-clad coeds — somehow, I suspect that most of my friends have not come to Florida out of pure, unadulterated love for me. (And I sincerely doubt my cousin in Tulsa has a phalanx of relatives visiting every spring break.) If you live in Florida, you get more houseguests. It´s a sad but accurate fact of life. Over the years, I´ve developed a classic tour circuit of all the spots I know make my northern guests drool. No. 1 on the hit list is this two-steps-from-the-sand eatery. Palm Pavilion has incredible burgers, yummy wraps and its own take on the Clearwater classic, the grouper sandwich. I like to settle in with a cool drink, look out over those turquoise Gulf waters and watch my out-of-town guests turn positively green with envy. They actually think this is my life!

Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill, 10 Bay Esplanade, Clearwater Beach, 727-446-2642.

The Flying Needles

I have a sneaking suspicion that I´m the youngest client at this achingly upscale knitting boutique. How upscale, you might ask? Try $90 bucks for a skein of specialty yarn (200-plus yards, but still). Most of the specialty yarns are much more reasonable (around the $10/skein range), but between the dozens of different varieties of imported, hand-died, silk/ribbon/rayon/ crepe balls, it´s easy to drop a bundle on a project you may never finish. Sometimes I like to haunt the aisles just to sneak peeks at the artsy sample projects made with the gorgeous yarns (that $90 thread, for instance, produces a scarf that looks like the pelt of a Fraggle Rock Muppet). My grandmother (whose afghans have won their division at the Pennsylvania State Fair so many times she´s not allowed to enter anymore) would freak out if she saw some of these price tags. But what that woman can do with a ball of $1.25/skein Red Heart no-dye-lot cotton is damn near incredible. The rest of us have to rely on pricey yarn special effects, and if I want a red-carpet-worthy beaded silk shawl, there´s only one place to point my needles. Sorry, Nana.

The Flying Needles, 2933 West Bay Drive, Belleair Bluffs, 727-581-8691, www.theflyingneedles.com.

Tio Pepe Restaurante

Another of the must-stop-spots on my grand Clearwater tour, this twentysomething restaurant is just my style. A bowl of frijoles negros con arroz (black bean and rice soup) and bread comes cheap, all the better for me to spend my cash on Tio Pepe´s one-of-a-kind champagne sangria. The libation is composed of Spanish Cava (sparkling wine), cinnamon, juice and fruit, though the exact recipe is a guarded secret that takes a massive amount of persuasion/coercion/seduction to obtain. Trust me. A few pitchers of this and I´m off for a short siesta in the parking lot to ride out the buzz.

Tio Pepe Restaurante, 2930 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater, 727-799-3082, www.tiopeperestaurant.com.

Jamba Juice

As food addictions go, I guess I´m better off with the fresh fruit, yogurt and vitamin smoothies of Jamba Juice than the greasy fries or trans-fatty burgers of other fast food franchises. But at $4.15 a pop (pricier than your average Mickey D´s value meal), it´s fortunate that a Jamba Juice smoothie is the drink that eats like a meal. My pocketbook has been hurting ever since the franchise´s ¨safety¨ blenders started whirring at the brand-spankin´-new Clearwater mall, and friends and loved ones have been known to avoid that particular stretch of Gulf to Bay when in my presence. Even now my taste buds are crying out to score another smooth, icy hit of blended fruit, juice, sorbet and the vitamin and herbal ¨boosts¨ that are included with every Jamba. (I´m partial to the energy boost, but the femme and protein boosts aren´t bad. Just stay away from the fiber boost. It ain´t a pretty picture.) Actually, both my Jamba-Anon sponsor and I are a bit suspicious of what they´ve got in those boosts. Crack?

Jamba Juice at Clearwater Mall, 2689 Gulf to Bay Blvd., Suite 1840, 727-669-5810, www.jambajuice.com.

Los Mariachis

We weren´t long in this town before my family became regulars at this fabulous little Clearwater favorite. My parents always said the menu put them in mind of street cuisine in Guadalajara, and it´s true that a plate of Mariachis´ tacos de carne asada is about as auténtico as it gets. Mariachis´ fajitas put the work of any corporate Tex-Mex chain to shame, and the mushy refried beans are a classic treat. Of course, it´s rare that I can finish a whole meal there, seeing as I´ve usually gorged on their delicious fresh tortilla chips and mouth-watering salsa while waiting for my meal to arrive. Over the years, the restaurant has updated its charmingly low-class booths and scuffed linoleum floors to keep up with its raging success (there´s even a second location a few miles up the road). But at its heart, Los Mariachis remains the joint with the roving bands of cheesily outfitted Mexican musicians playing ¨La Cucaracha¨ without an ounce of irony or concern for the impression they might be leaving on neurotic and health-wary diners. God bless them.

Los Mariachis, 1200 Cleveland St., Clearwater, 727-446-6418.