The destination-by-destination selection of local restaurants, diners, boîtes, cafés, rib shacks, fish camps, and other sundry dining options listed in this guide should hopefully provide all but the fussiest eaters with some excellent options throughout the state. I also understand that sometimes, nothing beats picking up a bag of groceries and whipping up something on your own in your kitchen-equipped hotel room. Although I’ve gone out of my way not to include chain restaurants and fast-food peddlers, I am fully aware that driving through this massive state sometimes requires a grab-and-go meal so you can get back out on the road. To that end, I’ve included a small list of grocery stores and fast food options that should serve you well.
The Lakeland-based Publix chain of grocery stores is a Florida institution and for decades was something of a secret that we Crackers kept to ourselves. The stores have a strong emphasis on customer service—they’ll take your groceries to your car and cannot accept tips for doing so—and have recently undertaken a great expansion of their organic and all-natural selections. Many stores have full delis and bakeries, as well as a wide selection of ready-made meals and side dishes. The quality is uniformly excellent.
If you can’t find a Publix (and I can’t imagine why you couldn’t; the chain has more than 700 stores in Florida), the scruffy Winn-Dixie chain seen throughout the South has a few hundred stores in Florida, but I would recommend trying to find a branch of Albertson’s or Sweetbay Supermarket instead, as those stores tend to be cleaner and better stocked. Discount groceries can be picked up at the Sav-A-Lot chain, although you’ll have to bag ’em up yourself.
Speaking of how great Publix is, the grocery store chain also owns one of the better fast-food options in Florida, the Crispers chain, which dishes up fresh sandwiches, salads, and soups in about two dozen locations around the state. For something considerably less healthy, the Gainesville-based Sonny’s BBQ is omnipresent in Florida and much of the rest of the South, and their barbecue is far better than it should be, coming from a chain restaurant and all. The Tijuana Flats chain is a fast-growing enterprise, serving up excellent fresh Mexican food in a friendly and quirky environment with a theme that seems to depend on cute collegiate waitresses and eye-melting hot sauces. A bit more sedate is the Cuban and Caribbean fare one can pick up at the drive-through of a Pollo Tropical, which specializes in grilled chicken dishes, rice and beans, plantains, and other Latin American comfort food.
Oh, and no mention of chain restaurants in Florida would be complete without noting that Orlando is the corporate headquarters of Darden International, the minds behind the fast-casual behemoths known as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, as well as the Caribbean-themed Bahama Breeze, all of which can be found throughout Florida.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition