SAFETY HARBOR, Fla. — There are many good reasons to visit this picturesque city of 17,000 on the west shore of Tampa Bay. It has a beautiful waterfront biking and walking trail, an Indian mound listed in the National Register of Historic Landmarks, a historical and cultural museum, and a 300-year-old live oak tree so massive and so revered that it has its own lightning protection system.
But the best reason to visit may be the inordinate number of fabulous restaurants. In the historic downtown, some 30 establishments serve food ranging from Southern to Caribbean to French, many tucked into charming cottages, where diners are never far from the chef. Last year two restaurants in Safety Harbor made the Tampa Bay Times list of the 50 best restaurants in the region.
The influx of quality restaurants has not been lost on Pete Tanner, who launched Harbor Food Tours (harborfoodtours.com) last April with his wife, Kara, and Kara’s sister and her husband, Lanie and Mark van der Horst. The van der Horsts had lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., before moving back to Safety Harbor, and thought the city was ripe for the kind of food tours they had enjoyed there. As Tanner puts it, “There were just so many great restaurants in such a small area.’’
The three-hour Saturday afternoon tour runs the gamut from upscale restaurants to lunch spots, pubs, and bakeries, and includes stops in a few local galleries and shops (trust me, you’ll need a break from eating). Most of the restaurants have opened in the last five years or so. Fueling the boom, Tanner says, is the city’s commitment to hosting events that draw visitors, such as the Third Friday music series, road races, an annual singer-songwriters festival, wine festival, Beer and Burger Throwdown, and Taste of Safety Harbor.
On a recent Harbor Food Tour we started at Brady’s Backyard BBQ, where we enjoyed a custardy cornbread pudding at a picnic table while listening to blues. At The Sandwich on Main, Sally Locke makes her own jams, dips, dressings, and salsas, which find their way into creative sandwiches like Tasty Tom with turkey, Brie, and sour cherry preserve on Portuguese bread.
Green Springs Bistro was one of the first businesses to convert a 1930s bungalow or cottage into a restaurant, a trend that many other restaurateurs have followed. Chef/owner Paul Kapsalis describes the cuisine as Gulf Coast cooking with a Mediterranean influence. We tasted a smoked fish spread and a thick, delicious gumbo with chicken, sausage, and okra. The name of the restaurant derives from Safety Harbor’s original name, Green Springs.
At Southern Fresh, we sat on an outdoor patio and sampled the restaurant’s signature pan-fried chicken, collard greens, and sliced pork sandwich with a cool cilantro-lime sauce. Chef owner Aaron Stewart was so pleased with reaction to Southern Fresh, which opened in 2012, that he and his partner and fiancée Jamie Ackendorf opened a second restaurant in Safety Harbor last summer, Coastal Cantina & Grill, serving Latin-inspired fare, craft beer, and craft cocktails.
Many of the beers available at these and other local restaurants come from Safety Harbor’s own Crooked Thumb Brewery, which operates in a restored warehouse just outside the downtown and offers 10-15 beers on tap in its tasting room.
Crooked Thumb porter makes its way into a signature brownie at Joey Biscotti Rustic Gourmet Bakery, which also features eight flavors of biscotti made with co-owner Joseph DeBortoli’s grandmother’s recipe. DeBortoli and Steven Wright, who moved to the area from Manhattan, opened the bakery in 2013.
You’ll have to come back in the evening to visit several popular downtown restaurants that are only open for dinner, including the two named to the Tampa Bay Times 50 best list — Parts of Paris and Pizzeria Gregario.
French and American flags mark the location of Parts of Paris, which opened five years ago in a 1936 Florida bungalow. “We were charmed by the town and charmed by this historic building,’’ owner Chris Orrung said. He and chef Ryan Steffensmeier present classic French bistro fare, such as onion soup, vichyssoise, mussels, duck, and rack of lamb, along with traditional desserts like crème brulee and salted caramel chocolate mousse. “But we don’t take the French effect too seriously,’’ Orrung added. “We have fun.’’
Greg Seymour, a New Hampshire native who worked in several Boston-area restaurants before following his parents and siblings to Florida, opened Pizzeria Gregario in May 2013. Seymour is passionate about using the most local, unadulterated products possible. “I don’t believe in herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilization,’’ he said. “Technology has a place, but it’s overly relied on in certain aspects of humanity, and food is one of them.’’ Seymour uses organic tomatoes and house-made mozzarella for red sauce pies, made with a sourdough-leavened charred crust. He also makes his own bacon, tasso, and fennel sausage.
At Marker 39 Chef Justin Murphy creates “Floribbean’’ cuisine, a fusion of locally sourced Caribbean and Latin-American fare with Asian influences. Outdoor tables are set under canopies of tropical foliage surrounded by colorful flowers. Dishes include paella, mojo pork, and jerk seared chicken.
Another popular downtown spot is Cello’s Charhouse. Look for the music-themed mural covering one side of yet another bungalow-turned-restaurant. Under new ownership since May, Cello’s bills itself as a supper club and invites diners to bring their own wine or beer.
The Harbor Food Tour also provides a quick introduction to some local artists and galleries. We admired the mosaics of Melissa Haist at Tupelo on Fourth, watched glass fusing at Francie’s Studio Fifth Avenue, and marveled at the art and glass sculptures at Syd Entel Galleries/Susan Benjamin Glass. Like the small bites we sampled at Safety Harbor’s restaurants, these tastes of the city’s art scene were just enough to make us want to come back for more.