Whether you love or hate restaurant chains, there’s no denying the comfort found in a familiar dish no matter where you are in the country. At Waffle Houses across the South, we know that an order of scattered, smothered and covered is going to taste like heaven in Lakeland or Tallahassee. And at any Cracker Barrel we choose to visit, we can be sure that the biscuits in our order will be fluffy clouds of buttery joy. But drill down into each state and you’ll find cherished neighborhood local chains you won’t find elsewhere.
Some say restaurant chains aren’t officially considered a chain until it has more than 10 locations. Here, we’ve highlighted some Florida standouts, that while smaller in scale than the corporate giants, have more than one spot in different areas around the Sunshine State and honor a commitment to consistently serve us great food, no matter which city we’re pulling up a chair at their table.
If you happen to be in the vicinity of this fine Clearwater establishment—whether you’re hungry or not—do not miss the opportunity to order something…anything. Frenchy’s consistently ranks as one of the best seafood spots in Florida to devour a grouper sandwich, an iconic food in our sunny state. But beyond the grouper, they make a lusciously rich, she-crab soup, you just have to start with. And regulars know an order of Frenchy’s famous garlic crab fries must be on the table for all to munch. Get the full Floridian experience at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, where the dining room sits right on the beach. The father of food television himself, Alton Brown, added Frenchy’s to his “Best Bite in Clearwater” list. So you know it’s going to be a knockout meal.
Locations: 5 Clearwater, Dunedin
4 Rivers Smokehouse
4 Rivers has grown so big, so quickly, their original location in Winter Park seems like a distant memory. Here in Florida, there are scores of killer spots for authentic barbecue. As you might imagine, many come from roadside trucks offering nothing more than a few lawn chairs to sit in while you enjoy. But that experience isn’t always available for those of us living in some of Florida’s larger cities. Enter 4 Rivers Smokehouse. Here you can rely on the slow-smoked classics like brisket, pork, and chicken. You’ll find tender, melt-in-your-mouth meats no matter which location you choose. Really hungry? Order one of their signature sandwiches, like the Texas Destroyer, which features their Angus brisket amped up with jalapeños and melted provolone, then topped with crispy fried onion rings. Its latest location opened this past May in Atlanta, but I still felt I needed to make an exception to keep it on this list. This Florida-born and bred chain is well on its way to national domination.
Visit: 4 Rivers Smokehouse
Locations: 13 Orlando, Tampa, Winter Garden, Winter Park, Tallahassee, Kissimmee, Gainesville, Coral Springs
If you’ve got a taste for burritos, tacos, and tortas, just look for the bus—okay, not exactly, their locations aren’t all actual buses. Taco Bus began serving up budget-friendly, inspired Mexican dishes in the Tampa area back in 1996, and today they have grown to expand to 13 locations. Die-hard fans swear by the belly-busting chimichangas and the El Jefe, two tortillas wrapped with your choice of protein, double rice and beans, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole (coming in over 2 pounds when all is said and done, it’s a serious commitment). You’ll definitely have a sweet tooth after a savory meal at Taco Bus so leave room for a sweet fried dessert like the sopapillas or churros.
Visit: Taco Bus
Locations: 13 Tampa, Clearwater, Sarasota, Lakeland, Plant City, Treasure Island, Lutz
Santiago’s Bodega is one of those perfect spots for nearly any occasion—lunch with your mom, happy hour with your friends, or date night with a new partner. This eclectic tapas restaurant sports a Bohemian vibe while serving up fantastic food. Well-known for their robust menu of hot dishes such as the grilled shrimp and chorizo or crispy croquettas, and chilled delights like the gazpacho or yellowfin tuna ceviche, these aren’t just appetizers, each item is expertly prepared and served with quality and care. The wonderful thing about the small plate options you’ll find here is that you can absolutely build a satisfying meal with a few heavier favorites like the seared beef tenderloin with blue cheese butter or the rich short ribs glazed with a delicately sweet cherry-hoisin.
Visit: Santiago’s Bodego
Locations: 3 Orlando, Altamonte Springs, Key West
Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria
Who can resist a great sandwich? At Pom Pom’s—which we also dig for its funky, art-house vibes—customers can choose from 25 creative sandwiches on their choice of bread. Loyal locals line up day and night at this wallet-friendly shop to get their fix of specialties like Mama Ling Ling’s Thanksgiving, piled high with turkey, gouda, stuffing, and all the trimmings. Vegetarians and vegans have lots of options here too—we’re partial to the veggie sandwich—hot-pressed and packed with tomato, cucumber, avocado, cream cheese, and thousand island dressing. You’ll never miss the meat in this hearty sandwich. We really hope to see more activity from Pom Pom’s around the state soon.
Bonus: At the Orlando location, you can stuff yourself with these hand-held pleasures at any time on the weekend— it’s open 24-hours.
Locations: 2 Orlando, St. Petersburg
Hawker’s Asian Street Fare
Hawker’s has been serving Floridians with an incredible variety of traditional Asian street foods in a well-designed setting since it opened its first location in Orlando in 2011. Small plates are aplenty and perfect for sharing with a table of friends. Chefs focus on the most beloved, regional favorites found throughout Asia—from Malaysia, feast on mee goreng, sweet chili noodles tossed with roasted peanuts and tangy lime. And from Singapore, the curry laksa soup is layered with velvety coconut, savory curry, shrimp and fresh vegetables. And if you prefer the spicier dishes like the Chuan jerk chicken wings, you’ll find a superior selection of craft beers to compliment the heat.
Visit: Hawker’s Asian Street Fare
Locations: 6 Orlando, Jacksonville, Neptune Beach, St. Petersburg, Windermere
Established in 1905, Tampa’s first authentic spot for a Cuban sandwich and a cafe con leche was born. Touristy yes, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Columbia Restaurant, which remains an excellent restaurant after all these years. Today, you can still expect a crowd at any of their seven locations. The Cuban sandwich is a staple here, served with salami of course because hey, this version was born in Tampa. And you can’t go wrong with chicken and yellow rice, the classic dish that helped put the Columbia on the map. One look around at the historic building, coupled with a few sangrias and you’ll feel like you’ve time-traveled back to the bustling days of Ybor City’s prosperous cigar boom in the 1920s.
Visit: Columbia Restaurant
Locations: 7 Tampa, Sarasota, St. Augustine, Clearwater Beach, Greater Orlando
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Boca Kitchen + Bar + Market
Looking for something a little less informal? That’s where Boca Kitchen + Bar + Market steps in. Taking an approach very comparable to a chef-owned and operated restaurant, their claim to fame is their dedication to serving honest, local ingredients from nearby Florida farms and seafood purveyors as much as possible. The market portion of the restaurant offers independent food producers the opportunity to partner and sell everything from produce to pantry goods. The menu runs the gamut from seasonal, wood-fired flatbreads to fresh seafood dishes to the always available monstrous and delicious grass-fed beef burger. On the weekends, Boca is a place to see and be seen, drawing in the brunch set to linger over bottomless bloody marys and heaping plates of fried chicken and waffles.
Visit: Boca Kitchen + Bar + Market
Locations: 2 Winter Park, Sarasota