Bill Conlin: Touring spring-training eateries for Phillies fans

Ed Spangler leaves Bright House Field after buying tickets to a Phillies spring training game.
Ed Spangler leaves Bright House Field after buying tickets to a Phillies spring training game.
Posted: February 17, 2010

CLEARWATER, Fla. - If Groundhog Day rules applied to Phillies pitchers and catchers who reported this morning, Charlie Manuel would have led the troops out of their burrow, blinked at his shadow and ordered all pitchers to the covered mounds. Winter Haven Chuck would have foretold 6 more weeks of a winter that even has the normally benign Suncoast in an icy grip.

Calling the World Series, "The Fall Classic," we get. It actually is autumn, according to the calendar - and even though Bud Selig keeps pushing the postseason toward Thanksgiving, he's still in the Fallpark.

But, let's be real. When the Phillies begin their 64th "spring training" in the pastime's No. 1 preseason location for both players and fans, the calendar will be clear on one thing: This winter of our discontent will have 32 more days to run - or sled. By the time March 21 rolls around with the vernal equinox, there will be players grousing that "spring" training is too damn long.

And if the long-range guys are anywhere near correct, it also will have been too damn cold.

January was the fifth-coldest of all time in the Tampa Bay area. February literally has been no day at the beach so far. At 1:30 p.m. last Friday, it was 49 degrees. That was the best part of the weather. The wind was howling between 36 and 55 mph and more than an inch of swirling rain fell in less than 20 minutes. It was in the upper 20s Sunday morning away from the Gulf. For the Phillies' first workout, the high temperature is forecast to be around 57. A keening north wind will make it feel more like 35.

So, before I get into the annual review of how to best use your time when not at the Carpenter Complex or Bright House Field worshipping the best team in franchise history, I must deliver an urgent health warning:

If you plan to be here for your annual Clearwater fix before March 15 - and maybe beyond that midpoint in the exhibition season - dress as if you are heading for a morning of Eagles tailgating. I don't put much stock in any forecast that goes out more than 3 days. But there is no disputing the trend that has socked the Mid-Atlantic with three unprecedented snow events, with at least one more in the wings. And each of these storms sends a reinforcing shot of cold air into Florida. Even when the pattern reverses, the Gulf will be so cold - even for Canadians - that warm and humid southwest winds blowing off that cold water will cover the beaches with a blanket of fog.

So, to maximize your enjoyment of the timeless spring-training ritual, bundle up.

I will start my random journey around Pinellas County at Lenny's, the fabulous breakfast-oriented eatery that has been a gathering place for Phillies fans for many years. Due mainly to geography, I hadn't been to Lenny's since I was a beat writer a quarter of a century ago. I went there one morning last spring with my good friend Luigi Gallace, co-owner of Villa Gallace, a mecca of fine Italian dining at the south end of Restaurant Row in Indian Rocks Beach. Lenny's is a large establishment close to the ballpark and scads of fans were waiting in line. Everybody was wearing the colors. And besides the gargantuan breakfasts, a busy social interaction takes place, old friends from seasons past catching up, people looking for tickets to buy or sell. I had rediscovered the molten core of the Phillies spring-training experience.

In the years when a majority of the Phillies' traveling party stayed in the downtown Fort Harrison Hotel, the consensus hangout for club officials and media was Heilman's Beachcomber, still a Pinellas County crown jewel and well worth your patronage. But Luigi Gallace, an addicted Yankees fan, has allowed so much pinstriped blood to transfuse through his veins, he even shows up during Phillies spring-training workouts and shags home runs behind the fences. And the restaurant, where his infectious bonhomie has added so much pleasure to the dining experience, attracts Phillies-connected people of all levels, from fans, players, club officials, media and even ownership partners brought there each year as guests of prez Dave Montgomery.

At the north end of Indian Rocks Beach, there was a tiny Italian restaurant named Al and Stella's, run by a family whose cuisine leaned toward what might be called haute Sicilian, notable for inventive seafood recipes served on beds of home-made pasta and preceded by interesting antipasto.

Al and Stella's has relocated on Mandalay Avenue, the main drag in Clearwater Beach. The original is now called Stefano's. I'm told the menu is similar, but I haven't been there since the move. The other noteworthy relocation involves La Cachette de la Plage, the favorite of Charlie Manuel and his lady fair, Missy. The ever-changing, prix-fixe French menu is now offered in downtown Clearwater. The charming walled courtyard and stylish interior formerly occupied by La Cachette is now the Tapas Garden. I am told it is a worthy replacement.

Look, every one of these restaurants has a Web site. Search Google and you can read the menus and even make online reservations.

Keegan's, the unassuming IRB seafood house featured on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" with Guy Fieri, also has changed ownership. But I have eaten there twice this month and the menu, preparation and wait staff is basically intact. Most of the seafood houses along the beaches currently are featuring stone crab claws. Due to the unusually cold water, the meat is firm and succulent.

I continue to stand by my personal faves from 43 years of spring trainings: Columbia and Backwaters on Sand Key; PJ's Oyster Bar and Los Mexicanos in IRB; The Pub's fabulous deck dining in Indian Shores. The amazing Sunday brunch at the Island Way Grill. And a value (for about $8) Sunday brunch at The Pie Factory (supplier of many of the area's best restaurants) on Ulmerton Road in Largo. The best French cuisine south of La Cachette is at Le Bouchon in Belleair.

Somebody told me Clearwater Beach finally was finished. I must have misunderstood the message. With the Phillies about to attract thousands to the area followed by spring break thongs, uh, throngs, Gulfview Boulevard is completely closed to northbound traffic from Clearwater Pass Bridge to the notorious Traffic Circle from Hell. One southbound lane is open for a short stretch of Gulfview. I have a hunch the hotels there insisted. I was nearly plowed Sunday by an SUV going north in the one southbound lane. It's a total mess.

But I suppose the thimbleful of good news is that if the medium-range forecasts verify, you'll be doing more ballpark than beach.

Which is why you'll be here in the first place.

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