Fast Cars, Slow Food

Daytona Beach’s reputation for dining catches up with its race cars.

It started with a hot dog on the boardwalk and ended with warm guava and mascarpone cheese risotto. My last trip to Daytona Beach was a gustatory orgy that demonstrated the breadth of the famous beach town’s personality and dining pleasures.

Of course its two most famous personality quirks – its spring break-crazed, drive-on beach and international speedway – influence its popularity, but also its cuisine in unexpected ways.

The ice cream, pizza, and hot dog stands that line the beach boardwalk are emblematic of its beach-abandon spirit. Huddled around centerpiece Main Street Pier, they are the last holdouts of a way-of-life and reputation for classic, frivolously tacky beach town.

The historic pier itself undergoes restoration with expectations of a new and improved version of the restaurant that has been operating along the circa-1900 landmark, while locals protest that fine dining here would be oxymoronic.

A notch above typical beach fare, Ocean Deck, steps from the pier, is a favorite for seafood lovers, with a youthful vibe and views of the wide sands. A different pier to the south in Daytona Shores, a different restaurant: Crabby Joe’s at Sunglow Pier is a favorite for breakfast with the crash and hiss of waves underfoot.

Here, south of bustling Daytona Beach proper, the town’s reputation for racing first got the green flag.

Long before there was an International Speedway, guys with last names like Ford, Chevrolet, and Olds came to test-drive their cars on the wide, hard-packed sands. Before long, racing established a track that ran down A1A to the South Turn and back up the beach to the North Turn.

Here tastebuds collide with heritage at the Racing’s North Turn restaurant, where historic NASCAR photos and memorabilia decorate walls, and the signature Russ Truelove Prime Rib Sandwich feeds hungry racers and fans when the big events – Daytona 500 in February, Coke Zero 400 in July, and biking’s Daytona 200 in March – hit town.

Breakfast at the Daytona Diner, downtown Daytona Beach on the mainland, races you headlong into the day with Start Your Engine – a skillet full of eggs and potatoes smothered in sausage gravy.

A classic gleaming chrome diner, it sits behind the block-long Harley Davidson dealership, a testament to Daytona racing’s spinoff reputation as a bikers’ haven. Truth be told, motorcycle racing preceded car racing on the beach, and Daytona Beach celebrates the tradition with infamous bars such as Boot Hill in addition to its annual Bike Week and Biketoberfest.

Harley and Me

Even the finest restaurants in Daytona Beach cater to the leather-clad crowd during the big events. Martini Chophouse, one of the town’s most stylish and inventive restaurants in terms of its Asian architectural style and global cuisine, opens its parking lot and dining terrace to feed the most discriminating motorcycle enthusiasts, a.k.a. RUBs (Rich Urban Bikers).

Any time of year, stop in for Wine Down Wednesday, when all of its wines-by-the-glass, including organic vintages, cost $5 each. Sip yours on the wall-fountain terrace, then get ready for highly recommended favorites from its nightly changing menu — pork osso bucco or seabass in a bag. Dorothy, I don’t feel like we’re in Daytona anymore.

The Cellar furthers that suspension of belief and stereotypes. In the basement of a home where President Warren Harding once wintered, plates and bowls filled with the most exceptional Italian fare come to the table.

Chef Sam Moggio turned down a job opening a new Disney restaurant to gamble on this venture eight years ago, and Daytona Beach embraces the creativity and excellence I sampled: avocado halves stuffed one with shrimp salad the other with crab salad (amazing!), meat ravioli with olives and goat cheese tomato sauce, and a stunning chocolate-white chocolate mousse with cherries.

As home to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona welcomes a global community, and it shows in its burgeoning restaurant scene – from Thai to Pakistani.

Downtown’s Ronin serves sushi and Asian dishes — such as its unforgettable Kobe sirloin tataki and pan-seared scallops with sweet miso sauce — in a hip, brick-walled bistro.

Likewise, Daytona State College influences culinary direction. Its school of hospitality supplies area restaurants with much of their talent. A locally known secret, its Café 101 serves the town’s most affordable and creative three-course lunch for $11 (dinner on Wednesday is $15).

A choice of starters, entrees (or buffet on Monday and Tuesday), beverage, and dessert can include such dishes as rock shrimp with green pea risotto or mahi poached in ginger and lemongrass broth.

In 1999, Daytona Beach made an important contribution to the Florida dining scene with the birth of the Stonewood Grill brand. Its local test kitchen continues to experiment and invent new dishes that roll out across its 17 stores, including one in Fort Myers.

Here in Daytona, Executive Chef Mike Drury treated us to a demonstration of one of his favorite creations, chocolate bread pudding with whiskey sauce that practically brought tears of joy to my eyes.

Newer restaurants such as Martini Chophouse and Azure at The Shores Resort follow modern trends for organic and sustainable cuisine. Azure Chef Mike Bartscher adds a French Creole touch to his brand of American cuisine. Signature: stone-roasted grouper with smoked corn butter sauce. But for families, the culinary highlight is nightly s’more roasts on the deck overlooking the ocean.

Downtown’s Dancing Avocado Kitchen may have started the health kick in Daytona Beach. At first its menu catered strictly to vegetarians, “but the rednecks pounded the table and demanded meat,” owner Mario Sanchez jokes. The motto for this hippy haven? “Where herbivores and carnivores eat in harmony.” Try the avocado and shrimp omelet for total tastebud harmony.

Then, in case you’re feeling too healthy, skip down a couple of historic storefronts to Angell & Phelps for its famous chocolate-covered potato chips or a key lime truffle. Follow the free tour of this Daytona superstar, and learn that chocolate is a vegetable. So eat up!

In another part of town local celebrity, Orlando Magic basketballer Vince Carter, has opened his eponymous restaurant in a chic new building west of Interstate 95.

A wine bar, the ultimate 21-screen sports bar, Owner’s Box private dining, and the main wide-windowed room draw the business and nightlife crowd for lunch and dinner with specialties such as shrimp and grits with andouille cream sauce and jock-sized steaks.

Quirky discoveries remain to be tasted throughout the greater Daytona Beach area. Sample the upbeat coffeehouse atmosphere and flavors of Caffeine Bistro in Ormond Beach and the funky Old-Florida waterfront character of Lighthouse Landing in Ponce Inlet.

And don’t miss the guava-mascarpone risotto overlooking the Atlantic at Doc Bales’ Grill in the Hilton on the beach. It could easily become a new Daytona Beach tradition for me.

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