Anna Maria Island, Florida, is a gorgeous barrier island that runs 7 miles along the Gulf of Mexico on the peninsula’s west coast. It’s a stretch of sugar sand beaches with access to emerald green water on every side. On the west, you’ll play in the Gulf of Mexico. On the south side, it’s Long Boat Pass; on the east, Anna Maria Sound, and north is Tampa Bay, with Tampa about 90 minutes away by car. The closest major city is Sarasota, Florida, and the drive time to Anna Maria Island is around 40 minutes.
The island has three cities: Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, and Anna Maria at the north end. The charming beach towns have their own vibe, and it’s fun to explore each place. Free trolleys (running from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.) drive back and forth daily from Coquina Beach to the public pier on the north side of Anna Maria Island. Riders hop on and off at the multiple stops along the way. You can easily make a day trip or book a hotel to enjoy a few days there. It’s also a fantastic destination for extended families who opt to rent a house for longer stays. The beaches are vast, so it’s easy to spread out, and depending on the season, you can enjoy plenty of space.
As you can imagine, seafood reigns supreme on restaurant menus, but there are plenty of other options on the food scene. There are many delicious places to sample, including the following (in no particular order), ranging from fast-casual, made-to-order donuts to an upscale dining spot offering “toes in the sand” dining. No matter what you choose, there’s never any fuss involved; relax, soak up the sun, and enjoy a great meal.
I was a guest of Bradenton Area CVB for some of the restaurants in this piece, but all the opinions are my own.
1. Anna Maria Island Beach Café
Anna Maria Island Beach Café is a local’s favorite for the “all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast,” lunch, and dinner options at a casual outdoor restaurant step from the Gulf. Start with breakfast at 8 a.m. any day of the week and choose from the pancakes, Belgian waffles (with or without whipped cream), egg dishes, biscuits, or omelets. When lunch pangs strike, stroll up to the order window. Then pick a sandwich, burger, or wrap, or make it a platter by adding french fries and slaw. There’s live music every evening (subject to weather) and dinner options that include any of the above or seafood items like a fresh catch of the day or fish and chips. You can park here in the morning, enjoy the public beach all day, and leave well after the sun sets in paradise.
2. The Cheesecake Cutie & Cafe
Cheesecake Cutie & Cafe is a family-owned bakery and lunch spot opened by Jennifer Giles and her business partner Devan Maize. Jennifer watched her mom, Barbara Lanza, make cheesecake for years from a family recipe. After she died, Jennifer continued Barbara’s legacy by baking cheesecakes for family and friends using the coveted 40-year-old recipe. The cheesecake is so good that it became the inspiration for The Cheesecake Cutie & Cafe. The café menu crafted by Jennifer’s husband, Kane, includes baked goods, breakfast, and lunch items made fresh daily by sourcing local ingredients. The over-stuffed sandwiches are so big you can share, and the flatbreads and salad portions are equally generous. I chose the Rockin’ Shrimp Roll, a house shrimp salad recipe with Old Bay seasoning on an Italian baguette. I was blown away by the flavorful ingredients and kick of the famous seasoning. I sampled a Snicker Bar Cutie (a cheesecake) which was so creamy and delicious I had to stop myself from gobbling it all. Jennifer constantly creates new flavors but keeps customer favorites in the glass case, including her choice, the Blueberry Lemon Cutie. Other popular flavors are chocolate raspberry or Grandma’s Key Lime. You’re family here, and I will be back for more generous portions and those excellent cheesecakes.
3. North Shore Café
North Shore Café is a casual breakfast and lunch place with healthy options, specialty coffees, teas, and smoothies. The shaded outdoor patio behind the restaurant is a great place to begin your day and enjoy an acai bowl with fresh fruit like strawberries, bananas, mango or a dragon fruit bowl with pineapple and mango. If bowls aren’t your thing, pastries or bagels are options, or heartier avocado toast with eggs could be your choice. Later in the day, stop by for a freshly made sandwich or alcoholic beverage after shopping beautiful Pine Street’s eclectic shops.
4. Poppo’s Taqueria
Poppo’s Taqueria is a family-owned and operated Mexican restaurant dishing out authentic flavors inspired by the street food found in San Francisco’s Mission District. They fill their entrees with fresh ingredients and don’t ever cut corners. The menu is small but packed with vegetarian or meat fillings in their tacos, burritos, bowls, and quesadillas. Pick hot proteins like ancho chicken, steak, or tempeh. Add cold toppings like pico de gallo, honey-lime slaw, or spicy jalapeño relish (among others). The management ensures a fantastic fast-casual dining experience in every location. I sat on the porch overlooking Pine Street, enjoying my savory tacos and watching people stroll by.
5. The Donut Experiment
The Donut Experiment is one of the most popular restaurants on Anna Maria Island. It starts with a hot fresh cake donut made before your eyes. Then you get to top it with icing, toppings, and drizzles to create your own unique experience. Icings such as chocolate, maple, and caramel are just a sample of the flavors. Toppings include sprinkles, nuts, or coconut, and drizzles are the final feature. Drizzles have fruit flavors such as raspberry, caramel, and peanut butter. As you can imagine, the line is often out the door for these delicious donuts that you get to concoct with your own creative twists. But like any tasty treat, the wait is worth it.
6. Anna Maria Oyster Bar
Anna Maria Oyster Bar started at the Anna Maria City Pier in 1996. When the location closed in 1999, four new restaurants opened near or on the island, including the Historic Bridge Street Pier overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. AMOB gained a massive following from those old days and continues to offer customers the same pleasant service at a great value in a family-friendly restaurant.
If you like oysters, it’s the most popular item, with nine different preparations from fresh shucked to Oysters Rockefeller. If you’re not an oyster fan, there are fresh seafood choices like salmon, grouper, shrimp, or fried fish and chips — another one of the most popular dishes after the oysters. Try the burger, ribs, or chicken sandwiches if you don’t like fish. The drink menu reminded me of a Caribbean vacation with a classic Rum Runner or Key Lime Colada. A great place to take in the Intracoastal Waterway views.
7. The Sandbar Restaurant
The Sandbar Restaurant has been serving customers for generations. The sustainable practices implemented by current owner Ed Chiles, the fresh produce from the Chiles family farm, and the stunning location at the beach’s edge on Anna Maria Island make for an incredible dining experience you can’t have anywhere else. The “toes in the sand” dining is not just a slogan; it’s a fabulous opportunity to eat the freshest food right on the beach or under the covered patio off the building, making this another local favorite.
The craft cocktails set the mood as you enjoy a delicious lunch or dinner at The Sandbar. But the fresh seafood (all of it sustainably and much of it locally caught) is the star. Start with the Sandbar smoked fish dip with house-pickled vegetables, red onions, capers, and Teddy’s Hemp crackers. There are cold oysters, peel & eat shrimp, or steamed middle neck clams swimming in addictive garlic, white wine, butter sauce with bacon that’s so tasty that you’ll ask for more bread to dip. In season, you might want to grab an order of Stone Crab Claws, caught off the coast in Florida sustainably from October to mid-May. Next, enjoy an entrée from the main menu of a New York Strip, crabmeat stuffed shrimp, or grilled Gulf of Mexico octopus — all great choices here. Or choose a special, as I did. The whole grilled prawns with white miso barbecue sauce, jasmine rice, Petrichor mushrooms, and cucumber relish were outstanding. The dessert course could not have been better. We chose a house-made flan added to the menu by chef Horacio Egan and his own family recipe. The flan, covered in dulce de leche, was served to my table as the sun set on the Gulf. It was legendary.
Pro Tip: The Sandbar has complimentary valet parking to drive right up to the front steps of the establishment. There are a few short steps to the reception area for check-in. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so arrive early to put your name on the list. Then head to the bar for a cocktail or enjoy seating in the shade while waiting for your table. It’s family-friendly and casual even though the food is elegantly prepared. There’s seating indoors, but more tables are outdoors on the patio or directly on the powder-soft sand.