TANNERS LAKESIDE: Chain of Lakes, Winter Haven

You’ve seen them—bumper stickers for Salt Life, Beach Life, Lake Life. If Tanners Lakeside ever covers itself in such bumper stickers, it certainly won’t have to worry about false advertising. Located on Lake May, one of the many lakes on the Chain of Lakes in Winter Haven, this restaurant is the epitome of the lakefront lifestyle. From the time you step into its marine-roped entrance or dock your SeaDoo, pontoon, or ski boat, you are in a world worthy of a Jimmy Buffet state of mind.

Inside, large casual seating areas are partitioned by etched glass panels recreating lake cattails while a twenty-foot mural pays tribute to old Florida. Guests can also dine outside, and there is nothing like enjoying gentle breezes while watching boats skim by on shimmering blue waters. Everything about the ambiance of this place, including the friendly welcome of the staff, says you can let go now and relax. Tanners Lakeside’s unique design can accommodate everyone. Its fully-stocked bar is seemingly constantly encircled by laughing patrons. There are televisions for sports fans and a pool table for friendly competition. A 3,000 square foot tiki deck hosts live bands on Sundays and large parties routinely enjoy the beautiful outdoor venue. Girls’ nights out, family dinners, birthday and anniversary celebrations, even weddings and high school reunions are common occurrences.

As enjoyable as the atmosphere is, the food is the star of the show. Get ready for food that is not brown! Every dish I saw was abundantly, almost exuberantly colorful. The Yellow Fin Tuna, for example, was a color palette in red hues: deep red tuna slices encircled by blackened red fish seasoning lying on top of a Creole butter sauce and adjoining peach-toned ginger slices. It was a presentation worthy of an artist. The tuna’s deep red color delivers the promised perfect sweet mild flavor, and I was pleasantly surprised when it practically melted in my mouth, a sensation I attributed to its pairing with the thinly sliced ginger. The full-bodied flavor of the dish, however, comes from the duet of a seasoned rub which rings the outside of the pan-seared tuna slices and the rich, creamy Creole butter sauce, which accompanies other Tanners seafood dishes including the Mahi Mahi.

For an appetizer that begs to be shared, try the baked avocado dip. It looks like a cottage pie—something that is also on the menu—but its bubbly blanket of mozzarella and cheddar cheeses covers a mixture that look like party confetti with its small cubes of bacon, shrimp, avocado and diced tomatoes. I know this will seem like a strange description, but it is a “happy” controlled explosion—like a food smile, an apt welcome to the beginning of a meal—just what an appetizer should be. Dip those garlic toasty chips into the warm dip and you feel like you should be being photographed for a commercial for happy hour.

My teenage son was with me and ordered separately, so I got a chance to see (and taste) some other items. His fried gator had a mild meat flavor and was not tough in the least. Hand breaded and deep fried to a golden brown, the bites were enriched with a sauce that gave a kick with just the right amount of horseradish and cayenne pepper. He also ordered the fish and chips, and the beer-battered haddock filet that was served was in a word—huge. The white meat fell apart under his fork and was the clearest white I have ever seen on a fish. It was paired with unique spiral cut potatoes, coleslaw, and hushpuppies, and was a huge hit with both him and his father, who couldn’t resist sharing!

Tanners’ phenomenally passionate staff continue to work, researching where in the world the freshest products can be obtained. But I reserve my highest praise for an entree I simply couldn’t stop eating: the shrimp and grits. This entree transported me instantly to the bayou in Louisiana. The cheese grits are corn-based and have a firm, almost granular consistency that lends body to the dish. The plentiful sautéed jumbo shrimp had the subtle, buttery taste of the freshest of its kind and the andouille sausage cubes were robust and flavorful. It is a meal that radiates Southern goodness with the sweetness of caramelized onions and the color and slight crunch of red and green peppers, but the magic is in the sauce. A Creole tomato sauce and cream coats the various ingredients, wrapping them up with specks of cayenne pepper and parsley that produce a pleasant buzz in the mouth. It is the perfect balance of spicing—not too mild and not too hot but just enough to know you have eaten something worthy of being served in the finest restaurants of New Orleans.

It may seem almost unbelievable that a restaurant of such culinary quality is located in a fun, festive location so close to home. But at Tanners Lakeside, casual lakefront dining is only a quick car (or boat ride) away.

Tanners Lakeside Restaurant & Bar
1006 S. Lake Howard Dr., Winter HavenTannersLakeside.com

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