It’s one of the most famous rivers in Florida and includes landmarks like De Soto National Memorial, Robinson Preserve, Bradenton Riverwalk and Emerson Point Preserve. Its brackish waters are home to manatees, dolphins, pelicans and various coastal birds and fish, as well as gators when you get farther inland. The Manatee River, which runs 36 miles before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, is also where you will find many of Manatee County’s top dining destinations.
After recommending waterfront restaurants for outdoor dining in Sarasota, Anna Maria Island, South Sarasota County and Cortez Village, we return to Manatee County to spotlight eight places on the Manatee River; as well as one found overlooking nearby Anna Maria Sound, and another along the Braden River, the Manatee’s largest tributary.
801 Riverside Drive E., Bradenton; 941-708-3777; caddys.com
If you’re seeking a beach experience – replete with sugary white sand, boat slips, beach volleyball, corn hole, live music, fire pits, postcard perfect sunsets on the water and perhaps a visiting dolphin or two – then Caddy’s is where you want to go in Bradenton for lunch, dinner or just some drinks. On Tarpon Pointe, which connects the existing Riverwalk with its planned extension east, Caddy’s is part of the Pinellas County-based chain that includes Treasure Island, Gulfport and St. Pete Beach locations. The lone Sarasota-Manatee Caddy’s offers a completely open-air dining experience with two covered bar areas and plenty of covered seating, plus tables that put you right on a part of the river often populated by dolphins.
Popular menu items include the grouper sandwich (grilled, blackened or fried; topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and tartar sauce), fish and chips (golden fried haddock, served with fries, mandarin coleslaw, and tartar sauce) and the Caddy’s Reuben (corned beef baked in house, topped with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing on rye bread). Plus, there’s the blackened chicken wings that my wife and I keep returning for lately.
Floridays Woodfire Grill & Bar
12324 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton; 941-741-8700; floridays-annamaria.com
The newest restaurant on this list, Floridays opened over the summer as part of the Jimmy Buffett-inspired hotel Compass by Margaritaville on Manatee Avenue West, just before you reach the bridge to Anna Maria Island. The grill and bar named after a Buffett tune features ample open air seating overlooking Anna Maria Sound, part of the Intracoastal Waterway between Anna Maria Island and Palma Sola Bay, just south of where the Manatee River meets Tampa Bay. Floridays’ bar area also overlooks the hotel pool, which during a visit last week featured a singer-guitarist playing popular covers including, yes, a Buffett tune.
But you don’t need to be a Buffett fan to enjoy the Southern cuisine, often cooked to order on the wood-fired grill. Locally sourced seafood should also benefit from the hickory smoke. Shrimp and scallop skewers and a shrimp and sirloin combo are among the grilled entrees, which also include a barbecue chicken breast and several steak options. Personal favorites? I’ve yet to explore the menu as completely as I would like but recent orders of the grilled chicken wings featuring Floridays’ signature dry rub and The Five Alarm Chicken Sandwich (blackened chicken breast, habanero relish, Monterey jack, lettuce, tomato) have been outstanding.
7205 85th Street Court E., Bradenton; 941-755-2757; lingerlodge.com
There’s no way we could write a story about the best waterfront restaurants in Bradenton without featuring Linger Lodge, a beacon of Old Florida weirdness established in 1945. Alas, Linger Lodge has been temporarily closed since late July because of the “continuous rise in COVID-19 cases” with no reopening date set as of our Jan. 11 deadline.
Located on the Braden River, just east of Interstate 75 by Johnson Preserve, Linger Lodge is a restaurant and RV campground (also closed) probably most famous for the preserved native Florida animals hanging from the restaurant walls. But the funky setting wouldn’t be nearly as fun to visit if it weren’t for the real deal Sunshine State cuisine on the menu: fresh alligator bites, frog legs, fried green tomatoes, grouper, catfish and smoked meats such as pulled pork, turkey, ribs and brisket.
Mattison’s Riverwalk Grille Downtown Bradenton
101 Riverfront Blvd.; 941-896-9660; mattisons.com
Part of celebrated local chef Paul Mattison’s trio of namesake restaurants, this location can be found nestled behind the beach volleyball courts and skate park of the Bradenton Riverwalk. The entire main dining room and bar area are open air and covered, with plenty of powerful, large fans. There’s also a stage are where many of the best local blues, rock and pop music acts play, with performances starting most evenings between 6 and 8 p.m.
Chef Mattison’s cuisine, though, is the main attraction with an eclectic menu featuring entrees such as the FreeBird Farms Chicken Breast (fig, goat cheese, pine nut stuffed) and the Niman Ranch Pork Ribeye (with honey mustard glaze) that come with mouthwatering truffle mashed potatoes and fresh, seasonal vegetables. Mattison’s also makes a couple of our favorite sandwiches: the FreeBird Firecracker Chicken (hand-dipped in buttermilk, lightly breaded and fried with a delightful hot and spicy aioli) and a burger made with Niman Ranch beef that’s better than the top steaks served at most other places. Seriously, it’s a tasty burger.
Oak & Stone
1201 First Ave. W., Bradenton; 941-357-4306; oakandstone.com
One of the biggest restaurant and bar openings of 2019, Oak & Stone’s downtown Bradenton location features a rooftop bar dubbed The Deck now offering the full menu. It’s at the top of the eight-story Springhill Suites hotel, overlooking the Manatee River with vistas of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The open-air communal space incorporates several seating areas with umbrellas, low-top tables and three fire pits. There’s also the rooftop bar and adjacent beer wall with self-serve taps for craft brews, cider and wine selections. Oak & Stone includes a 4,300-square-foot first floor restaurant offering an even larger selection of self-serve beers (48 rotating taps including plenty of local brews made right in Bradenton). Oak & Stone, which started with a University Parkway unit, has multiple locations across Sarasota and Manatee, with a downtown St. Petersburg and Naples location, as well.
The menu of clever comfort food includes a vast array of thin, stone-fired pizzas such as our personal faves the Sweet Heat (pepperoni, spicy capicola, pizza sauce, pickled jalapeno, mozzarella and Mike’s Hot Honey) and Winger (Buffalo chicken tenders, cheddar, ranch, hot sauce aioli, scallion, crumbled bleu cheese). And then there are the wings themselves, which are some of the best around. Soaked overnight in a secret brine that I would pay good money to unveil, they’re slow roasted in the oven and topped with a Buffalo-style wing sauce of Oak & Stone’s own creation, plus a generous serving of blue cheese crumbles. The wings come with a side of ginger honey mustard dipping sauce that’s also pretty amazing.
1200 First Ave. W.; 941-748-8087; pier22dining.com
A local landmark that has been owned by the Miller family for decades, Pier 22 in downtown Bradenton places guests right on the Manatee River in the center of its marina with spectacular views of the sun setting into the Gulf of Mexico. Featuring an open air, covered outdoor bar and dining area plus seating under the stars right on the water, Pier 22 also includes a more upscale indoor dining are and bar, as well as the upstairs event space popular with wedding planners. The owners of Pier 22 opened sister restaurant Grove in L
akewood Ranch in 2018.
Chef Greg Campbell excels at overseeing an extensive menu that includes such items as the wasabi-crusted tuna served with sesame peanut sauce, soy glaze, sticky rice and wok vegetables; the bruschetta chicken with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil-infused oil and balsamic reduction; and the popular prime rib dinner available Fridays and Saturdays. There’s also the popular happy hour from 3-7 p.m. daily featuring great drink and food deals with small plates priced between $6 and $8. Plus, Pier 22 is now serving brunch Saturdays and Sundays with personal faves like The Pier 22 Burger, topped with the winning combo of avocado, basil mayo, fried egg, smoked cheddar and brown sugar spiced bacon.
Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant
995 Riverside Drive, Palmetto; 941-729-0616; riverhousefl.com
If you’re looking for a great getaway dining experience in Palmetto, just across the Green Bridge from downtown Bradenton, stop by the Riverhouse. At the end of a wood pier that cuts through the middle of Regatta Pointe Marina, Riverhouse places patrons right on the north side of the Manatee River in a spot that also offers spectacular views of the sun sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. The local VanDerNoord family’s restaurant features three distinctive dining and drinking spots with its first-floor area called the Reef & Grill and adjacent waterfront patio bar the Snook Deck. There’s also the more recently opened dining experience simply called The Second Floor featuring a more upscale menu, live piano music, specialty cocktails, coffees and more.
Popular menu items include the lobster mac and cheese (white cheddar cheese, shell pasta mac, topped with lobster, baked in a cast iron skillet) and carnitas bowl (roasted shredded pork over rice and lettuce, with pico, black beans, cheese, avocado slices and chipotle aioli. There’s also the appetizer fave Kickin Chicken, with chicken morsels flash fried tossed in a sriracha “kickin” aioli, served with a side of blue cheese. Also, Riverhouse recently started serving breakfast Saturdays and Sundays with a full menu and “build your own bloody mary” option.
Riviera Dunes Dockside Social Bar and Grill
102 Riviera Dunes Way, Palmetto; 941-304-3689; rivieradunesdockside.com
In 2019, the owners of Island Time Bar and Grill and Bridge Street Bistro on Anna Maria Island took over the old Blu Mangrove Grill spot and transformed it into the more casual, nautical and fun Riviera Dunes Dockside Social Bar and Grill. The restaurant overlooks the Riviera Dunes Marina nestled just off the Manatee River in Palmetto by the Riviera Dunes condo towers and the Bradenton Area Convention Center. It offers plenty of patio seating with umbrellas as well as an outdoor bar; plus an indoor dining area and bar. Riviera Dunes Dockside typically hosts live music outside by the water Wednesday through Saturday evening and Sunday during brunch and dinner.
Popular menu items include the salmon, mahi or scallops that can all be prepared either sweet chili, bruschetta, fra diavolo (with sauteed shrimp and spicy tomato sauce over linguine) or Lafayette (blackened and served over fresh made jambalaya rice) style. There are also entree salads such as the seafood and classic cobb, and don’t miss out on the decadently delicious Buffalo egg rolls (braised chicken, Buffalo sauce, jack cheese, chipotle ranch) that pair perfectly with their orange or grapefruit crushes.
5313 19th St. E., Ellenton; 941-263-3111; thewhiskeyjoes.com
Another one of the biggest restaurant openings of 2020 on this list (along with Floridays), Whiskey Joe’s quickly emerged as a top dining and drinking destinations in Manatee County, especially for the boating crowd. Located in the Rocky Bluff neighborhood of Ellenton, Whiskey Joe’s features a white sand beach dotted with palapas and fire pits, a long dock, giant waterfront tiki bar and outside deck; plus indoor seating with proper social distancing. A popular chain that started in Tampa, it’s the fourth Florida location for the “Floribbean” style restaurant and bar.
House favorites include the Mango Mahi Mahi (cajun spice dusted mahi topped with fresh mango-lime salsa and sweet mango sauce, served with island rice and sweet plantains), Strawberry-Guava Rib Basket (slow-cooked ribs with a strawberry-guava barbecue glaze with fries and coleslaw) and Joe’s Jambalaya (chicken, shrimp, andouille sausage, peppers, and onions simmered in our spicy broth and served with island rice). And then there’s a personal fave of mine, the Loaded Island Fries. It’s a big ol’ messy pile of sweet potato waffle fries topped with barbecue pulled pork, chopped bacon, shredded cheese and green onions finished with a sharp cheese sauce and strawberry guava barbecue drizzl
e; which goes real nice with one of the 40 types of margaritas and mojitos they offer.
Woody’s River Roo
5717 18th St. E., Ellenton; 941-722-2391; woodysriverroo.com
Woody’s River Roo, opened in 2003, is the Woodring family’s waterfront sister business of beloved downtown Bradenton bar The Lost Kangaroo. Dubbed “The Roo with the View,” Woody’s offers a charming Old Florida experience on the north bank of the Manatee River in Ellenton. There’s a long, covered open air bar and courtyard area of tables facing a stage occupied by many of the area’s top music acts starting most days by 5 or 6 p.m. There’s also a small peninsula occupied by additional tables and an adorable tiki bar.
Popular menu items include the Roo’s Blue Crab Cake Sandwich (homemade Florida-style crab cake seared and topped with lettuce, tomato and onion), Woody Burger (grilled patty with choice of cheese topped with grilled mushrooms, fried onions, and Woody’s signature BBQ sauce) and the grouper sandwich or Grouper Roo-Ben (grilled or blackened, topped with coleslaw, 1000 island and Swiss cheese on rye bread.) You also can’t go wrong with the chicken wings at Woody’s. Pro tip: Order ’em “naked” with one or two of their many sauce selections on the side for dipping. They also offer a tasty cajun dry rub.
An earlier version of this story originally ran Sept., 11, 2020.
Wade Tatangelo is the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment editor. Email him at [email protected].