Daytona isn’t a fly-to-dine destination, but there are a few very good restaurants. As you might expect, seafood is top of the list for locals and visitors. A lot of places here are about the waterfront view, and everything naturally tastes better with a little whiff of salt air wafting over your table.
Yes, we know it’s a chain. But it’s a small chain and there are always some nice variations from city to city. This one’s biggest plus is the location, overlooking docks fronting the Halifax River. You can sit inside and watch the boats through the large glass windows or—in spring or fall—sit outside and smell the salt air. The Halifax River is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, separating the mainland from the beach, which is located on a barrier island across the way. The seafood is reliable (it’s part of the Landry’s Restaurants group) but our money is on the prime rib atherosclerosis special. There’s just a hint of spiciness along with that rich, full mouth feel you only get from prime meat. Put some extra butter on that baked potato, too.
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You won’t wonder “where’s the beef?” at Hyde Park, tucked into the beachfront Hilton Ocean Walk Village. This place has “classic” written all over it, from the wood-and-leather furnishings to the dark wooden floors to a menu heavy on words like “ribeye,” “Kansas City,” “filet” and “porterhouse.” This is one of two Florida locations for Hyde Park, so it has some of the trappings of the big-city steak chain—a pro forma menu, for instance—but the most enjoyable perk is a nice wine list, with several dozen wines available by the glass. A nice touch is that Hyde Park lets you customize your meal: Once you pick your meat, you can add a sauce (béarnaise, cabernet butter, peppercorn cognac bordelaise, horseradish) or you can add a side of lump crabmeat or a lobster tail. If you’re a confirmed carnivore, you’re going to be happy with any of the selections, but we can’t resist the classic Steak au Poivre—seared New York strip dressed in a fresh peppercorn and cognac bordelaise sauce. You can order seafood instead, but why would you? There’s also dining outside on the terrace if the weather’s nice.
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This beachfront gem is located in The Shores Resort, south of the main strip in the relatively quiet enclave of Daytona Beach Shores. The menu was created by Chef Lonny Huot and it shows off his Southern roots with offerings that include fried green tomatoes (with feta cheese and Bourbon molasses vinaigrette) and an awesome rendition of the classic shrimp ’n’ grits, which adds black-eyed peas and a spiced Southern Comfort butter sauce to the usual ingredients. The flavors are fresh and well-blended in the more-familiar entrées—steak, stone-roasted grouper, mahi mahi—as well. Do not leave until you have a mudslide brownie. Just make sure you don’t have anything to do afterward that’s any more demanding than lying in the sun. Azure also offers “cabana dining;” they set you up in one of the big canvas cabanas on the huge pool deck overlooking the ocean, and the chef prepares a private meal for you.
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JB’s is locally famous and draws people “across the water” from Daytona. It’s located on the south side of Ponce Inlet, well south of New Smyrna. It’s worth the drive. When they say “fish camp,” that’s what they mean; this is a ramshackle-looking collection of buildings that was built by and for fishermen. It just happens to have evolved into one of the best seafood restaurants in the area. There’s a dock, and kayak rentals, but head on into the restaurant and find yourself a table outside, overlooking the Halifax River. The crab sandwich, in particular, is unusual and tasty: a mountain of lump crabmeat just brushed with mayonnaise and (incongruously) heaped onto a slice of toasted white bread. Forget the bread and dive into the mountain of crab. The hush puppies are crispy and hot and the oyster stew delectable. If you can still move after your meal, a one-hour kayak rental for two is only $15.
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This isn’t the easiest place to find—it is literally located under the Dunlawton Avenue Bridge that crosses the Halifax River from Port Orange to the beach. Forget the starched linens and leather seating: This is one of those places where you line up along a wall and give your order to a cashier. The menu consists of seafood, seafood and ... uh ... seafood. Satisfy your beef craving elsewhere and order a fried fish basket or some of the fresh local shrimp. If your exposure to shrimp has been stuff that was frozen and shipped, you’re not going to believe what happens when you wrap your mouth around some shellfish that were swimming a few hours ago. Order them fried or spiced—they’re both excellent—then grab a table on the deck out back and watch the boats come and go on the river. This place is incredibly popular with locals, so if you’re going on a weekend, make sure to get there early.
Inlet Harbor is a marina on the southern tip of the barrier island, just across Ponce Inlet from New Smyrna Beach. The restaurant is a rowdy, raucous party palace with visitors arriving in boats, on jet skis, astride Harleys—we’ve even seen a couple of gray hairs extricating themselves from a Lamborghini. They leave the way they came, just a lot more intoxicated. The food is pretty good—not great—but the atmosphere is second to none. Grab a table outside if you can; there are live bands most nights and you could hear anything from ska to Sinatra depending. The seafood is fresh and good, but don’t come for a leisurely sit-down meal. Order yourself a frosty adult beverage and a selection of appetizers—the angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon, breaded and deep fried) or conch fritters—then kick back and watch the sun go down as the tide runs out of the inlet. There’s a little sandbar right in front of the restaurant called Disappearing Island (because you can only see it when the tide’s low) that attracts hordes of boaters and the deck is a great place to watch from.
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This is north of Daytona proper, just across A1A from the beachfront in Ormond Beach. Especially on weekends, and if the weather is nice, the parking lot is likely to be filled with bikes and the restaurant overflowing with bikers. This is a much more family-friendly atmosphere than the Boot Hill (i.e., no bras hanging from the ceiling) and a good chunk of the bikers are dentists down on holiday from Ohio. Inside, it’s all knotty pine paneling, brick and wooden high tops. The attraction here is the food; it’s good old-fashioned bar food, just done way better than most bars could ever dream of. There are plenty of finger foods (jalapeno poppers, fried jalapeno rings, mini crab cakes) but the big dogs on the menu are the baby back ribs, fried shrimp basket and the all-you-can-eat snow crab legs.
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Like ethnic food, great pizza is something you might not expect in a Florida beach town, but Jerry’s is an anomaly, in more ways than one. First, it’s probably the only pizza joint you’ll ever visit that has a Tiki bar attached to it. Second, it has great pizza. The restaurant is a ways south of downtown on the beach side, almost all the way to the cut at Ponce Inlet. It’s not on the water, but once you’ve sucked down a couple of cold ones at the Tiki bar (for medicinal purposes, of course, just to get your body temperature back to normal), the scenery looks just fine. Jerry’s also serves a full range of Italian-American fare: lobster ravioli, manicotti, eggplant parmigiana, veal marsala. On the very few occasions we were able to tear ourselves away from the pizza, the other items were very good, but pizza is in their name and in their blood. And it’s awesome.
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Norwood’s has been in New Smyrna Beach since just after World War II, building a loyal following and working its way up to being a terrific independent restaurant. It offers the range of American favorites—beef, chicken, salads—and they’re good, but it’s the seafood and the wine that keep the fans coming back. There’s a nice selection of wines by the glass bolstered by an outrageous choice of bottles—30,000 of them. There’s everything from a $510 Dalla Valle Maya that garnered 92 points from Robert Parker to a nice $26 Chilean Carmenere. If you’re a wine weenie, this is where you go to get your fix at the beach. The atmosphere is nice, too. The building is stone and wood, with lots of windows. Try one of the seafood platters—various combinations of mahi mahi, flounder, shrimp and oysters—that come fried or broiled.
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This family-run shop is off the beaten path, about eight blocks north of Speedway Boulevard and about 10 blocks back from the river. It’s worth finding for lunch; they make an outstanding Cuban sandwich. The highlight of the menu for us is pupusas de queso, which are a traditional El Salvadoran dish. These are grilled corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and served with coleslaw. This isn’t the most scenic part of town or the greatest restaurant interior, but the friendly service and excellent (and authentic) food make it worth a stop when you’re looking for an inexpensive lunch.
Because Volusia County still lets people drive on the beach, they also allow beach wagons—large trucks with a kitchen in the back and window in the side for ordering. The menus are limited, burgers, dogs, sometimes pizza, maybe nachos, but the location—50 feet from the surf line—cannot be beat. At least once during your stay you have to go the beach without loading yourself down like a pack mule and trust to the beach gods to bless you with a great beach wagon near your blanket. Load up on soda and burgers and feel the decadence as hamburger juice mixes with suntan lotion as it rolls down your face.
Small towns and great ethnic food don’t always go together, but this place consistently cranks out some of the best Thai food you’ll find. The tiny family-run eatery is in a small, stand-alone building on Bay Street, about a block back from the News Journal Center, which is on the river. The curries—especially the Panang beef—are outstanding, as is the pad Thai. If you’re staying close by or want something delicious to eat on the beach, Zen does takeout, too.
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