Florida

Jimmy Doherty talks to Family Traveller about Florida, family travel and food

Last updated 9th February 2024

Jimmy Doherty – rather like the state of Florida where he filmed Jimmy’s Taste of Florida, a new five-part series on Floridian food and culture made by ITV – is a ray of sunshine. He’s full of enthusiasm for the time he and his family spent touring the state, sampling local flavours from Pensacola to Miami. Family Traveller gave him a light (non-BBQ) grilling on Florida, family travel, and food.

jimmy-doherty-taste-of-florida-oyster-shuckers

Jimmy Doherty, Pensacola, Jimmy’s Taste of Florida

Hi Jimmy! How was your experience of eating your way across Florida?

I’d been all over the States but never visited Florida, and I always thought I knew what it was like, but there is so much going on, such a variety of influences.

And it’s just a bit sunny, isn’t it? Even on the odd overcast day, wherever you are there’s beautiful beaches, or palm trees, or lovely landscapes.

We started in Pensacola at the top, where the Spanish originally settled, and went to a place called Union Public House, where the chef gave us a dish of boiled peanuts – I’m used to having them in a bowl as a snack, but this was something else. They’re boiled in this amazing spicy stock, you crack it open in your mouth and its soft inside. We had them with this beautiful local fish, and I realised then that this was not going to be the trip I thought it was.

I got my fried chicken fix at a place called the Five Sisters Blues Café, where the Bloody Mary was served with a chicken wing in the glass – not your usual garnish.

Another thing that was surprising, and wonderful, is the lack of ceremony attached to eating oysters. People go and have half a dozen at the bar watching a sports game; none of the slightly elitist, Champagne-drinking associations we have in the UK.

Colombia-Family-Friendly-Restaurant-Tampa

Colombia Restaurant in Tampa, Jimmy’s Taste of Florida

You’ve got four children, from little ones through to teenagers – how does Florida rate for family-friendly dining?

Florida rates really highly. You find family-friendly dining everywhere, from areas where you can pick and choose from different outlets and sit down around big shared benches, to the classic sit-down restaurants.

In Tampa there are these fantastic free wooden trams that take you round the city – my kids loved it – and they also have pirate water taxis, where you walk along the riverside, get a little tour, and hop off again. So we were seeing the city that way, and there are endless little gems of restaurants wherever you go.

A place we all loved was Colombia in Tampa. It’s 118 years old, absolutely huge, probably the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. There was an endless variety of food: my kids love stuff like calamari so it was perfect for them, on top of which they make sangria at the table – which was great for me! And they had Flamenco dancing, so the kids got to eat dinner and watch a show.

Minions-Restaurant-taste-of-florida

Minions Restaurant, Jimmy’s Taste of Florida

If you visited any theme parks: is it still all about the hot dogs and fries, or are times changing?

At Universal Studios you can still find the hot dogs and fries if that’s what you want, but standards are very high.

There is so much to do foodwise, everything from cutting-edge sushi to a Minions restaurant where all the food was based on the film, but done incredibly well, to Harry Potter-themed pub food with really good shepherd’s pie and a pint of Butterbeer.

Whatever your bag is, it’s there. They had some incredible food and wine pairings, steaks, everything.

You’ve just made Jimmy’s Taste of Florida about the culinary wonders of the state, so is there a standout dish or place you’d recommend for the ultimate in local eats?

In Central Florida we went through Polk County and stopped at a place called Peebles, which has been there since the 1940s. It’s a proper locals’ spot, and that’s how it started back in the day, cooking for kids after their softball games, people after work.

They have these great big areas for ribs, pork butts, coleslaws – it was the real deal, properly authentic, in a way themed restaurants try to imitate. People we met there were obsessed with it, they go back every year.

jimmy-doherty-westgate-river-ranch-florida

Learning rodeo at Westgate River Ranch, Florida. Credit: ITV

You’ve got one night left of your family holiday. Do you go to the local market and sample street food, or take the last available table at a restaurant with a world class chef?

That’s difficult! You could go for street food, then everyone can get something slightly different, and there’s always a buzz. We do a lot of street food as a family when we travel, it’s great to duck in and out, especially when you have lots of kids.

But if it’s the last night, there’s something to be said for putting your feet up and being treated. Hopefully by that point the kids would have learned to behave well enough in a nice restaurant, no drawing on the tables. Although I’m not sure they have crayons in restaurants that nice…

Manatees-Bishop-Museum-Science-Nature

The Bishop’s Parker Manatee Rehabilitation Habitat

What was your favourite dining out experience in Florida, and did it correspond with where your kids loved?

Sandbar Seafood & Spirits. It’s on Anna Maria Island which completely transports you to a different place, it’s like the Maldives; there are cool little bars lining the streets, you can hire a golf buggy and go down on the pier, learn about horseshoe crabs and watch the dolphins.

At Sandbar you eat with your feet in the sand, the kids can build sandcastles while you watch the sun go down.

They cook fish collars and fins, all deep fried and crunchy like fish ribs, even the bacon was wild boar bacon cured by the chef. We had the most delicious razor clams there, and the great thing about eating the clams is that it’s all sustainable.

The more clams get eaten, the more fishermen will sell, the more will grow, creating nursery grounds for young fish; the water gets cleaner, more manatees come in, more seagrass grows… it’s wonderful being a part of that.

Safari-Busch-Gardens-Tampa-Florida

Safari at Busch Gardens, Tampa

Which Florida attractions did you and your family love?

My kids are obsessed with animals, so they loved the Florida Aquarium and Busch Gardens, which has an incredible safari experience.

Also the Bishop Museum where you can see the manatee rescues who are rehabilitated and go back into the wild.

For me, visiting the Kennedy Space Centre was a childhood dream made reality. I met an astronaut called Winston Scott, who laughed when I asked about eating peas in space – that was just Homer Simpson.

Another childhood dream realised was going to the Everglades, seeing alligators and the enormity of such a huge wetland.

We loved Westgate River Ranch – they have a rodeo every weekend, and loads of stuff for kids such as line dancing, horse riding, a powerboat ride into the wetlands, and of course the rodeo. It’s like being in a film – you can go into a saloon with swing doors and a live band playing Chicken Fried. I hadn’t realised cowboys originated in Florida rather than Texas, so that was a revelation.

miami-beach-florida-lifeguard-hut

Lifeguard hut , Miami Beach, Jimmy’s Taste of Florida

Which Florida beach was your family’s favourite?

Anna Maria Island has beaches everywhere; we loved it there. Panama City Beach is fantastic too.

But there’s something about walking down Miami Beach, hearing the Miami Vice theme tune in your head, seeing all the classic lifeguard stands in beautiful colours, all the wonderful architecture on the front,  the art deco buildings.

Little Havana is awesome. It’s one great long street, there’s just such a rhythm to the whole place. You’ll go from a bakery to a little coffee place, sitting outside, music, people making cigars, older people playing dominoes outside.

fishing-boat-everglades-national-park

Everglades National Park, Florida

As a farmer, are you extra conscious about the source of the food you eat on holiday?

Completely. It’s so important because when you go to places you want authenticity but want to know money is going into the community, and to local farmers’ pockets. I go to Sri Lanka a lot and they are very connected to their food there, so you know the veg is grown just up the road.

Food should be a major part of your experience on holiday, you’re literally eating the landscape – like the clams, I love the stories behind every dish.

At New Smyrna, there’s an amazing brunch place called Third Wave Bar & Grill, where they serve grits made from maize grown 10 miles up the road, fish caught right out of the harbour.

Brick Street Farms in St. Pete is an incredible urban hydroponic farm where shipping containers have been upcycled into 40ft grow-houses producing fresh veg without soil or chemicals. One container is the equivalent of two to three acres of traditional farmland.

In Miami, there was a guy who went round on a bike selling key lime pies, and the lime he uses is the local Key lime from Florida Keys. Even that has a story to tell.

Find these little places where they are passionate about where their food comes from, and want to support the local farmers. It doesn’t have to be a fancy restaurant – it can be an amazing little taco stand, anything.

To find out more about Jimmy Doherty’s culinary tour of the incredibly diverse gastronomic landscape of the Sunshine State, watch Jimmy’s Taste of Florida on ITV from 12 February 2024.

Now find out more about Florida’s food and beyond at Visit Florida