‘Greetings from Dunedin’ courtesy of Dunedin Artist Steve Spathelf
I’ve been to the spring training home of the Toronto Blue Jays – Dunedin, Florida – on five occasions. In the early days, I did as much research as I possibly could to get the most out of the trip. During this process I encountered plenty of bad advice and mis-information from both sports writers and fans alike. As a result, I’ve compiled this guide to give our dear readers a realistic snapshot of what the Dunedin area has to offer.
In addition, I’ve documented three of my five previous trips to Dunedin on this site. If you’re so inclined, you can read about them here. Now on to the guide!
Since the inception of the Toronto Blue Jays’ in 1977, Dunedin, Florida has been the club’s spring training home. Dunedin also plays host to the Blue Jays’ class-A Minor League affiliate: the Dunedin Blue Jays of the Florida State League. Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the current name of the Blue Jays’ spring training ballpark, is situated next to the Dunedin Public Library a few blocks south of the downtown on Douglas Avenue. FAES, as it is sometimes referred to as, was built in 1990 as a replacement for the rickety Grant Field, the Blue Jays’ first spring training ballpark known for its wooden grandstand. With a population of approximately 36,000, Dunedin is among the smallest spring training destinations in the state of Florida.
The name Dunedin comes from the Scots Gaelic Dùn Èideann. Translated to English, Dùn Èideann becomes Edinburgh. You can tell there is a great deal of Scottish influence here, with street names such as Douglas, Scotland, Aberdeen, Highland, and Sky Loch. Dunedin has maintained and embraced its Scottish roots; evidence of this heritage can be seen everywhere. Once a year, Scottish clans descend upon the city for the Dunedin Highland Games. The sound of bagpipes is commonly heard throughout the city.
To get to Dunedin from wherever you may be, you’ll likely want to land in Tampa International Airport. From there, it’s a straight shot across the Courtney Campbell Causeway to Dunedin. It’s a picturesque 30-minute drive. Toronto Blue Jays beat writer Richard Griffin said it best in his article Spring arrives in baseball’s circle of life:
Recently retired Star colleague and long-time Jays beat reporter Al Ryan would talk about how he got emotional every time he landed in Tampa for his first day covering the Jays. For Ryan, the act of crossing the Courtney Campbell Causeway for the first time each spring would define the end of one year of life and the beginning of another. The previous year would flash before him in great detail – clearly making it more of an adventure in driving for Ryan than it usually was.
The act of crossing the Courtney Campbell Causeway is indeed a rite of passage for Jays fans who routinely make the pilgrimage to Dunedin.
The first piece of misinformation, and most common piece of fake news is that fans shouldn’t stay in Dunedin itself because it ‘shuts down at 7:00pm.’ This is patently false. Not only does Dunedin not shut down in the evenings (more on that later), it has a really fun downtown that is full of character with plenty to offer. If you can, try to stay within walking distance of the stadium. There’s nothing worse than spending an afternoon at the ballpark with Chad The Beer Guy and not being able to buy what he’s hawking because you have a 40-minute drive back to St. Petersburg in front of you.
With that in mind, there are some great bars and restaurants within walking distance of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. They are perfect for a post-game beer (or more) before heading for dinner. Here’s a quick-and-dirty rundown of the usual suspects:
Rosie’s Tavern: Named after the owner’s late Beagle, Rosie’s is tucked behind a complex of art galleries on Broadway. Rosie’s has consistently solid live music and is, of course, dog friendly. Rosie’s portrait can be found on the wall along with many furry frequent customers. For a more in-depth review of Rosie’s, have a look at this article in the Tampa Bay Times.
The Chic-a-Boom Room & Kelly’s : Located on Main Street in Dunedin, this is a popular spot for post-game happy hour beers. Cheap Yeunglings on tap.
Blur : For all you clubbers out there, this is the place to to get your dance on. Yes, it’s open after 7:00pm! But it’s really only busy on Friday and Saturday nights. The place to go for kareoke and very popular drag queen nights.
Dunedin Brewery: Located just off the Pinellas Trail in downtown Dunedin, this brewery is the oldest microbrewery in the state of Florida. Fans seem to worship it; I don’t understand why. The beer ranges from awful to above average, though there is a wide selection. They do have some solid live music from time to time, however. Bonus points for having a dog-friendly patio.
Skip’s Bar: Skip’s is a dive, but a nice dive. The patio can get quite busy and Skip can be seen selling $1 hot dogs before home games. Dog friendly.
7venth Sun Brewing Company: Locals tell me it’s much better than Dunedin Brewery. The beers are better and the brew-masters take some fun risks, but the facility is bare bones. The patio is a line of chairs in a gravel parking lot. I’m certainly not too stuck up for it.
Dunedin House of Beer: Basically a bar that has a large beer selection. Heavy on ales and IPAs, nary a lager in sight.
Bauser’s: You’ll find Bauser’s on Douglas Avenue, a hop, step, trip and fall away from the ballpark. Famous for offering parking on game days with a coupon for a free beer after game. Two years ago it was hard sell; last year it was wildly popular. The place is dark, dank, and a little bit dirty. The beers are cheap and people have a great time. It’s the bar to go to if you’re not looking for anything too snooty.
Casa Tina’s: Exceptional Mexican food & drinks. Before it was sold in Canada, I used to come here and zero-in on the Modelo Especial. Now that Modelo Especial is available at the LCBO, I recommend trying the home-made aguafrescas such as Jamaica and Horchata. Bohemia is my new favourite Mexican beer available here. Of course, don’t miss their margaritas. All items on the menu are amazing, especially the Cochinita Pibil. The salsa/pico de gallo that comes with home made tortilla chips is extraordinarily fresh. The Elotes are also very strong. Patio seating is available and the staff are super friendly.
Eli’s: This BBQ shack on the side of the road is open only Fridays and Saturdays, but oh what a shack it is. You can find it at 360 Skinner Road. It’s now run by Eli’s son, as Eli the original passed away a few years ago. ESPN’s Keith Law has been raving about it for years.
Bon Appetit: This restaurant is located in the Best Western Yacht Harbour beside the pier at Dunedin Marina. The menu is very old school and a little bit pricier. Voted “Tampa Bay’s Best Waterfront Restaurant” with great views of the Dunedin Channel. Also features live music, usually of the elevator-style reggae variety or Jimmy Buffett covers.
Sea Sea Riders: Average to above-average seafood, depending on the day. The wrap-around patio is great on a hot summer night with a breeze blowing in off the water. Renovated this year, Sea Sea Riders features a new menu centred on locally-caught seafood.
Olde Bay Cafe & Dunedin Fish Market: My favourite place to sit and have a drink while watching the sunset over the harbour. OBC has the freshest fish, a terrific beer selection and an eclectic crowd. It’s so dog-friendly here that dogs get served bowls of water and snacks before their owners are able to order. 14/10 dogs would come back again.
The Living Room: An upscale dining on the Main Street of Dunedin. While the environment is more fine-dining, the restaurant is still dog-friendly. For $7 they’ll bring your dog a bowl of grilled salmon with rice, or chicken and green beans.
Happy’s Bayou Bites: Down the street from Eli’s, you’ll find a small wooden shack that, according to the rumour mill, serves up the best hushpuppies known to man. “Happy’s hour” starts at 3pm; picnic table seating only.
The HONU: I have a special place in my heart for sea turtles, and so does the HONU (Hawaiian for turtle). Owned by the same people responsible for Dunedin’s popular Charlie Tulum’s taco truck, the HONU bills itself as a “Lei’d back cafe.” The menu features Hawaiian favourites such as Poke, Musubi, Mahi-Mahi, and even Macacadmia Nut ice cream. All meals can be made vegetarian or vegan-friendly. In addition, there’s a doggie dining menu.
Home Plate On The Trail: Located directly across the street from Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Home Plate fills up with both fans and baseball writers looking for breakfast on game days.
You will notice from the above list that many of the bars and patios are dog-friendly. This is not a coincidence. From FIDO Friendly magazine’s Dunedin aka Dogedin:
As pet-friendly destinations grow in popularity all across the United States, one located north of St. Petersburg / Clearwater on Florida’s gulf coast is emerging as top dog, year-round: The City of Dunedin, which has earned the nickname “Dogedin”— and for good reason!
With dog-friendly restaurants, canine-welcoming cafes, dog parks, beaches and public murals of the furry loved ones who call Dunedin home, the City is the perfect summer destination for pets and their families.
Hotels in the city are generally pet-friendly. There are designated dog beaches up and down the coast (my favourite is Fort DeSoto Dog Beach), and you will likely see dogs accompanying their owners on Dunedin’s many patios. In addition, one of Dunedin’s iconic landmarks is the “Dogedin Mural” painted by local artist Anna Fields. Anna painted the mural as a fundraiser for Dunedin Doggie Rescue, a local pet rescue organization. She also runs Murals for Mutts, a non-profit organization that raises money for animal welfare. The mural is located on the side of Skip’s Bar, and is a popular congregating area among local’s before heading down to Kelly’s for cheap Yeunglings. Donations can be made at the Murals for Mutts website.
So, apart from eating and drinking, what is there to do when the Blue Jays have an inevitable off day? Well, you can go to one of the many other Spring Training facilities in the area (more on that later). Or, you can check out the Blue Jays’ minor league complex, known as the Bobby Mattick Training Center at Englebert Complex. The Bobby Mattick Complex (for short) is 6km away from the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium and in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. The official address is 1700 Solon Avenue and ample parking is available at the northwest corner of the complex, right beside the – you guessed it – Happy Tails dog park!
The Bobby Mattick Complex is a pretty cool place to go for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s free. Secondly, there’s usually only 15-20 fans there and the atmosphere is incredibly personal and laid back. If you are a minor league/prospect nerd, this is the place for you. Not only will you find minor leaguers, you’ll also find rehabbing veterans, guest instructors and visiting baseball dignitaries. The times that I’ve gone I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen up-and-coming prospects Kyle Drabek and Brett Wallace, as well as a rehabbing Dustin McGowan. Another time I hung out with former Mariners closer Danny Farquhar and Balbino Fuenmayor.
When in Dunedin, fans often like to pay their respects to the late hall-of-fame broadcaster Tom Cheek. Tom is buried at the Sylvan Abbey Cemetery in Clearwater, which is a 15 minute drive east of Dunedin.
Across from the Dunedin Channel lies Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island. Both are National Parks and Caladesi Island was once voted the United States’ #1 beach. You’ll need to board a ferry to get there. The islands have white sand beaches and are very remote; on these islands you can pretend that you’ve washed up on an empty beach and actually believe it. If you’re lucky, you might pick up some sand dollars while walking along the beach.
Another fun thing to do is to rent a boat and go on a dolphin cruise or sunset cruise or booze cruise; the varieties are almost endless. Last year I just walked around the Dunedin Marina and found a bout that was offering dolphin tours. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was well worth it. Dolphins were seen as well as the elusive green flash at sunset.
Apart from the dolphin sightings, an unlimited amount of Rum Punch was available to all those on board. This made for a super-fun time. If dolphin/sunset/booze cruises aren’t your thing, there are numerous fishing charters available at the marina for half day or full day fishing trips. If you manage to catch “the big one,” many of the local restaurants will cook your catch for you.
Okay, so you weren’t able to stay in Dunedin and ended up in Clearwater. It’s not the end of the world. Located 20 minutes south-west of Dunedin, Clearwater is three times the size of Dunedin and home of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Spring Training camp at Bright House Field. Since you’ll be driving to Dunedin, here’s a piece of advice: park downtown and walk the five minutes to the ballpark. Parking used to be free in downtown municipal lots, but reader Bunny Dutton has let us know that parking is no longer free. Some lots have different times of no cost parking; I assume those times don’t include game days. Along the streets that lead to the ballpark, home-owners and local businesses rent out their front lawns from anywhere between $5-$20 to unsuspecting tourists. Of all the parking hustlers, Bauser’s is your best bet, and as mentioned above, you get a free beer after the game.
Anyway, back to Clearwater. Clearwater is a refuge for well-to-do snowbirds, a tourist trap for those not yet of retirement age, and a weekend destination for Cletus the slack-jawed yokel and his family.
As far as bars go, those from the Toronto area might notice similarities to Wasaga Beach to the north. “The Strip” is lined with plenty of bars, but they’re all pretty much the same. If you want to get “Turnt Up” as the kids say these days, make sure to go to Shephard’s Backyard Tiki Bar. As far as restaurants on the strip go, the “Frenchy’s” chain is probably the most popular. Columbia restaurant is a solid Spanish tapas option.
Slightly off the beaten path is a Buck Martinez’s favourite restaurant, the Island Way Grill. When Jonathan Papelbon was a Phillie, he used to come here. One time at the Island Way, Buck Martinez ordered the last piece of hogfish. Jon Papelbon arrived slightly later, and upon hearing the news that Buck Martinez snapped up the last hogfish, proceeded to throw a temper tantrum. If hogfish is on the menu at this restaurant (or at any other restaurant you go to), get it. The Island Way Grill is a pricier restaurant, but definitely worth it. Go on, treat yourself. You deserve it.
Like Dunedin, many fishing charters are available for hire and they are all conveniently located at 25 Causeway Blvd. And, like Dunedin, many of the restaurants in Clearwater will cook what you catch, most notably Cooters.
Last but not least, I have to mention Lenny’s. What can be said about Lenny’s that hasn’t already been said before? Not much, so I’m not going to try to. Lenny’s is an iconic, family-owned diner located across from where the Phillies play. For my full Lenny’s review, click here.
Good Morning Zauntourage! I am off to Lenny's for an nutritious breakfast of Vitamin F. Afterwards I will play for the tie at the gym
— Gregg Zaun (@GreggZaun) March 23, 2011
Dunedin is ideally situated because it is within driving distance of at least eight other spring training parks. Not all of them are worth driving to, however, and some are too far away. These are the ones I feel are worth going to and are within reasonable driving distance. Ranked from best to worst:
- Bright House Field – home to the Philadelphia Phillies, this ballpark is gorgeous. It’s also closest of all the ballparks to Dunedin since it is located in Clearwater. How convenient! If you plan it right, you can go to a Jays game in Dunedin in the afternoon and follow it up with a Phillies game at night in Clearwater.
- McKechnie Field – home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, McKechnie Field is in Bradenton, Florida, about an hour drive south of Dunedin. I first visited last year and was quite impressed. As a bonus, the drive south is beautiful, especially over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Do try McKechnie Field’s Orange Swirl Ice Cream. You’ll be happy that you did.
- Joker Marchant Stadium – home to the Detroit Tigers. It’s about an hour and a half drive east to Lakeland, where the Tigers play. It’s a relatively new ballpark but the facility doesn’t really have much of a “spring training” atmosphere. It’s a little too commercial. When I stalked Noah Syndergaard, I did it at Joker Marchant Stadium.
- George M. Steinbrenner Field – home of the New York Yankees, of course. It’s a nice enough ballpark I guess, but it’s full of Yankee fans and looks a lot like a monument to the New York Yankees. So in reality, it’s actually quite terrible.
The Baltimore Orioles’ ballpark, Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota – is about an hour and 20 minutes south of Dunedin. It’s probably worth going to, but I haven’t made it yet. The rest: The Rays’ Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, the Twins’ Bill Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, the Red Sox JetBlue Park in Fort Myers (a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park), the Braves’ Champion Field in Orlando, and the Astros’ Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee are too far and not worth it.
Once you compare and contrast between the different Spring Training ballparks, you’ll notice that Dunedin’s ballpark is by far the oldest of all the ballparks in the Grapefruit League. With that said, in September of 2016, the Blue Jays announced an agreement with the City of Dunedin to invest $81 million to overhaul and modernize Florida Auto Exchange Stadium as well as the Bobby Mattick Complex. In exchange, the Blue Jays will stay in the city for the next 25 years. Soon Toronto will have the best spring training stadium in the best spring training city.
- St. Petersburg, a 45 minute drive south-east of Dunedin, has a few things worth checking out. An impressive museum dedicated to surrealist artist Salvador Dali can be found at the waterfront. The best flan in Florida (apparently) is at Ceviche in the Ponce de Leon hotel. Not only that, but they have Flamenco dancing. The Canopy Rooftop Lounge is a Miami-style bar that is great for cocktails.
- The best Key Lime Pie in the area can be found at Rusty Bellies in Tarpon Springs, about 20km north of Dunedin. Tarpon Springs is a weird place. It used to be a fishing village populated by Greek immigrants who fished for sponges. Today, there are a bunch of mediocre Greek restaurants and kitschy beach garbage for sale. It doesn’t look like much sponge scavenging is happening any more, but the stores are still full of it.
- If you’re like me and love animals, it’s hard not to have a particular affinity toward Florida’s gentle giant – the Manatee. You can swim with and passively observe them at River Ventures in Crystal River. Another option is Plantation on Crystal River, a hotel that offers Manatee tours. They also have a stellar Instagram feed. It’s an hour and 45 minutes north of Dunedin and will take up most of your day.
- Ybor City is a neighbourhood in Tampa that has been designated as a National Historic Landmark District. It’s a multi-ethnic community that was originally founded by cigar manufacturers in the late 1800s. It’s a good party zone.
- I said it before but it bears repeating: get the hogfish. It is tasty. And while Hogfish is undoubtedly the #1 tastiest fish in Florida, there are plenty of other great ones to try. My favourites include Red Snapper (of course), Sheepshead, Cobia, Snook, and Barracuda. You’re going to see Grouper everywhere, as well as ‘Grouper Cheeks.’ Don’t be alarmed; the cheeks have the most tender meat of the entire fish. Mahi Mahi is also everywhere, but tends to be dry and not so great.
- People are going to tell you to go to the original Hooters restaurant in Tampa. Don’t. It’s terrible and a waste of time.
- Jeff Blair provided me with a very valuable tip long ago. He said to listen to WMNF. “AM, FM, it doesn’t matter. The west coast of Florida is a radio wasteland, with the exception of local lefty, tree-hugging station WMNF. The rest of it is religious stuff, generic, non-offensive Eighties stuff, country twangin’ and hip-hop drivel. WMNF’s got a couple of sweet shows: Soul Party on Friday, which plays real soul music — the stuff that inspires real musicians, and Latin Salsa and Jazz on Saturday, with Luis (Speedy) Gonzalez. This week was a big tribute to Joe Cuba, a big Latin boogaloo guy who passed away. This was World Music before it got its own section at HMV.”
- Some of you are known autograph hounds. At the Bobby Mattick Complex, autographs are easy to come by. At Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, you’ll want to hang around the right field corner like a creeper after batting practice has finished – around 11:00am.
Perhaps this guide isn’t as comprehensive as I think it is. What did I miss? Do you have any questions? Comments? Feel free to ask away in the comments section below or hit me up on Twitter at @callumhughson.