Growing up in Florida I was exposed to a variety of different seafood traditions and unique eats. When my family and I would head out to a restaurant, we would always make a point to try their smoked fish spread or dip if available on the menu. Of course there were very few places that had that spectacular, argue over the last bite fish spread; but the ones that did were simply famous for it.
Over the course of many years and after quite a bit of traveling, I started to notice the menu item switch from “Smoked fish spread” to ‘Smoked fish dip”. I wondered if this was simply a more appealing way to market the product or if in fact, the authentic Florida creation had simply morphed into a new being. I considered myself to be a fish spreadoisseur from a young age, so without question, I embarked on a tasting journey in search of answers.
My first stop was Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill on Clearwater Beach. This place was a family favorite. They have been making it for as many years as I can remember, and doing it well. The menu item is listed as a “smoked fish spread”, and they state that it in fact puts them on the map. This remains one of my personal favorite fish spreads. It’s delivered to the table with crackers and lemon. It has a thicker texture, but creamy enough to easily scoop with your cracker. They use a variety of different fish depending on season, but you can tell it has a substantial amount. Frenchy’s clearly knows how to deliver!
My second stop is Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish. These fellas have been in business for over 65 years for a reason. The coolest part of purchasing smoked fish spread from Ted Peters is the experience itself. They smoke their fish with Red Oak that is native to Florida. The smokers look like burnt dresser drawers along an entire wall and the building is old and rustic. Like Frenchy’s, they also list the menu item as a “smoked fish spread”. It is extremely delicious and many would argue that it is best on the west coast of Florida.
Time to take my travels to the east coast of Florida and continue my quest for answers. I’m not originally from this coast, so I had to do some asking around. Coconuts in Fort Lauderdale seemed to be a highly recommended spot for smoked fish dip. Yes, you read that correctly. I said DIP. Could this fish spread vs fish dip rivalry actually be a coastal thing? When our fish dip arrived to the table it didn’t have any visual distinct differences than the smoked fish spreads we had in the Tampa Bay area. The dip was accompanied by some pickled relish and jalapenos, a very beautiful companion for the dip. It was indeed as delicious as the recommendations. I was extremely impressed with their smoked fish dip and at this point, I still could not determine any drastic differences between spread or dip.
The Florida Keys is a mecca for fishing and seafood. It offers the best of both worlds having the Gulf of Mexico on to the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. I thought this would be a perfect final location to provide my final summary. According to the folks on Trip Advisor, the Shrimp Shack in Islamorada was a hot spot for smoked fish dip. The famous Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives show featured the Shrimp Shack so I was sure to be in good company. The appetizer menu read “smoked fish dip’. It was plated with buttery crackers and had a simple presentation. The only true contrast between the spreads and dips was simply color. They all shared a similar consistency, and used mayonnaise or cream cheese as their base. This fish dip was spectacular like the previous three locations we tried. The server told us they use different fish, but our batch tasted mild as if they used a light Hogfish or something similar. Whatever fish they used, I was not complaining!
Final analysis. All four locations had phenomenal fish spreads or dips. The base and consistency of the product delivered to our tables varied slightly depending on fish to base ratios, but overall nothing profound enough to constitute having opposing names. Each restaurant put their own twist on their personal recipe and the servers were extremely secretive deflecting questions about it. In addition to the four stops I made, I researched a variety of appetizer menus across the state of Florida to see how the item was listed. My final determination on the rivalry seemed to point toward a coastal war of word play. The majority of menu items on the east coast were titled dips, and the west coast were spreads. This wasn’t the case with 100%, but the vast majority leaned in that direction. I also noted some generational conflict with some of the older restaurants calling it a spread and some of the newer calling it a dip. So depending on how old you are, or which coast you’re from, you might call it a smoked fish spread or a smoked fish dip, but either way they are an authentic Florida delight we all love!