In Sarasota, it's easy to eat well 365 days a year, but occasionally the urge strikes for a dining adventure, or at least an entrée you have to earn. And since two of the city's greatest pleasures are restaurants and the water, intrepid diners can take to a kayak and paddle to their culinary reward.
Surrounded by shimmering, protected waterways, Sarasota is ideal for kayaking, and some of the area's most appealing restaurants reside at the water's edge, dinosaurs from an age that once welcomed clapboard fishing shacks with rustic docks and dining rooms.
Today, they're a closely held secret of local residents who consider their old-Florida charm a welcome change of pace from Sarasota's more fashionable dining establishments.
Even if you've visited these restaurants by land, you'll gain a new appreciation for them if you arrive by kayak. Sarasota is impossibly beautiful when you view it from the water, and unlike larger boats or canoes, kayaks put you at eye level with most marine life. This can be disconcerting when the marine life is a hammerhead shark menacing your stringer of mangrove snapper. But how else will you ever get close enough to spy two manatees in the tumult of making love?
Besides, nothing whets an appetite for seafood like watching a pod of dolphins feed on a school of caravel jack; and the most romantic cocktail you'll ever sip is the one you order after sliding up to shore under a full moon while hundreds of mullet roil the waters around you like popcorn.
Kayakers treasure moments like that, and their appetite for adventure equals their appetite for classic Florida cuisine. They also know the biggest advantage of kayaking to Sarasota's waterfront restaurants is that once you've stuffed yourself, you can paddle off the pounds on your way back to the car. So pack up the life preservers and head to some of our favorites.
Manager Joseph Angelo likes to call the 16-year-old Spanish Pointe Pub and Restaurant in Osprey "Sarasota's best-kept secret." With its blue wooden exterior and Spanish tile roof, it's an appealing mix of old Florida and the Mediterranean. Outside, a newly refurbished deck offers dining under beach umbrellas, and two boat docks extend into Sarasota Bay, while inside, cheerful bartenders keep the conversation humming and the small televisions tuned to the best games.
A hearty menu of crab cake sandwiches, juicy hamburgers and tangy quesadillas ranges in price from $3.50 to $14.95. The restaurant seats 25-30 people inside; but Angelo says that because of the spectacular sunset views (this is one of those places where the sun seems to melt in a sea of thick, gray molasses), most people eat outside.
To get there, put in at the Vamo Road ramp, just south of Sarasota Square Mall. You can back your car right up to the water-the shallow sloping pitch makes it a dream to offload. Once in the water, head left, past channel marker 38. Spanish Point Pub will be on your left between channel markers 38 and 39. Paddling full out will get you there within 20 minutes, but take your time and enjoy some leisurely fishing along the way.
Keep to your left on this trip and as far out of the channel as possible. When the larger boats go tearing through, the wake will send you flying. Hold on and imagine you're on a ride at Disney and you'll be fine. Also be careful of the oyster beds at low tide. A sure-fire way to avoid them is to watch the sea birds. If you see gulls standing up in the water, go wide.
135 Bay View Drive
Osprey, FL 34229
Open Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Open Sunday noon to 10 p.m.
Entertainment Sunday from 3-6 p.m.
One of the area's oldest waterfront restaurants, the Casey Key Fish House is located just west of the Blackburn Point swing bridge in Osprey. Its austere exterior and fresh seafood evoke what owner Jim Von Huberts calls "old Florida at its best."
The patio dining room is actually built over water that you can see (and hear) through the floorboards, and boaters have long flocked here for the hot, garlic shrimp, sautéed snapper and real lump crab cakes. (Even "Beggar the Dolphin" greets boaters going in and out of the channel, hoping for an occasional leftover.)
Most items range from $4.95 to $11.95; the one exception is the seafood bouillabaisse. Chock full of lobster tail, shrimp and scallops, it takes two days to make and is the most expensive item on the menu at $23.95.
Outside the main dining room, the Jamaican-hued tiki bar enjoys a brisk breeze throughout even the most sweltering summer. There's always a friendly crowd, and you can order food from the restaurant and eat it at the bar.
You can easily launch from the Fish House's parking lot, then paddle over to Oscar Scherer State Park. The park is noted for its population of endangered scrub jays, bald eagles, bobcats, river otters and alligators. After sightseeing, paddle back to the restaurant for a hearty seafood lunch or dinner.
If you'd like to make a day of it, put in at Turtle Beach on Siesta Key. Just hug the right sight of Midnight Pass and follow it around past channel marker 32. The best way to enjoy this trip is with a cooler of cold drinks and a bait bucket. Split the paddling up every 15 minutes or so with fishing breaks and you'll be rewarded with time to enjoy the views of magnificent homes and wildlife, including exotic birds, dolphin and manatees. By the time you reach the Casey Key Fish House, you'll be ready for an ice-cold beer at that tiki bar.
801 Blackburn Point Road
Osprey, FL 34229
Open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Lunch served all day.
With its earthy tile floors, sturdy iron chairs and glass top tables, the Portside Patio at Marina Jack is a gleaming, modern addition to Sarasota's waterfront restaurants. Only three-and-a-half years old, it's a roaring success among boaters and the downtown business suits who flock to its bayside bar for Friday happy hours.
"It's been extremely successful," says Marina Jack vice president Sam Chavers. Adjacent to the more formal Marina Jack Restaurant, the Portside Patio requires only shirt and shoes. Bathing suits and tank tops are allowed, and the casual atmosphere results in a lively and eclectic crowd.
Along with a bustling circular full bar, the Patio features a raw bar menu, including oysters on the half shell, steamed shrimp and smoked salmon. Prices range from $2.95 to $15.95. The signature dish is grilled grouper sandwich. Chavers says it "outsells everything else four-to-one" and estimates the Patio sells between 500 and 600 of these every month.
Because of its proximity to downtown, Sarasota Bay and Selby Gardens, this trip offers one of Sarasota's best kayaking adventures. Start with a grouper sandwich at the Portside Patio. When you're done, put in at O'Leary's Water Sports and Grill on the south end of the park (the Patio has no beach). From there you can paddle around Selby Gardens and enjoy watching the sailboats bob at their moorings in the bay and the sun drift below an azure horizon. On your way back in, bask in the beauty of Sarasota's downtown skyline, then take a stroll along the park to stretch your legs. You may even be lured back toward the Portside Patio for a martini before heading home.
#2 Marina Plaza
Sarasota, FL 34236
Open 11:30 a.m. until midnight.
Originally built in 1947, the Rod and Reel on Anna Maria Island is a funky little slice of old Florida that seems to have jumped straight out of a John D. MacDonald novel. Its weather-beaten fishing pier has withstood countless storms, including Gabrielle last September, although that tropical storm closed it for three months (and caused nearly $80,000 worth of damage).
Part of the restaurant's allure lies in its spectacular views of Egmont Key and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge; its hallmark is the wraparound pier that surrounds the tiny restaurant upstairs. Here, grouper is king, appearing in such dishes as breakfast grouper omelets, lunch grouper sandwiches and Mexican grouper dinners. Appetizers range from 95 cents (for French fries or coleslaw) to $4.95, lunch and dinner from $2.95 to $7.
The downstairs bar is barely wide enough for two people to pass through at the same time, but linger long enough to look at the sepia-toned photographs and newspaper articles detailing the pier's many fishing conquests. You can also order food here if all the tables are taken upstairs.
Parking is limited at the Rod and Reel, so drive about a quarter mile down to the City Municipal Pier-which has plenty of parking and places to launch-and spend some time there first. Like the Rod and Reel, it has a wraparound pier where fishermen try their luck while sipping dollar draft beers. From there, paddle down to Rod and Reel, where you can easily beach your kayak and walk up the pier.
Because of the open water, high winds and occasional chop, beginning kayakers should stay close to shore for this trip. More adventurous kayakers can head across the channel to Egmont Key and explore its famous lighthouse; but when crossing over, keep a keen eye out for larger boats.
875 North Shore Drive
Anna Maria, FL 34216
Open 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Breakfast served until 11 a.m.
Beer and wine.
The Cabbage Key Inn sits atop a 328-foot Indian shell mound on Pine Island Sound. Accessible only by boat, helicopter or seaplane, the island has no paved roads and no cars to jar its Polynesian ambience. It also doesn't allow pets, and its serene and sloping shores, ringed by lazy coconut palms, are said to have so inspired musician Jimmy Buffett that he penned his famous "Cheeseburger in Paradise" here.
The restaurant offers a selection of seafood, but its reputation is built on those hamburgers, so go ahead and try one. After lunch, wander into the famous "Dollar Bill Bar," a dark and cozy place where money is tacked to the ceiling, walls, even the bar itself. Although dinner service ends most nights by 8:30, the bar, unimpeded by noise ordinances or nearby neighbors, doesn't have a closing time. It simply stays open until everyone leaves. Rooms are available if you decide you may just as well spend the night.
The inn's restaurant is a little off the beaten path, but well worth the journey. Approximately 20 miles northwest of Fort Myers and five miles south of Boca Grande, it's directly across from marker 60 on the Intracoastal Waterway. You can reach it by launching from Pineland Marina on Pine Island. (Call 941-283-3593 or visit the Inn's Web site for directions to the marina.) There is a $4 launch fee and an $8/day parking fee.
The paddle to the restaurant usually takes about an hour. Most parts of the water are very shallow, and the channels are wide enough to keep you far away from boats with strong wakes. You'll easily spot the Inn; it's the main building on the island.
On Cabbage Key
P.O. Box 200
Pineland, FL 33945
Breakfast Monday-Saturday 7:30 a.m.-9 a.m., Sunday 7:30 a.m.-10 a.m.
Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Dinner Monday-Saturday 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Sunday 6 p.m.-7 p.m.
Reservations required for dinner.
Part restaurant, part RV resort, Linger Lodge has been a 30-year work-in-progress for owner and amateur taxidermist Frank Gamsky. Located on the Braden River in Manatee County, it's filled with all manner of stuffed animals. A 15-foot alligator clings precariously to the main dining room wall; a six-foot black bear greets customers at the front door; rattlesnakes dangle from the ceiling; and hundreds of critters stare at you from glass cases around the perimeter.
Gamsky says most of his specimens come from "roadkill." If he spots an injured animal, he'll take it to a veterinarian for treatment. If it can't be saved, Gamsky adds it to his collection. As this Wisconsin native jokes, "You bring us your pet, we'll get it back to you-one way or another."
The deer heads on the wall were donated by hunters (Gamsky himself hasn't hunted for more than 30 years), as were most of the exotic fish he keeps in a larger-than-life "aquarium." A cage out front holds an average of 15 birds, including several peacocks, in various stages of rehabilitation.
But it's not just the unique décor that draws crowds to Linger Lodge. "We sell more alligator than anybody in Manatee County," says Gamsky. His secret: marinating the meat in buttermilk for 12 hours before deep-frying in a light cornmeal batter. There's also a full menu of sandwiches, catfish and frog legs, along with a full bar. Meals run from $3.95 to $6.95; the most expensive thing on the menu is the $13.95 alligator dinner.
Gamsky doesn't charge launch fees for kayaks (he says kayak owners only take up one parking space, while boat trailers need two). Or you can put in at Jiggs Landing, located on Braden Road just off Highway 70, and paddle three miles to the restaurant. Gamsky says the Lodge gets lots of kayak traffic because of the deer, armadillos, raccoons, possum and pileated woodpeckers that frequent its riverbanks. "Bring a camera," he says. "You'll be amazed at what you see running up and down this river."
7205 Linger Lodge Road
Bradenton, FL 34202
Open 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Live music weekends.
KAYAKING MADE EASY
If you don't own your own kayak-or if you're not sure you can navigate a cruise safely by yourself yet-try a kayak outfitter for a lunch, dinner or sunset dessert cruise. They provide all the equipment and a professional guide and offer a variety of half, full-day, sunset and moonlight trips to most of these restaurants.
o Economy Tackle
6018 S. Tamiami Trail
Sarasota, FL 34231
o Kayak Treks
3667 Bahia Vista St.
Sarasota, FL 34232
o Walk on the Wild Side
3434 N. Tamiami Trail, Suite 817
Sarasota, FL 34234