Whenever I come down from New York City to visit my parents in Sarasota, I go hunting for patches of Old Florida. A few years ago, I heard I could find one of those patches at Owen’s Fish Camp in Burns Court. It took me a little time to find it—Burns Court doesn’t beckon tourists—but the moment I stepped onto Owen’s front porch and saw a rusty old sign reading “We’ve got crabs,” I was transported to the Florida of powder-blue Buick convertibles. Here, just a stone-crab’s throw away from Louies Modern, was a fish place that looked like it had been in business since at least 1950.
I was in Old Florida heaven. Then I found out that Owen’s Fish Camp opened in 2009. So Owen’s is the Disney World version of Old Florida, but you know what? After eating there for the last three years, the place feels like the real thing to me. Co-owner Mark Caragiulo has gone to great lengths to make it so. His attention to detail is worthy of a Broadway set designer, and if Owen’s Fish Camp were up for the Tony Award for Best Set, I’d vote for it.
“I grew up on Long Island where we’d have these clam shacks that would open by the beach from May to September,” Caragiulo says. “I love the energy of a screen door clanking, of people drinking beer and eating oysters. My inspirations were those clam shacks, the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack and lobster rolls.”
Most of the bric-a-brac scattered throughout the restaurant is authentic—old lobster traps, an Iroquois canoe, a Johnson Motors sign that looks like a shark took a bite out of it. The main dining room is in a genuine Sears & Roebuck catalogue house from the 1920s.
And the food’s terrific, too. If the stone crabs are in season, I crack them until my fingers bleed. I also love the blackened “market fish” (grouper, naturally, but when is “market fish” in Sarasota not grouper?) and the shrimp and grits with smoked sausage.
I was at Owen’s recently and the place was buzzing. You can wait up to an hour for a table, but what’s the rush? Get a beer and enjoy it on the old porch swing out back.
Michael Riedel is the theater columnist for the New York Post, host of Theater Talk on PBS, and author of the recent book Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway.