LOOK AT THOSE NIGHTTIME PHOTOS of the planet, and you’ll see megalopolises like sparkler bursts illuminating the coasts of nearly every continent. Clearly, we like to live near the water. Yes, it’s about trade, jobs and transportation, maybe even about making sure your enemies can’t sneak up on you, but there’s something else: We like to look at the water while we eat. I’ve been a food critic since 1991, formerly for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Baltimore Sun, and the Tampa Bay Times; and the No. 1 question I get is about waterside dining. Folks want to watch waves lap, gulls wheel and mullet do those nutty leaps they do, all while hefting fork to lips.
Florida has 663 miles of beaches, 1,197 miles of coastline—about a skajillion more if you count lakes, rivers and other damp bits. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a superabundance of memorable waterside spots. But Sarasota-Manatee has a number of places where the food and the atmosphere live up to the water views. Here are the ones that can get me in the car headed south.
I fell under Ed Chiles’ sway some years back, captivated by his enthusiasm for making Anna Maria Island a center of ecotourism, his enthusiasm for bringing back the fishing industry of Cortez, his enthusiasm for championing “trash fish” (underappreciated and invasive seafood species), and, I guess, just his enthusiasm. The son of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, he has a mini restaurant empire—Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub on the north end of Longboat Key, the Beach House Restaurant on the south end of Anna Maria, which recently completed a massive renovation, and the beachfront Sandbar Restaurant on the north end of Anna Maria.
For me, Sandbar is the one. Brides all over Florida are nodding right now, remembering the way the sunset’s blush set off their bouquet just so. But my affection has nothing to do with white tulle or monogrammed cocktail napkins. I have rituals on Anna Maria. There’s the eating of the Donut Experiment cake doughnuts (chocolate icing, peanuts, peanut butter drizzle), there are the carnitas quesadillas at Poppo’s Taqueria, and then comes feet-in-the-sand dinner at Sandbar.
The tourists go for the classics—stuffed grouper, fried shrimp platters and such. That’s not what I do. First, there’s a glass of Lola Monterey dry riesling ($9), a project Chiles began with winemaker Seth Cripe (who also happens to be at the helm of Cortez Bottarga, a fancy cured mullet product). Crisp, with lime-inflected tropical fruit, it’s a perfect segue to the kinds of things executive chef Rich Demarse and Chiles get jazzed about.
Sometimes there are Sunray Venus clams seeded in nearby waters, sweet and conch-like, their glossy shells radiating with pretty crisscrossed stripes of brown, pink-gray, lavender and gold, paired with dusky “free-range” pork (read: feral) from nearby Punta Gorda ($24). There have been crisp little pan-fried blue crab bellies, grilled mullet fillets ($19) and swordfish collars (market price), a meaty Neanderthal meal that drapes across the plate and begs for meticulous fork excavation, a fish part often discarded. And it’s delicious. This is real Florida food, Old Florida food, and no one chides you if you slip your shoes off to slide a toe through the sun-warmed sand. 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria; (941) 778-0444
The indoor wooden tables and benches are too high, so your legs dangle, but someone nice may slide over a box of Yuengling bottles for you to rest your feet on. Much better. The slightly rumpled paper menus are up there, next to the roll of paper towels you’re going to need.
Right at Marker 48, Tide Tables’ tiki bar and outdoor picnic tables are an ideal vantage point if you want to dive into the finer points of fish cutting. Gulf grouper comes in on charter boats right there, is efficiently whittled dockside with a blade, and then makes it to a basket on your table, fried, grilled or blackened (grilled allows you to best taste that perfect snowy meat). Karen Bell and Bobby and Gwen Woodson have fashioned a place that’s the perfect mix of rowdy/casual and we’re-serious-as-a-heart-attack-about-ingredients.
A trio of soft flour mahi tacos ($13.95) seems to be the crowd favorite, especially appealing with the sweet sesame-ginger Asian sauce, but for my money I’d go grouper straight through, starting with the smoked grouper spread ($9.95), much chunkier than most, with bits of veggies and just enough mayo to bind it all, plastic sleeves of crackers disappearing under its weight as if by magic. Then the grouper basket with its lively tartar sauce, offered in a sensible portion ($17.95) and then a silly-big ($22.95, but you’re still going to eat it) size, the best sides a still crunchy cabbage slaw and excellent sweet-savory baked beans (nothing special about the fries, but someone at the table should get the carrot salad so you can share).
The decorating motif is a flotsam and jetsam of nautical doodads and fishing gear. And while you’re drinking Stella out of a plastic cup ($4), the quality of the fish means it’s not cheap. Well-behaved dogs are welcome, although the menu plainly states that unattended children will be sold as bait. Plan accordingly and leave room for the textbook Key lime pie ($4.50).
It opened in 1989, Eric and Cindy Hammersand figuring it out as they went along, expanding along the way and renovating periodically. A few years back they sold it to Sarasota-based Gecko’s Hospitality Group, the menu and staff staying mostly intact. The first time here you’ll think you’re in the wrong spot. Yes, the Boathouse marina is right there but you can’t see the water. And where’s the front door? Do I go up those steps?
There are a few wet slips out back for diners who arrive by boat (Zwick’s channel, Marker 6), a wide waterside brick patio with big blue umbrellas and a lounge area off to one side, a lively indoor bar and then a second-story dining room from which all you see is a panorama of sky and ocean. Décor pairs fishing nets and buoys with gleaming wooden canoes suspended from the ceiling—unnecessary to orient you when surrounded by all that lapping water and a desultory parade of boats. You swiftly realize that seafood is the name of the game here.
Before you set your sights on the grouper sandwich, the debate is between the cream-based seafood chowder or the less sybaritic “fishcamp chowder,” a more Manhattan-style tomato base, each studded liberally with clams and fish (both $6.95 at dinner). The creamy version represents a pure more-is-more ethos. Grouper sandwiches beat out the grouper soft tacos because of their kicky remoulade, although at dinnertime an array of seafood linguines—wine and garlic and butter in a time-honored dance—seems to reignite people’s passion for carbs.
Having a couple of irrationally exuberant canines myself, I’ve never thought to bring one. But for those who do, Dry Dock has an odd “must have a dog carrier” policy on the patio (is this discriminatory against big guys?), and the “everyone must be present before your party is seated” rule can be cumbersome in high season.
I had friends over for dinner and had cooked most of the day—bouillabaisse with rouille toasts. I was feeling pretty cocky until I heard this: “I love bouillabaisse. The best one I ever had was at Casey Key Fish House in Osprey,” said while spooning in my effort. Hmm, sounds like a road trip.
First you have to cool your jets and wait for the historic Blackburn Point swing bridge on North Casey Key to swivel in your favor as you take in the mangrove-edged Intracoastal. It’s the kind of Old Florida waterfront restaurant—shaggy tiki bar, 200 feet of deep-water dockage (Marker 32) and a whole lot of wading birds looking for handouts—where one expects fruity drinks in plastic cups and seafood that relies heavily on the fryolator. It’s got that. But it also offers a fairly ambitious array of seafood dishes, many ladled over nicely al dente pastas. And while I wouldn’t call the seafood pasta ($23.99) bouillabaisse per se, its crowd of shrimp, scallop, grouper and mussels was appealingly fresh, its tomato sauce lively (ask them to kick up the heat with some chili flake).
The dining room is over the bay, every seat boasting a water view. Still, the tiki bar, with its own little sandy beach and live music during the day, seems more convivial. (They don’t serve food, but they’ll call your order in and you go grab it when it’s ready.) Baskets ($7.99-$12.99) are mostly fried and come with fries and slaw; turn your attentions instead to the fresh grilled mahi-mahi festooned with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and mushrooms ($20.99) or the almond-crusted snapper capped with a bit of lemon butter ($23.99).
Can you rent jet skis, paddleboards or kayaks on site or head out from here on a fishing charter or with a boat rental? Yes, you can. Is it touristy? Yes, it is. Sometimes you can’t have one without the other.
For when you need a little romance, there’s always been only one place on Siesta Key that will do. Ophelia’s, at the southern tip, has a waterfront terrace that I swear the moon favors with an extra luminous show over Little Sarasota Bay and the mainland. The interior of the restaurant is elegant, but you just have to sit outside. Here was the problem: I hadn’t visited in a while (clearly my romance quotient had taken a dip). How was it holding up under new owner Don Olson, who had previously been executive chef?
Siesta Key looked a little rough, piles of tree debris from Irma like impromptu beaver dams at the end of every driveway. But then we pulled into valet parking and it was the same laid-back glamour I remembered. Named one of the country’s most scenic restaurants by Open Table, Ophelia’s gets especially effusive reviews on Sunday brunch, largely because a classic Benedict is only improved upon by dolphin and manatee sightings.
Manatees are in short supply during dinner, but I think I might like the evening hours best, in part because there’s an exceptional line-up of cocktails (I’m a bad day drinker and there are $7 martinis and classic cocktails from 5 to 6 p.m.) and also because dinner entrées lean toward what we used to call Continental—plenty of Béarnaise sauces and potatoes Dauphinoise—but with just enough Floribbean influence and tropical fruit to root it firmly in the Sunshine State. A bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels studded with merguez, its buttery broth lively with saffron, fennel and Pernod ($15), segues to stunningly tender sous-vide lamb chops with a mantle of crushed walnut and chevre, an herbed demi-glace getting a fillip of port syrup to sweeten the deal ($40).
You will see balloons and hear halting renditions of the birthday song. And occasionally you will witness little velvet boxes taken shakily out of breast pockets as someone wonders if the whole one-knee thing is precisely necessary. At more than 30 years old, Ophelia’s is still that kind of place.
Lobster nachos. I’m not proud. Really, it’s Maine lobster chunks, gooey shreds of smoked Gouda, crispy bits of prosciutto and a flurry of arugula over crinkled Yukon Gold potato chips ($21). All good things, and the kind of appetizer ideal for fingers-only marauding while watching the sun set over Caspersen Beach and Venice Pier. Sharky’s is downstairs; Fins is the more upscale sibling restaurant. Its menu is vast, with a deep wine list, laudable array of regional craft beers and well-conceived cocktails like the grapefruit old fashioned (the secret is a housemade cardamom orange tincture; $12). In other words, a drinking place, but perfectly appropriate for date night and that little black dress.
Wind and sunscreens make outdoor seating appealing much of the year. The conundrum comes because sushi options are the biggest draw, but there’s also come-hither complimentary housemade focaccia with a quartet of spreads—two things that don’t really go together, but it’s not a party foul if you dispatch the bread before you get your chopsticks clacking.
The sushi aesthetic is a bit of “nothing succeeds like excess,” with lots of eel sauce, spicy aiolis and coconut crunchies, but rolls are tidily crafted and nicely arrayed ($12-$17). Given the number of appealing wines by the glass (a wonderful Highfield Estate Marlborough sauvignon blanc, for example, $14/glass), I’m more inclined to select from the East and West Coast raw oyster offerings (a dozen for $34), each with helpful flavor descriptors. And then, depending on how celebratory I’m feeling, I’d take a crack at Alaskan king crab with drawn butter (half pound $36) or one of the Gulf fish dishes that emanate from the Josper oven, kind of a grill-meets-stove tool.