The renovated Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub looks like a million bucks. Or maybe more like $2 million: That’s the reported price tag for the Longboat Key restaurant’s major overhaul between late 2016 and early 2019. The changeover included the addition of a state-of-the-art kitchen, an outdoor fireplace and a revamped dining room and bar. What hasn’t changed? The magic.
Eating out back underneath the property’s buttonwood trees, which provide shade and hold up strings of lights and bulging staghorn ferns, is a postcard-perfect example of what makes eating outside in Southwest Florida so wonderful. The back yard stretches to a small beach that dips into Sarasota Bay. On a typical evening, kids in swim trunks and water wings dig into the sandy shore while their parents sip Coronas at nearby tables. Diners paddle up by kayak or tie up their boats at one of the restaurant’s 14 slips, passing over nervy pipefish scuttling amid the seagrass.
As you’d imagine, the food is tailored to match the ambiance, with an emphasis on Gulf seafood. You can start your meal with crispy fried fish collars drizzled with a zingy lime and chili sauce ($16) and keep it rolling with a rich cioppino stuffed with fish, shrimp and clams ($28), or go all in on a Florida steam pot doused with either Old Bay or Cajun seasonings ($35) with someone you love.
The restaurant is part of The Chiles Restaurant Group, which also includes Sandbar Seafood & Spirits and Beach House Waterfront Restaurant on Anna Maria Island. The company was founded by Ed Chiles, the son of former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. Ed has made it his mission to highlight the bounty of the Gulf and the region’s oft-ignored heritage foods (he’s a mullet fanatic), and has been a major voice for sustainable food practices and policies. The Chiles company also owns Gamble Creek Farm in Parrish, which provides much of the produce at the company’s restaurants and is managed by Chris and Eva Worden, the organic ag geniuses behind Worden Farm, which appears at the Sarasota Farmers Market in the fall, winter and spring.
Every dinner at Mar Vista should begin with the smoked Florida fish board ($16), which, on one recent evening, included a generous bowl of creamy smoked tilefish and grouper, spiked with a giant blade of fried grouper skin. The crispy skin looked and tasted like a fishy pork rind. Incredible. The platter included crackers for dipping in the spread, plus capers, diced red onions and a nub of bottarga, the salt-cured mullet roe.
The entrées are strongest when they let the main ingredient (usually seafood) shine. Baked crab-crusted scallops ($28) are flavored with just garlic and butter, allowing the rich, meaty flavor of the scallops to wallop your taste buds. Mashed potatoes enriched with tangy goat cheese and a rotating vegetable item on the side are similarly direct and delicious.
The shrimp in the shrimp and grits ($25), meanwhile, are served with their heads still attached, a sign of just how fresh they are. (Be sure to squeeze out the juice from the heads before discarding!) The grits come from Bradley’s Country Store, a legendary outpost just outside of Tallahassee where the corn is still ground in the same way it has been since the 1920s. The grits are coarse and irregular, but still creamy and delicious. While very tasty, both entrées could have used more seasoning. The menu bills the shrimp and grits as “zesty”; the kitchen seemed to have overlooked the zest.
Before Chiles purchased the property in the 1980s, Mar Vista functioned as a home, as a five-unit rental property, as a bar and bait shop, and as a crash pad for out-of-town fishermen. In 2016, in the midst of its $2 million overhaul, Chiles said, “The plans for Mar Vista are designed to preserve the past and enrich the future.” Mission accomplished.
MAR VISTA DOCKSIDE RESTAURANT & PUB | 760 Broadway St., Longboat Key, (941) 383-2391, marvistadining.com