By Kelly Fores
When you think of“Old Florida,” many things may come to mind—Perhaps miles-long stretches of two-lane highways lined by saw palmettos and nothing else, kitschy roadside attractions with colorful hand-painted signs advertising live alligators, touristy pastel-painted seashell shops, or quaint beachfront bungalows with metal roofs.
Those were symbols of a less hectic time in Florida history when residents and visitors took pleasure in the simpler things life offered.
When you think of Old Florida restaurants, the mental picture usually includes a building that’s been added onto at least once, worn wood floors, décor that wasn’t carefully selected by an interior designer, mix-and-match tables and chairs, a view of some body of water, and plates heaped with freshly made homestyle food. A fun, casual place to linger over a meal with friends and family, enjoy a sunset, catch an evening breeze, and maybe see a dolphin or a manatee. We are fortunate to have several such restaurants nearby, and I recently visited three of them.
More than Scenery to Savor
Sitting on the Intracoastal Waterway, Jimmy Von Hubertz’s Casey Key Fish House is a welcoming establishment with a tiki bar at one end of the sandy parking lot and a bright turquoise wood-sided restaurant at the other end. The Fish House has several distinct seating areas, all of which allow you take in the sights, smells and sounds of the waterway. Here, the décor really is the surrounding scenery accented by nautical gear such as a diver’s helmet and ship’s wheel.
The place was packed at 7:15 on a Wednesday night, with couples seated beneath the black night sky, faces gently illuminated by rope lights. In the large, paneled dining room, families laughed as they tried to keep their kids focused on the food and not the passing boats. I chose a table just through the dining room, and from my seat I could look down into the water as well as into the kitchen, where I could see flames rising up from the stove and hear the hustle and bustle of the staff busily cooking to order. I ordered the pan-seared almond snapper ($18.99), one of their most popular dishes. The filet was encrusted with tons of crunchy almonds and topped with a light lemon-butter sauce. Something to savor, it was served with rice, carrots, the veggie of the day (which happened to be cabbage), and garlic bread.
Repose on the River
Directly on the Myakka River, the Myakka River Oyster Bar started as a fish camp in the 1950s and is now owned by Mike and Joanne Stegenga. A Tuesday night found the parking lot quite full and once inside, through the bar area and one dining room and past another, I was delivered to a green-vinyl-topped picnic table along the stretch of windows facing the river. I chuckled when I noticed the paper towel holder was bolted to the table and then I saw the “redneck wind chimes” and it all made sense. For those who don’t know, redneck wind chimes consist of a board on which “redneck wind chimes” is written, and from it hangs empty beer and bean cans. I didn’t notice any rednecks though, only content-looking couples of all ages admiring the scenic location and groups of people enthusiastically enjoying the food.
Next to my table was a lively party of four, and they seemed very familiar with their server. I asked them if they ate here often. They’ve been coming to the area from Connecticut for five years and always visit the oyster bar for the grouper, the friendly staff (Jennifer is wonderful) and the pretty view. So taken with the restaurant, their previous visit had been just three days prior. I took Jennifer’s advice and ordered the baked horseradish crusted grouper ($12.99) from their Riverboat Captain’s specials. A delicious dinner value, the horseradish crust was crisp and golden brown, the hushpuppies sweet and soft, and the coleslaw tangy. It was so good that midway through my entrée I ordered their smoked fish dip appetizer ($4.99), having a hunch it would be exactly like the smoked fish dip I enjoyed back home. It was! I asked where the owners were from originally, and when I was told Minnesota I wasn’t at all surprised.
Fun and Food for All
Pop’s Sunset Grill is a little off the beaten path, but if you follow the signs as you approach Circuit Road you will discover a slice of Old Florida paradise. I arrived around 8:00 on a weeknight to yet another relatively full parking lot—a good sign!—and literally said “wow” as I walked into a large, funky, cool, tropical open area. On this particular night, this section was deserted in favor of a water view. Passing by the bar, I noticed multi-level decks and many different dining areas—the place feels as if it sprawls. I settled into my seat next to the water, ordered a draft beer, and took in the evening calm as a boat quietly slid by. Several young men were at the bar chatting with the bartender. Two mature couples had just finished their dinner and walked past me to leave; I heard them comment to each other about coming back to try a steamer pot, which they call steamships at Pop’s. There was also a girls’ night out going on, lots of laughter and flip flops. I asked my server what the signature items were, and when she pointed to the burger section my eyes landed on the Knock Burger ($9.95). Be still my Wisconsin heart, they offer a half-pound burger topped with two (two!) slices of American cheese, grilled knockwurst, lettuce and tomato. Yes please, medium-rare with a side of slaw. This was one of the most incredible burgers I’ve eaten, a concoction that made my taste buds dance with joy. Just after the server had whisked away the remains of my meal, an egret showed up on the dock below me looking for a handout. When I offered nothing, it turned its attention to the variety of fish swimming through the light pools in the water.
With reminders of yesteryear quickly vanishing in favor of modern, upscale and high tech, we invite you step back in time and enjoy these laid back, traditional Old Florida dining experiences.
Casey Key Fish House
801 Blackburn Point Road, Osprey
Myakka River Oyster Bar
121 Playmore Drive, Venice
Pop’s Sunset Grill
112 Circuit Road, Nokomis