new york times

A Florida Island, End to End, Table by Table

By CINDY PRICE Published: July 26, 2009

New York Times Choice Tables

 

anna maria island florida
Chip Litherland for The New York Times
Matt and Lauren Danahy on the pier to the Rod & Reel restaurant on Anna Maria Island.

 

FLORIDA is a clever little peninsula. Just when you think you’ve seen everything under its proverbial sun, you stumble across a place like Anna Maria Island — a seven-mile slip of cushy white sand tucked in the Gulf of Mexico where you can dump the car, rent a bike, swim in smooth, teal waters and eat remarkably well.

 

That last part doesn’t happen entirely by accident. Not in the Florida I grew up in, where chain restaurants line the landscape from Jacksonville to Miami. But Anna Maria Island, about 40 miles south of Tampa, has always kept things old school. A free trolley-style bus runs the length of the island, and colorful old cottages dot the landscape. There are practically no chain restaurants, no high-rise hotels or party beaches — just a laid-back, margarita-by-sunset kind of place with establishments committed to keeping things fresh, independent and local.

 

Which is why I recently found myself on the deck of the Sandbar (100 Spring Avenue; 941-778-0444; www.sandbar-restaurant.com) — whose owner, Ed Chiles, is especially vocal about the importance of local restaurants — plotting out a game plan to eat my way through the island.

 

Located in the island’s northernmost village, the Sandbar anchors the area loosely called the North End. In the morning, everyone gathers at Ginny’s and Jane E’s at the Old IGA, a cafe and bakery that doubles as an unspeakably cute boutique. At night, couples and families follow the live music to Feeling Swell, a new surf bar and cafe. But sunsets are generally reserved for the deck of the Sandbar, which operates as a kind-of low-key, grown-up version of Key West’s Mallory Square. A crowd gathers nightly, and the table that best guesses when the sun will sink into the gulf (mine lost by 14 seconds) is awarded a bottle of bubbly.

 

Word around town had it that the Sandbar’s food played second fiddle to its scene, but a plate of crunchy, pepper-dusted calamari ($6.99) and a flaky mahi-mahi sandwich ($12.99) suggested otherwise. The stone crabs ($20.99), however, were good but, late in their season, maybe not the freshest.

 

Fresh seafood is getting increasingly harder to come by, even in Florida. With rolling bans on grouper, many local restaurants are forced to import Mexican grouper, though Ed and Andrea Spring, the owners of Sign of the Mermaid (9707 Gulf Drive; 941-778-9399; www.signofthemermaidonline.com), which is housed in a cottage built in 1913, say you’ll never find it on their menu. “You don’t even want to talk about Mexican grouper around here,” Mr. Spring said. “We don’t do it.” Except for the scallops and salmon, he insisted, every fish he serves is domestic: “And when I say domestic, I mean Florida waters.”

 

Like any chef good with fresh fish, Mr. Spring doesn’t kill his dishes with sauce. A flaky fillet of mahi-mahi ($29.95) is delicately laced with a garlic cream sauce made fresh to order (“If it sits, it loses something” is Mr. Spring’s motto). Andrea Spring’s specialty is baking, and she and their two daughters make all the desserts. Last year, she was featured on a Food Network pie competition.

 

Before moving to this location, the Springs had the downstairs of what is now the Rod & Reel (875 North Shore Drive; 941-778-1885), a two-story restaurant on the eastern end of North Shore Drive, at the end of an old pier jutting into a shallow, sea-green patch of Tampa Bay. These days the downstairs bar at the Rod & Reel acts as an insider sunset spot for locals and is well worth a visit. Not only does the place have a great fish-camp vibe, but the bartender, Derek, also dishes insider tips on finding the best beaches. “When you’re going over the causeway, look at the water,” he told me as I nursed a beer one evening. “If it’s rough on the right, you want to hit the gulf side. If it’s rough on the left, go to the bay.”

 

The most acclaimed restaurant on Anna Maria is Sean Murphy’s Beach Bistro (6600 Gulf Drive; 941-778-6444; www.beachbistro.com) in Holmes Beach. With one of the highest Zagat rankings in the state and enough Florida Golden Spoon awards to join a jug band, the place could be expected to have good food. But when I opened its Web site to hear a piercing score of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” I winced. Fussy places don’t jibe with beach towns, where the last thing you want to do is squeeze into slacks for dinner.

 

The Beach Bistro, mercifully, is nothing like its Web site. It’s swank, yes — but you can wear flip-flops if it suits you, and any place with something called the Bistro “White Castle” Slider ($15) on its menu can’t take itself too seriously. The slider in question is a far cry from the fast-food gut-buster, but rather a double-decker of seared prime tenderloin and Hudson Valley foie gras, thumped with creamy béarnaise and demi-glace.

 

That, combined with a couple of smaller dishes — try the tender grouper cheeks and throat ($18) or the “lobsterscargots” ($23) with fresh chunks of spiny lobster — made for a meal with as much character as Bistro’s clubby, old-school bar. I’d recommend a seat there, though the dining room has impressive views of the gulf..

 

Around the time Mr. Murphy was opening Beach Bistro, a beloved local burger dive was about to get its 15 minutes. In 1989, USA Today readers named the hamburger ($4) at Duffy’s Tavern (5808 Marina Drive; 941-778-2501; www.duffystavernami.com) one of the best in the country. Unfortunately, its monopoly on local burger loyalty was cut short in 2002 when it was booted from the shanty-shack digs it then occupied to make way for Skinny’s Place (3901 Gulf Drive North; 941-778-7769), igniting a burger rivalry that passionately divided the community. Duffy’s eventually found a new home, but the damage was done.

 

The truth is that both burgers are wickedly good, with similarly wide, juicy old-school patties. But saying that out loud on Anna Maria is like saying you like both the Yanks and the Sox — not recommended.

 

What Skinny’s doesn’t have is Duffy’s local color. Run by Pat Geyer, who can usually be found anchoring the bar, and two of her daughters, Duffy’s, a decidedly unbeachy dive, has a few house rules to know going in: don’t ask for French fries, don’t use a credit card and don’t sling any attitude. Any breach of these rules will earn you Peggi Geyer’s legendary scowl.

If you’re headed to the Star Fish Company (12306 46th Avenue West; 941-794-1243; www.starfishcompany.com), a fish market-cum-restaurant hidden near the island’s entrance in Cortez, one of the last commercial fishing villages left in the gulf, prepare to settle in for a while.

The grouper sandwich at Star Fish is a thing of beauty — plump, fresh-off-the-boat, fried to perfection and served with a bright slice of cherry-red tomato and wedge of lemon ($9.95). As testament to its excellence, there is almost always a wait of an hour.

 

You can call in orders ahead, but I can’t imagine a finer afternoon than the one I spent on the dock, enjoying my wait in the sun, a crowd of us cheering on a do-gooder wrestling a hook out of a pelican’s mouth. Most people appeared to be on their way to or from the island, happy to have found this magical pit stop where they never seem to run out of stories, sunshine or — if the fishmonger Chris Burns is to be believed — grouper.

 

“It’s very, very rare,” he said. “Most of what we have is whatever they’re catching that day. But they’re always catching grouper.”