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John's Pass Village offers great dining, shopping for both locals and tourists

MADEIRA BEACH — Restaurants in John's Pass Village have cause to be upbeat. The grindingly slow bridge project is now in the past, a new mayor in Madeira Beach is gearing up for dynamic changes, and heavy hitters like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Hooters bring their big advertising budgets to talk up this boardwalk-and-bathing-suits seaside village. • Still, what the village needs is locals to keep swinging by after the high-season hubbub of tourists have taken their sunburns and MasterCards back up North. In a couple of recent expeditions we found cause aplenty to head over the drawbridge linking Treasure Island to Madeira Beach.

Walter Gerbase used to cook the grouper at Dockside Dave's until he and partner Sue Zirneskie opened Waltz Fish Shak (224 Boardwalk Place E, Madeira Beach; (727) 395-0732; prices $6-$22) in 2004. The antithesis of a tourist trap, it's tucked into the east end of the pass in a space that was once World War II officers' quarters and is now a Key West-painted tiki with a couple of tables on a teeny patio and a deck festooned with chili pepper lights and old fishnets.

The M.O. is simple. A chalkboard reveals the day's domestic-only catch, usually three items. These are sold until they run out, then the restaurant is basically done for the day. Grouper, cobia, amberjack, hogfish — this is superfresh, offered in a handful of preparations (fried, blackened, grilled), usually served with a scoop of simple rice pilaf, a crunchy, vinegar-based cabbage slaw and a thick wedge of lime. There's not a ton of choice, but when you can finish with key lime pie this good, choice seems overrated. Tips: When the weather cools there's live music outside. And a handful of free parking places are around back.

The newest restaurant in the village, Naked Tchopstix (111 Boardwalk Place W, Madeira Beach; (727) 398-7777; prices $3.99-$16.99) opened a month ago. Part of a midsized chain in Indiana, this is the first outpost in Florida, offering an unusual fusion of sushi and other Japanese food along with less common Korean specialties. Located on the second floor overlooking Boardwalk Place, the restaurant is a fairly sophisticated space of dark leather booths and white globe chandeliers. The main attraction is the wide sushi bar backed with a long mirror so no one misses the drama of slicing and rolling.

The rolls are indeed expertly made with very fresh fish and not too much gloppy saucing, from a straightforward spicy tuna roll to a suave orange sunshine roll that pairs shrimp tempura and salmon with a delicate curl of fresh orange and dab of lemon sauce. Bento boxes are mammoth and well priced, packed with salad, veggies, rice, egg rolls and other fried goodies along with the main attraction (maybe a smoky salmon teriyaki or a pile of greaseless vegetable tempura). But it's the Korean dishes, from sweet soy-marinated short ribs to the veggie riot called bibimbap, that bring something new to the area.

Sculley's Seafood Restaurant (190 John's Pass Boardwalk, Madeira Beach; (727) 230-0608) and the Hut have been fixtures in the village for years, but each has undergone a major renovation and menu overhaul in the past year. Upstairs, Sculley's has added more seating, removed walls and made a back portion of the dining room suitable for private parties. Menu changes include the addition of appetizer combinations, pulled pork and beef sliders, a new "monster fish sandwich" and — the most sophisticated addition — a local "school of fish" sampler, each fillet offered with its own sauce, the trio set atop a bed of sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes.

The spaces are still comfortable, with booths and high-gloss wooden tables and decor that's heavy on the aquatic-obilia. The biggest draws are the 70-foot waterfront bar and, behind the Hut, a boat rental stand that makes it all too tempting to opt for a post-prandial spin around the channel. Just another reason John's Pass Village is a good bet for dinner.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

Shops for foodies

My rule of thumb is if a destination has more than two fudge stores or three gift shops hawking night-lights made out of shells, you're in a tourist magnet. John's Pass Village is guilty as charged. There's more fudge than you can shake a Popsicle stick at, not to mention a pirate ship cruise, dolphin watch and places that do those airbrush tattoos. Still, there are a number of noteworthy spots for the avid foodie.

Addicted to the Bean ( (727) 399-1573) is an independent coffee shop offering certified fair trade and organic beans.

The Spice & Tea Exchange ( (727) 319-4000) has straight-up bulk spices in neat apothecary jars as well as a lovely array of spice blends, specialty sugars and teas.

The Florida Winery of Madeira Beach ( (727) 362-0008) is the first winery in the state to bring home "best of class" in the honey wine category along with the "Honey Wine of the Year" trophy for its Pirate Mead from this year's Indy International Wine Competition, one of the country's largest. They have a tasting room in the village where you can sample this as well as all of their fruit-based wines.

For a tasting of a different type, head to the Hollywood Olive Oil Co. ( (727) 397-5319). The tiny shop has a range of varietal olive oils from Spain in addition to infused oils and balsamic vinegars.

Laura Reiley,

Times food critic

More than T-shirts and seashell lamps

While your out-of-town relatives stock up on goodies from the shell bins and "I was a snowbird on Madeira Beach" T-shirts, you can check out a few of the stores that should impress even the locals.

The Bronze Lady ( (727) 398-5994) has two shops in Madeira Beach. Its larger location (15015 Madeira Way) is a mecca for our palm-tree-waving lifestyle and features beachy home interior goods and trendy patio furniture. Its smaller store at John's Pass draws the Vera Bradley-toting fanatics and carries other collectible lines like Brighton, Pandora and Lampe Berger.

When I'm looking for a new martini-themed T-shirt or silk button-down for my husband and don't feel like driving to Tampa, 5 O'Clock Somewhere ( (727) 393-1861) is my first stop. It stocks one of the best collections of Tommy Bahama's menswear (including the watches and belts) on this side of the bay. Plus, I can pick up a new pair of flip-flops for myself from one of the more trendy — yet durable — brands it stocks: Sanuk (the flip-flops made from yoga mats), Teva and Naot. (Insider tip: There's also a daquiri bar called It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere. Don't get them confused.)

It's totally a gimmick, but I can't resist Del Sol's ( (727) 393-3800) line of tourist gear that changes color in the sun. I picked up my first T-shirt in Cozumel and since then have picked up another shirt and the nail polish locally.

Jennifer DeCamp, Times staff writer

Be a tourist

You know all those touristy things that friends and relatives are dying to do when they visit? Turns out they're pretty fun for locals, too. Since John's Pass is on the water, boating options are everywhere. Hubbard's Marina (hubbardsmarina.com) offers leisurely cruises to see dolphins and sunsets. If you want something more adventurous like parasailing or Jet Ski and boat rentals, there are more places than we can list, including Eagle Parasail/John's Pass Waverunners ( (727) 224-5747), Fly-N-High Parasail & Waverunners ( (727) 397-1050) and Jack's ( (727) 392-6912). But it's hard to compare any of them to The Pirate Ship ( (727) 423-7824). During the two-hour cruises on a replica pirate ship, kids can get their faces painted, search for treasure and engage in water-gun battles while adults swill free drinks. There's a sunset cruise option, too.

Times staff

if you go: For a directory of dining, shopping and recreation at John's Pass, go to johnspass.com.

John's Pass Village offers great dining, shopping for both locals and tourists 09/07/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 7, 2011 5:30am]

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