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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.