Inside a garish yellow shack across from some lonely railroad tracks just a mile north of busy Brandon Boulevard are the following items:
• The bleached skull of a 12-foot-long Florida alligator.
• A solemn-looking Plains Indian with a feather skirt, a figure carved from wood and salvaged from a 1940s North Carolina log cabin.
• Two pairs of dirty football cleats that ran their last sprints half a century ago.
• An impressively massive Pacific sailfish unceremoniously sacrificed years prior by a woman on the cusp of divorce.
• And then, most likely back in the kitchen, there is Willie.
Willie doesn't give a hoot what you think of it all.
He doesn't care if you don't like the scuffed-up wooden floors or that the mirror in the women's restroom is hung a few inches too high.
Heck, Willie doesn't even care if you call him Fat Willie like the old days.
For goodness' sake, just taste the fish.
"I'm telling you, this stuff is delicious," says Willie, otherwise known as 71-year-old Bill Robinson, owner of Willie's, the Place for Seafood on Front Street. "I'm not just saying that."
Trust us. He's not.
• • •
The crispy-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside, doesn't-need-condiments, darn good seafood rolling out of Willie's kitchen is a rare find in our humble Land O'Chains.
"You have to admit, this place stands out," a regular, Jerry York, said over blackened orange roughy one recent evening. "Where else can you go in Brandon and feel like this? It's not a chain. It's not a chain!"
The secrets are simple.
Robinson boasts that the raw fish in his kitchen never sits around at room temperature. He gets it all straight from the boat, flash-frozen. Each meal is thawed and cooked to order, right then and there.
The breading is mercifully light.
Rather than seafood masquerading as big hunks of fried dough, the shrimp tastes like shrimp. The catfish tastes like catfish. If Willie were partial to schnozzberries — well, you know.
It's the same stuff the fish camp formerly known as Fat Willie's has been serving for more than 35 years — before the Crosstown and the mall and Red Lobster.
"People want to eat good food," Robinson said. "When I go to a restaurant, I'm not interested in the chandelier. If the food's good, I don't care if it's a dump."
That might explain the decor.
• • •
Before Robinson established his hobbled-together museum and local seafood institution, he was a Florida State University graduate and Air Force Security Service veteran dipping his toes in various careers across the South.
He was a pilot for Winn-Dixie store executives, a construction worker building condos on Miami Beach, a salesman for a truck-trailer manufacturer, and a transportation market specialist for Xerox.
None involved deep fryers or special sauces.
Though Robinson has food service in his family roots —Dad owned his own a beer-and-hamburger joint in DeLand, Grandpa and Grandma once served food to loggers in the Northwest — it wasn't until the 1970s that Robinson caught the bug.
That was when he discovered the fish camps of North Carolina, and one in particular.
• • •
He's not a religious man, but when Robinson talks about Lineberger's Fish Fry in Gaston County, he might as well be reading from the Gospel.
"Jack Lineberger. He was the best," Robinson remembers. "He was doing everything right. I said to him, 'I'm going back to Florida. I want to learn from you.' … So I went in there with a notebook and wrote down everything I saw."
The coleslaw formula, the hush puppy recipe, the brand name of the fryers. Robinson took that wisdom down to Valrico, and by some sheer luck or destiny, stumbled upon a shanty that would soon bear his name.
Realtor Charlie Wysong claims bragging rights to Willie's arrival in a message still tacked to the restaurant's front wall/advertising space, where business cards offer everything from legal aid and hairstyling to tax help and musical performances.
Robinson can tell you about when that papery mess of wallpaper was blank — when he first opened up shop and didn't know what to expect and was bamboozled by a string of days when "everything went nuts."
"I'm telling you. It was crazy in here," Robinson said. "I laid on the couch all night long and thought, 'What can I do? What was Jack Lineberger doing?' Around 4 or 5 a.m. it hit me. Trays."
Simple as that.
Robinson went back to his kitchen and created an assembly line of sorts, where his cooks and servers could keep each order's components together on its own little plastic square.
He started thinking of his back-of-the-house crew like a football team. The guy in charge of making sure all the food is on the right plate and tray (currently Robinson's stepson) is quarterback.
Guess who's head coach.
"You've heard of the KISS principle, right? Keep it simple, stupid," Robinson explains of his methods.
• • •
There have been, over the years, a few bumps.
Like when Red Lobster opened in the '80s and sucked customers toward the mall and highway and civilization.
Or when Robinson decided to try retiring in 1998 and leased his 23-year-old pride and joy to a veteran employee before taking it back two years later. That's when Robinson dropped the Fat from Fat Willie's to avoid any legal snags.
(In case you're wondering, Robinson is not, nor was he ever, fat. Brawny at best, the bearded and bespectacled restaurateur said the original name came from a moniker his college roommate adopted for him as a joke.)
There have always been smaller headaches here and there, too: somebody getting argumentative back when Willie's served hard liquor; a sauce recipe that needed tweaking; the gulf oil spill last year that scared some folks away. But for the most part it has been smooth sailing.
"We still have idiots coming in here saying, 'Oh, I don't like that. Give me something different,' " Robinson said. "You always remember the jerks. But 99.9 percent of the people love what we do. We have customers in here week in and week out."
• • •
Dinnertime on a Friday night.
Robinson's puttering around his dining room, fretting about a car crash on State Road 60 that's backing up traffic headed his way.
"Why couldn't there be an accident on a Sunday or Monday when we're closed?" he says without a hint of jest.
His wife, Mary Ellen, ignores him. Her salt-and-pepper bob framing her smiling face, she's at the helm of the cash register, reaching out to give you a hug.
Servers who have been here for years and years are taking drink orders, and diners are teasing one another from across the room.
Art and Linda Gee were just tucking into their fried oysters and grilled mahi fingers, respectively, when somebody asked them why they chose this place for supper.
"It's like when you get married. You get the best to start out with, and you don't ever have to change," Art said.
"One reason we started coming here was because our son — you know, who is the sheriff — used to do off-duty deputy work directing traffic in the parking lot," said Linda, who did indeed raise Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee.
"If you don't believe us, try it," said Art.
• • •
Back in the kitchen, which smells like all the sizzling goodness of the Florida State Fair, Robinson looks on as one of his younger cooks massages a hunk of catfish into a pile of flour and secret spices.
What's in it?
"I'm not telling you that," Robinson says.
Next to the massive fryer, he points out a bulky convection oven that's "older than you are" where a grouper fillet is broiling in a puddle of butter.
He takes you over to the red potatoes, seasoned with a Cajun goulash delivered straight from New Orleans.
He shows you a refrigerated sauce he melts over his Cajun pasta, a recipe he improved through trial and error.
A few hours later, things are slowing down. Some of the kitchen crew is back in the dining room singing Happy Birthday to the guy who mans the grill, and Mary Ellen offers you a slice of cake.
Just then, a big family comes through the front door. Robinson helps them put two tables together and pulls up an extra chair.
A kid looks up at a bulky old scuba diving helmet casting a shadow on the checkered tablecloth as a waiter sidles up.
"What can I get y'all?"
Kim Wilmath can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.