It's a shorthand of sorts. When you see 32-ounce Naked Turtle rum runner buckets, you know you are in a beach bar. It may not be toes-in-the-sand beachy, but you can be assured that there will be a one-man band warbling through Son of a Son of a Sailor, that fried shrimp will feature prominently and that many patrons will have exercised insufficient caution in sunscreen reapplication (goal: every two hours). Maybe it's just the "bucket" part, but it gets you oriented quickly.
But before you even get to the buckets, the name Salty's Island Bar & Grille is a fairly robust tipoff. There has already been a whole heap of salt in these parts (Salt Rock, Sea Salt, Grey Salt), but the apostrophe "s" speaks of board shorts and rash guards and someone uttering the sentiment "It's five o'clock somewhere" only part ironically.
The newest beach restaurant at Clearwater Beach, right across from CB's newest beach hotel, the Opal Sands, has a pedigree of sorts. Greg Powers, the CEO of parent company Beachside Hospitality Group (which runs the Salty Crab Bar & Grill in Fort Myers Beach), is also the CEO of Primecost, which oversees Crabby Bill's Clearwater Beach, Crabby's Bar & Grill and Crabby Bill's St. Cloud. (Meanwhile, the Loder family runs Crabby Bill's Indian Rocks Beach as well as Lulu's Oyster Bar and Seabreeze.) These are people who know how to do seafood-centric beach-themed restaurants where rum drinks sometimes come in startling hues.
Salty's is no exception. There is the challenge of having no parking lot, but public beach parking across the way isn't too much of a hassle if you download the payment app. In large measure, this newcomer will cater to tourists and Opal Sands guests, with a menu that offers some vacation splurges (lobster tail for $39.99 and bairdi crab, a super-sweet snow crab also known as tanner, for $29.99), but keeps things otherwise fairly reasonable.
The best bargain on the menu is the pulled chicken nachos ($10.99), a vast tray of chips, black beans, pickled jalapenos, shredded chicken and gooey cheese sauce that will sustain a fair crowd as the sun sets over the water. (From the upstairs open-air deck you can see some beach, but not much, and be prepared for some pesky bitey insects.)
Salty's menu isn't stacked with surprises, but there are a number of solid stalwarts that make for an enjoyable evening. The appetizer list leans heavily toward the deep-fryer: Fried green tomatoes ($8.99), fried zucchini fingers ($7.99) and coconut shrimp ($9.99) were all pleasant, crunchy, greaseless versions, although I would discontinue the practice of bedding everything down on undressed mixed greens that frizzle into unappetizing goo under the heat.
The best appetizer was a traditional ahi tuna poke ($11.99), the jewellike cubes soy-inflected and paired with a bit of zingy seaweed salad and a passel of wonton strips. (This same array is offered as an entree bowl bulked up with coconut rice, the tuna seared this time, $12.99.) Friendly, casual servers can guide you toward the most popular dishes: a nice swath of fresh grouper on the grouper sandwich ($13.99), which is elevated by a lime-zapped tartar sauce; the blackened mahi sandwich ($11.99) with that same sauce; and a pretty solid shrimp and grits ($16.99), royal red shrimp lending a little extra sweetness and richness to andouille sausage and creamy ground corn.
In the name of keeping my wits semi-intact, I forwent the evenings' special bucket options. Even ruling out rum drinks and all liquors that look like Windex, Salty's had plenty of imbibing options, with a respectable craft beer list and a nice little array of wines on tap. Salty's may not be revolutionizing the beach bar, but with its prime location and indoor-outdoor two-level dining space, it has introduced a new option for beach denizens in search of a whole bucket of fun.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.