By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Nauti-Nancy's exists because of the changing fancies of interior decorators. Nancy O'Neill was a wallpaper hanger. In 2008 she made a good living, reporting somewhere around $150,000 to Uncle Sam. That next year that number dipped to $19,000. Yes, it was the economic crisis, but it was also the year that collectively, and mysteriously, everybody started hating on wallpaper.
O'Neill had to scare up a Plan B and, as she said, "I'm 57 years old and I didn't want to go and work at Home Depot." So this New Englander started doing clambakes and "Nantucket buckets" at festivals and events like the Stone Crab Jam in Crystal River. By 2010 she had decided to take the concept brick and mortar, moving into the old Manna from Heaven soul food spot.
I'm not going to sugarcoat it: Nauti-Nancy's is a dive. With live music every night and a potpourri of patio furniture and picnic tables, it's a good-times place for letting your hair down and getting to the bottom of a cold draft beer (there's one, and its $1). O'Neill describes what she's doing as "Skipper's West." While there's no huge oak shading the joint and little of Skipper's rough-hewn Florida-cracker patina, it's a pretty apt description. There are no neighbors to annoy, so evenings get a little raucous and the music goes late.
But while the beer and wine lists aren't going to have the Wine Spectator sniffing around any time soon, the menu is more serious, most of the best dishes seafood standards. The smoked fish spread ($8.99) brings an absurdly huge platter heaped with jalapenos, banana peppers, chopped red onion, chopped tomato, saltines, lemon wedges and a scoop of gorgeous smoky fish. It's enough to share with the rest of the bar, which will leave you room for an order of mussels ($8.99) steamed simply with white wine and garlic, or the low country boil crammed with a dozen middlenecks, a handful of extra large shrimp, boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, celery and onion ($15.99).
If you're getting the idea that this is an eat-with-your-hands, don't-fret-about-the-dry-cleaning kind of place, you're right. Beer-battered fish ($9.99) and fried shrimp ($10.99) are both generous and come with workhorse fries and a scoop of good coleslaw. I was less smitten by the shrimp and grits ($13.99), which had good flavor but was loose enough that it was nearer soup.
O'Neill also turns out a solid bacon cheeseburger ($6.99) and, perhaps the best dish, what she calls the beef martini ($7.99), a messy sandwich featuring shredded rib eye, mushrooms sauteed in red wine, bacon and a mantle of melted provolone.
On Tuesday nights a blues jam coalesces organically, people creeping up to add to the joyful noise. Service on these nights (well, and on other nights) can be all over the map, with the occasional long lag that can perturb those who are Type A or very hungry. But then all is set to right when, out of nowhere, a gratis order of O'Neill's fresh-from-the-fryer beignets shows up, confounding your dry cleaning even further with a flurry of powdered sugar.
Let's hope wallpaper doesn't make a serious comeback.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.