Every December since before I could walk, I've left the frozen tundra of my Chicago hometown to visit family in Longboat Key. The sun and salt water are a merciful respite from the snow, but Longboat's upmarket restaurant scene has always left me cold. So a few years ago, I began exploring farther afield, driving around the Sarasota area in search of soulful Southern cafeterias and no-frills seafood shacks.
My first stop was Star Fish Company in Cortez Village, a historic fishing town on the northern edge of Sarasota Bay. Tucked down a small side street off Cortez Road, Star Fish has a ramshackle charm: It's part wholesale seafood market and part restaurant, with picnic tables adjacent to a working dock and a small window for orders. Star Fish has been open since the 1920s, first as a wholesale seafood operation, then with the addition of a retail market in the '60s and the restaurant in 1996.
"At first, this was just a place for local fishermen to grab a bite," says manager Laurie Jones. But the food speaks to more: Nearly all of the seafood is harvested by Florida commercial fishermen and prepared with a deft touch that lets the simple flavors of the local catch shine — blackened grouper sandwiches, greaseless conch fritters and tender Gulf shrimp, with gooey cheese grits and hush puppies on the side. I ate them all, accompanied by a draft beer in a plastic cup and views of the lush nearby mangrove islands.
Next was an even more casual affair, this one so low on the frills it barely constitutes a restaurant at all: Alday's BBQ, a mobile barbecue operation that sets up shop in the parking lot of a Sarasota gas station. With their portable smokehouse trailer (it looks like a mobile log cabin), the Alday family has been smoking meats since 1980. Using generations-old family recipes, the Aldays turn out slowly oakwood-smoked pulled pork, sauce-lacquered baby back ribs, juicy whole chickens and more (on the day I stopped by after a nearby swap meet, patriarch Jeff Alday was running a special of barbecued salmon). For all the time that goes in to preparing the food, however, Alday's is a fleeting delight: it's only open on weekends, and operates mostly as a takeout operation for passersby. Still, the atmosphere (or lack thereof) of dining in a gas station's grassy knoll dovetails neatly with the unruly pleasure of picking at pork ribs with your bare hands.
Last was a City Island institution, The Old Salty Dog, an English pub-themed dive as famed for its waterfront views as its gut-busting titular special, the Salty Dog, a beer-battered, deep-fried footlong hot dog available with cheese and grilled onions or mushrooms. But this is no carnie fare: "The hot dog comes from Geier's, a local sausage company, the buns come from a nearby bakery called St. Armand's, and we make our own beer batter," said manager Bryan Spaulding. The rest of the 22-year-old restaurant's menu focuses on simple local seafood, burgers and sandwiches, and many diners arrive via boat. No one at Salty Dog expects feats of culinary wizardry — they come for the familiar pub grub, the cheap drinks, and a taste of the great salty outdoors.
Thoroughly sated, satisfied with my discoveries and stuffed to the gills, I retreated back to Longboat's pristine white beaches for that most sacred Florida vacation activity: an afternoon nap.
This article originally appeared on VisitFlorida.com.
Jamie Feldmar is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who contributes frequently to Saveur.