Over the past 14 years, a small, no-frills restaurant called Dockside Dave's has earned a cult following among the locals. The place isn't much to look at, and it's not a tourist magnet, but it has become known for mouth-watering fresh grouper sandwiches.
The restaurant has been out of action because a grease fire damaged its kitchen. With each passing week, more fans of the place are starting to worry.
"The phone never stops ringing," said Carol Bates, a co-owner of the restaurant at 13203 Gulf Blvd. "People keep putting cards on the door, saying, "We're so sorry.' "
Finally, after dealing with repairs, inspections and insurers, the restaurant is hoping to reopen in time for lunch Friday.
The Feb. 22 fire was frightening but didn't cause a great deal of damage.
It was about 7:30 p.m. on an ordinary Saturday night. The cooks were preparing grouper sandwiches and hamburgers in the restaurant's tiny back-of-the bar setup of fryers and grills.
A grease fire flared. The restaurant's staffers say they tried to set off the kitchen's fire extinguishing system.
"It should automatically go off if the temperature gets too hot," Bates said. "If it doesn't go off by itself, you pull a pin like a grenade, and it's supposed to drop foam over the grill."
But nothing happened, she said. Flames started to lick at the kitchen walls.
"At that point, I had visions of Rhode Island," Bates said, referring to a recent nightclub disaster where a heavy metal band's pyrotechnics started a fire that killed 99 people. "I said, "Everybody, let's walk out of here nice and calmly.' "
No one was hurt. Firefighters extinguished the blaze before it spread beyond the cooking area.
Since then, Bates and co-owner Kevin Matheny have been installing a new grill and dealing with insurance adjusters' questions about their malfunctioning fire extinguishing system, which Bates said had been inspected by a private company every six months.
"Something went wrong someplace," Bates said. "I'll let the experts figure that out."
Despite a recent mention in Southern Living magazine, Dockside Dave's is still the kind of place that you could drive by and never notice. But no matter what, the place is in for some changes soon. A developer is creating a condominium project called Madeira Bay that will occupy the two blighted city blocks where the restaurant is.
Developer Sam Lewis has promised a new, bigger home on stilts for Dockside Dave's. The restaurant plans to move into its new quarters in perhaps a year and a half.
"One of our main concerns about this project is, how do we keep the motif that is Madeira Beach, like Dockside Dave's onion rings and the little koozies they use to keep your beer cold," said Lewis, who lives in the Boca Ciega Drive neighborhood behind the restaurant.
"After I go to Dockside Dave's for lunch, I have to walk on the beach for an hour."