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Restaurant review: Dunedin stalwart Sea Sea Riders continues to earn a solid reputation for seafood-driven fare

Sea Sea Riders underwent a major renovation at the end of 2015, which created a more open floor plan, but the original wood beams, ceiling details and windows were preserved, as was the wrap-around veranda.
Published Feb. 7, 2017

DUNEDIN

How do you last 30 years in the restaurant industry? It's a careful balance of staying the same and constantly changing. You want to maintain your identity, celebrate and showcase the things that make you special. And at the same time you want to stay fresh, updating your look and offerings to suit a shifting zeitgeist. • Sea Sea Riders opened in 1988, and Sylvia and Artie Tzekas bought it in 1990, long before Dunedin was awash in craft beer and hip, mid-priced dining options. • "Everybody is always changing," Sylvia said recently by phone. "We've been true to ourselves." • Yes, they have. But still, since my last review seven years ago, quite a bit has changed.

At the end of 2015, they undertook a massive renovation in the 1903 Key West-inspired Old Florida cracker house. Atlanta-based consulting firm Concentrics Restaurants came up with the plan, which preserved the original wood beams, ceiling details and windows while opening up the space and giving the 185-seat restaurant a more exposed-beam and open floor plan. It still has its wrap-around veranda, but now the heart and soul is a hip, zinc-topped central bar and rustic tables made of salvaged ceiling rafters.

And the menu, overseen by the Tzekases' son, Ismet, with the help of chefs Bobby Feke and Ryan Holden (a newcomer who has spent time in the kitchens of Oxford Exchange and Edison), has been similarly overhauled. It's still Southern and Floridian coastal cuisine, with an emphasis on the gulf's bounty, but there's more to share, more nibbles and small plates, a reflection of how folks seem to enjoy eating these days.

On one visit, we shared a shallow bowl of fat mussels in a sultry coconut curry cream ($10), accompanied by a few honey butter crostini, and a second offering that brought an enormous pile of battered shrimp given a gloss of Asian sweet chili sauce ($11). Another time it was a quenelle of rich smoked salmon dip ($9) paired with sturdy, thick-cut house-made potato chips.

Although seafood dominates in most of Sea Sea Riders' best dishes, there's a salad right now that absolutely charms me. Envision chopped roasted beets, planks of sweet-smoky charred carrot and peppery radish rounds intermingled with mixed greens, with a smoked jalapeno ranch and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts. Called Roots ($9), it's a memorable lineup of flavors and textures.

With a solid wine and beer list, the restaurant has kept pace with the increasing sophistication of the drinking public. Same goes for the rest of the menu, which features seven sandwiches and eight entrees, again leaning toward aquatic allures. The salmon BLT ($13), while likely to get your mitts dirty, is that perfect juxtaposition of salty and sweet (there's a honey mustard in the mix), crunchy and plush.

At the bottom of the menu is a Doug Larson quote: "If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there'd be a shortage of fishing poles." I can get behind that, especially if it yields meaty-flaky mahi mahi ($18.50) set down upon rounds of fried green tomato and a corn succotash lent richness by bits of pork belly, a swirl of roasted beet remoulade taking the whole dish up a notch. Same goes for the Florida grouper (market price), which gets a crunchy pecan crust and is paired with synergistic mashed sweet potato and nutty bourbon-spiked brown butter.

The Tzekases are elder statesmen of Dunedin dining, for sure. But they are open to new ideas and fresh enterprises. Right now Sylvia is working on another venture, restoring a nearby 1898 carriage house to serve as a wedding and special events venue that will be served by the Sea Sea Riders kitchen.

Its name is a punny homage to the famous 12-bar blues song recorded by Ma Rainey in 1924, and then reinterpreted by countless other musicians and bands, the theme of which is always "Babe, you done me wrong." But no restaurant lasts for 30 years unless it's done a lot of things right.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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