Sam's Fresh Seafood was an Old Florida institution in Dunedin, the kind heavy on smoked mullet and hush puppies. Owners Sam and Phyllis Hart retired this summer and sold the rustic spot to Walt Wickman, a move that seems nearly poetic in its rightness.
Wickman for a number of years had the fish-forward, ambitious Walt's Seasonal Cuisine on Main Street, for whatever reason a tough location that has subsequently cycled through a couple of other concepts. In the meantime, Wickman took over the space that for years had housed part of the retail/wholesale Dunedin Fish Co. and debuted Olde Bay Café in 2011, quickly a locals' go-to place for honest, super-fresh gulf seafood (hogfish, snapper, cobia, etc.).
Olde Bay has the benefit of killer water views and an inviting indoor-outdoor setting that make for a convivial stop after boating, running and Dunedin-dabbling when fish tacos and local craft beer are in order. The biggest problem for Wickman: a tiny, bare-bones kitchen that means no grilled food, no fried food and a lot of elbow jostling with fellow kitchen workers.
People who are inattentive may still think Wickman's new spot is Sam's with a bit of a glammy trophy-fish makeover. It has a welcoming, no-pretensions feel, but Wickman has made some big changes: He has added outdoor seating, ripped the bar out and added a new one with repurposed wood from Viable Lumber in Pinellas Park. He's got reclaimed wood from the old Dunedin Pier and from trees knocked down at a golf course in Seminole, little bits of local history that seem mirrored fairly elegantly by the food.
The name itself, Hog Island Fish Camp, is a nod to the area's history. Honeymoon and neighboring Caladesi, once a single island, had been home to a hog farm, thus the name Hog Island. Once the destination was being sold as a honeymoon spot for newlyweds, the name seemed like a sketchy marketing gambit and it was rebranded in 1939. With the name, Wickman is paying tribute to the area's past, but hog is also germane to the menu. There is an excellent blackened or fried hogfish sandwich ($12) and plenty of pork, from a pork sandwich with sweet-zingy housemade bread and butter pickles ($9) to a rustic pork "steak" ($16).
You know how on menus the stuff in boxes is what the owner really wants you to look at? Look at the stuff in boxes here.
On one side is Southern-style buttermilk fried chicken ($35, serves two or three), a big pile of crunchy-exteriored, juicy-interiored poultry pieces offered up with a choice of three sides, the best of which are the nicely seasoned braised greens, the not-too-mayo-y coleslaw and the skillet corn bread. (I wasn't wild about the butter beans with small, round pasta called fregula, too bland, but the roasted baby zucchini with tomato and toasted sesame seeds is another fun choice.)
On the other side of the menu is a box containing the salt-and-pepper fried seafood options, from shrimp ($15) to oysters ($17), all offered with fries (just okay), slaw and nice housemade tartar.
As at Wickman's other restaurants, seafood is unmistakably fresh and very Florida-centric. He and chef de cuisine Jonathan Plichta (most recently of the Living Room and the Smokehouse in Dunedin, but previously in Charleston, S.C.) are calling it "salty Southern," with their own larder increasingly adding canned, preserved and cured doodads into the mix (apple butter and pickles, plus they have a duck ham and a pastrami using pork belly that I'm eager to try next time I visit).
Service suits the decor and culinary aesthetic. With Jack Herr as front of the house manager (locals may remember him as the longtime general manager at Heilman's Beachcomber Restaurant in Clearwater Beach), the staff has a chummy sweetness that feels just right in Dunedin. "Hog Island" might not have been quite right to lure honeymooners, but I'm guessing it will do just fine as a magnet for hungry locals.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.