It feels like an accomplishment reaching October when you live in Florida. The brutal summer behind us, we now have months of mild and sunny weather ahead along with a calendar full of exciting events including the start of Florida stone crab season, which runs Friday through May 1. Yes, it just so happens that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission makes sure stone crab can be served during the months when the most people tend to visit.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Sunshine State’s most famous shellfish, the crabs are harvested for their claws, which then, like magic, grow back. The claws are typically boiled, cooled, cracked and then you eat ’em with your fingers, perhaps after dipping in melted butter, mustard sauce or both. Now, some places do offer stone crab served warm, and I’ve heard of people even eating stone crab with utensils, but don’t recall ever witnessing such a thing. What does stone crab taste like? Imagine a Maine lobster vacationing in the Gulf of Mexico, meeting a shapely shrimp and the unlikely pair producing a sweet love child.
For this story, we highlight 10 seafood restaurants in Sarasota and Manatee counties that plan to serve stone crab starting this weekend. Please keep in mind, though, as one local restaurant owner/fisherman recently told me, they’ll be served “as long as we catch ’em.” Or as another business contacted for this story put it: “Subject to availability, so please call the restaurant first if that’s the sole reason you plan to dine with us.”
Fortunately, stone crab really shouldn’t be the only reason you visit any of these restaurants, which excel in all manner of fresh seafood as well as everything from gourmet tater tots and ginger-soy brussels sprouts to burgers and Cuban sandwiches. Yeah, even if you happen to be allergic to shellfish, you’ll find lots and lots of outstanding menu selections at each of these places, all of which will happily welcome you dressed in your finest T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Presented in alphabetical order, here are 10 of our favorite local seafood restaurants that serve stone crab.
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200 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach; 941-779-2222; beachhousedining.com
Perhaps the only thing better than noshing on succulent morsels of stone crab is to have that experience with your toes in the sand while gazing out at the Gulf of Mexico. That’s what you’ll find at Beach House, which recommends having the stone crab served cold with lemon and mustard sauce, or perhaps some melted butter on the side. Located on Anna Maria Island just south of the Cortez Bridge, Beach House offers luxurious, resort-style dining with seating in the sugary-soft sand under the shade of a tent, on the covered deck or inside with plenty of window views of the water.
There’s also equally alluring outdoor and indoor bar seating with Gulf front vistas. Speaking of the bar, there are craft cocktail and local beer options but if you’re even the slightest bit interested in good wine, be sure to order a glass of Manatee County native Seth Cripe’s Lola. The delightfully citrusy chardonnay or perhaps the crisp, cherry and guava-informed rosé should both pair perfectly with stone crab, or any of the other seafood dishes on the menu.
Best things to eat:Blackened mahi-mahi, smoked fish dip and Gamble Farm House Salad
121 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach; 941-896-9737; bluemarlinami.com
Reigning as an elite seafood restaurants now for nearly a decade (their anniversary is next month), Blue Marlin occupies a historic cottage on bustling Bridge Street in the city of Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island. In addition to cozy indoor table seating and the handsome bar, Blue Marlin has the Trap Yard, with outdoor tables, an additional full-liquor bar and a stage for live music on the weekends. As for stone crab, you can enjoy it served various ways including by the quarter and half pound (as well as a five-pounder to go), or, depending when you visit, maybe in the stoney mac ’n’ cheese or the stone crab parfait that comes with Old Bay mashed potatoes and a big jumbo stone crab “lollipop.”
For an appetizer, you’ll want to consider the masterfully garnished steamed clams and the Thai snapper nuggets with red onion, jalapeno and cilantro salad. Seeking something other than stone crab? Go with the egg-washed and sauteed Grouper Fulford or, if you’re not in the mood for seafood, the burger with slab bacon and onion marmalade. All of these dishes, by the way, are among the tastiest you’ll find in town. Finally, Blue Marlin offers a booze selection that included a couple bottles of coveted Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve when I visited earlier this year.
Which restaurants make the best burgers in Manatee County?Here are 20 of our favorites including Blue Marlin
Captain Brian’s Seafood Market & Restaurant
8421 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-351-4492; captainbrians.com
Located just north of the Sarasota-Manatee County line and sharing a fence with SRQ Airport, Captain Brian’s is where locals in the know have been getting their stone crab claws and other fresh seafood for dining in or taking out since the 1980s. Captain Brian Bochan, a graduate of Riverview High in Sarasota who worked as a commercial fisherman and skipper before opening his namesake market and then restaurant, also recommends enjoying the claw meat cold. He pairs his with a beer and also likes ’em with a glass of sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, which you’ll find at his restaurant’s full bar.
Before ordering the stone crab entree, and after admiring the giant fish tank and all the nautical bric-a-brac and stuffed sea creatures mounted on the walls, be sure to start your meal with the lightly fried, fresh Gulf oysters, aka Capt’s Famous Fried Oysters. Not feeling like shellfish or mollusks? Consider the red snapper or tripletail, which on a recent visit both arrived tasting like they had spent the previous evening swimming around off the coast of Cortez or maybe Anna Maria Island.
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411 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota; 941-388-3987; columbiarestaurant.com
Sure, Columbia Restaurant is perhaps most famous for its Cuban sandwich but the menu also features lots of impressive seafood dishes such as the paella made with a long list of mouthwatering ingredients including clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and calamari. And then there are the stone crabs, which are also popular at the Columbia Restaurants now found across the state and, sports fans, were a favorite of The Sultan of Swat. The story goes that Babe Ruth would sneak over from the Yankees spring training camp in St. Petersburg to Tampa in the 1920s and ’30s to feast at the Columbia’s original location in Ybor City, which opened in 1905 and today ranks as the oldest restaurant in Florida. The Bambino’s major league meals, accompanied by copious Café Diablo cocktails, would include a staggering six orders of stone crabs.
In 1959, Columbia opened its St. Armands Circle location, making it Sarasota’s longest running restaurant with the same family ownership. Stone crabs became a regular dish at the Columbia in the mid-1980s as fourth-generation co-owner Casey Gonzmart Sr. infused more locally sourced ingredients into recipes. The crab claws, which are now only to be served at the Sarasota location and possibly sister restaurant Ulele in Tampa, are offered chilled, steamed with butter, mustard sauce and lemon, or broiled. You’ll want to accompany the claws with the Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad, which is tossed tableside. Also, from the tapas menu, consider the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquettes made with local blue crab meat or perhaps the fresh sea scallops baked in a clay casserole with lemon butter and topped with seasoned bread crumbs and white wine. Finally, if you have any interest in sangria, be sure to order a pitcher of Sangria de Cava. It’s made tableside with a perfectly balanced mix of Spanish sparkling wine, brandy, orange liqueur and fresh citrus juices.
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Dockside Waterfront Grill
509 N. Tamiami Trail, Venice; 941-218-6418; docksidewaterfrontgrill.com
Drive south on Tamiami Trail from, say, downtown Sarasota and right before crossing the bridge to reach the island of Venice make a right. You’ll find Dockside Waterfront Grill at Fisherman’s Wharf Marina on the Intracoastal Waterway by beautiful Roberts Bay. Of course, another way to visit Dockside is to just look for Marker 4 while captaining your boat, or, even better, while enjoying a day on your buddy’s boat.
The restaurant, which is part of the locally owned Gecko’s Hospitality Group, recommends a platter of claws with their garden salad followed by the daily fresh catch entree. Consider pairing the stone crab and seafood meal with their light and crisp Centennial Lager. The outstanding beer is a collaboration brewed by Big Top in honor of Sarasota County’s 100 year anniversary, with $1 for every can enjoyed going to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Charitable Foundation, whose mission is to support law enforcement experiencing extraordinary personal or family need.
10 best waterfront restaurants for outdoor dining:Venice, Osprey and Nokomis
Dry Dock Waterfront Grill
412 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key; 941-383-0102; drydockwaterfrontgrill.com
Open since 1989 and acquired by Gecko’s Hospitality Group in 2015, Dry Dock Waterfront Grill on Longboat Key has been rightfully recognized as one of the most scenic restaurants in the country. Featuring umbrella-adorned tables that place you right on Sarasota Bay (at Marker 6 via boat), there’s also covered deck seating on the first floor as well as an elevated indoor dining area with a bar overlooking the waters, which during a recent visit were being fished by a persistent pelican.
Dry Dock recommends enjoying a platter of fresh stone crab claws with their spinach salad followed by the Citrus Grouper entree – and I totally agree. Lightly breaded and sauteed, prepared with a citrus cream sauce redolent of liquified Key lime pie, it’s definitely among the finest ways to enjoy Florida’s most famous fish. Also, earlier this year Gecko’s Hospitality Group opened Tripletail Seafood & Spirits in Sarasota shopping plaza The Landings. The restaurant offers a menu similar to Dry Dock’s and also plans to serve stone crab this season.
Best things to eat:Dry Dock for blackened grouper, citrus grouper entree and bacon scallops
Mar Vista Dockside
760 Broadway St., Longboat Key; 941-383-2391; marvistadining.com
Located on the Manatee County side of Longboat Key overlooking the bay near Anna Maria Island and the other Chiles Restaurant Group businesses Beach House and Sandbar (keep reading), Mar Vista Dockside occupies a wooded, waterfront setting that makes each visit feel like a tropical vacation. There are outdoor tables protected from the sun by a canopy of buttonwood trees and more seating on the covered deck that also faces the water; plus a newer indoor dining area and bar for those seeking air conditioning.
Owner Ed Chiles learned all about claws while working at world-famous Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach and uses the original Joe’s recipe for the mustard sauce served at all three of his restaurants. You’ll also want to make room for a bowl of plump Gulf shrimp poached in beer, Old Bay and garlic butter. And, gotta say, I have never visited Mar Vista without also enjoying way too many of the tots covered in onion and pepper jack cheese and served with chipotle honey mustard.
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100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria; 941-778-0444; sandbardining.com
The oldest and probably most famous of Ed Chiles’ trio of waterfront restaurants, Sandbar offers guests a fabulous al fresco beach seating, as well as indoor seating with wonderful window views, on the north end of Anna Maria Island. Enjoy your claws served cold with the mustard sauce made from Joe’s original recipe and pair the dish with a glass of Lola wine. The house-smoked fish spread should be another fine option along with the crispy brussels sprouts covered in a sweet ginger-soy sauce.
Opened in 1979 on a site that had been an entertainment venue dubbed “The Pavilion” dating back to the 1910s, Sandbar’s popularity paved the way for Chiles to open Mar Vista about a decade later and then Beach House in ’93. The Chiles Group opened its own organic farm, Gamble Creek, in Parrish in 2013, followed by a bakery to also serve all three restaurants.
10 best waterfront restaurants for outdoor dining:around Anna Maria Island
Star Fish Company Market & Restaurant
12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez; 941-794-1243; starfishcompany.com
Star Fish Company, located in the heart of the historic Cortez fishing village, dates back to the 1920s. It began as a wholesale company, and still operates a world-class market, but didn’t become a famed dining destination until third-generation Cortezian Karen Bell purchased the place in 1996 and began offering expertly cooked, super-fresh seafood. See, she also owns the A.P. Bell Fish Co. seafood distributor next door. Her family established the business in 1940 and for decades now it has supplied restaurants from here to Asia with grouper, mullet and more including stone crab claws.
All of Star Fish’s seating is located dockside along north Sarasota Bay just east of Anna Maria Island. You either find a vacant spot along the counter or at one of the wood picnic tables that populate the covered deck and extend out onto the pier. Have cash ready and order at the counter. In addition to the claws, be sure to get yourself some stone crab chowder (or the equally delicious fish chowder) and a cold one or two. You will enjoy these items while watching seabirds and perhaps some dolphins frolicking around where Bell’s fleet of commercial fishing boats are moored. A server will holler your name and then hand you a cardboard box. It will feel like Christmas morning when you open it to find big, beautiful claws, served chilled or warm, with a creamy mustard sauce, drawn butter and lemons, along with a pair of perfectly fried hush puppies and sides of, say, coleslaw and fries.
What else should you consider ordering? Well, the Cortez Special Highliner with blackened mahi and sauteed scallops we had the other evening was seafood perfection; and the Star Combination Platter is the way to go if you enjoy your sea creatures (shrimp, oysters, scallops and grouper) lightly fried a golden brown. But my personal fave remains the blackened mullet with a side of cheese grits. It’s a true taste of Old Florida and I’m pretty sure it’s Karen Bell’s favorite dish, too. If she were ever forced to choose among her menu that also includes items such as the blackened grouper, shrimp and oyster po’ boy, soft shell crabs and fried shrimp that were thoroughly enjoyed a few years ago by Emeril Lagasse.
Best waterfront restaurants:For outdoor dining in historic Cortez Village
Walt’s Fish Market, Restaurant and Tiki Bar
4144 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-921-4605; waltsfishmarketrestaurant.com
No one in Sarasota knows stone crab like Brett Wallin, the fourth-generation owner of Walt’s Fish Market, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2018. In addition to contracting with local commercial fishermen, Wallin personally runs his own crab traps. This means docking his boat on Siesta Key and bringing the fresh catch to his restaurant and market about a 10-minute drive away on South Tamiami Trail. He recommends pairing stone crab with their Linda’s Margarita or perhaps a local beer from Calusa or JDub’s. And he insists on eating the claw meat cold, perhaps with hot drawn butter and his restaurant’s signature mustard sauce.
In addition to the claws, you’ll want to savor the complimentary smoked fish dip made in house with mullet and mahi-mahi. The snapper quesadilla is another essential item at Walt’s, with the fresh fish prepared in chipotle sauce then pressed in a flour tortilla with Oaxaca cheese and corn and black bean salsa, and accompanied with a side of unstoppable garlic aioli cut with fresh citrus. In fact, the way to go at Walt’s might just be starting with the stone crab, sharing the snapper quesadilla and then having a local fish such as grouper or tripletail flame-broiled and served with lemon butter and a side of their mixed veggies and red potatoes. Yeah, that meal sounds just about perfect right now.
Best things to eat:Walt’s for smoked fish dip, grouper, and snapper dishes
Previous stone crab season coverage:Where and how to eat stone crab in Sarasota-Manatee
Wade Tatangelo, the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment and dining editor, may be reached by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Support local journalism by subscribing.