Fish Shacks and Other Laid-Back Fun

By: Chelle Koster Walton

These local favorites serve up fresh food, cold drinks and a dash of Old Florida flavor.

Just-hooked seafood simple and honest and ice-cold adult beverages spiced with tall fishing tales and other lies: This is Old Florida fish shack fare, where hush puppies are often staple and fish is pronounced in two syllables ("fee-ish"). Sometimes less than pretty, usually within eyeshot of water, and often hard to find, they're even harder to forget for they stand for a way of life and a passion for seafood that survives fashion and food trends.

North Florida

Boss Oyster, Apalachicola, 850-653-9364
"Shut Up & Shuck" the T-shirts say. I like my fish shacks with attitude and my oysters fresh with lots of lemon and a jot of cocktail sauce. That's one of more than a dozen ways they serve 'em at Boss Oyster, a landmark restaurant that poses at the end of a dock along a waterway famous for its oysters. Head inside for an icy one and belly up to the Frog Level Oyster Bar. Don't worry if you're not a raw slurping purist, they have them roasted in the shell or baked and topped with everything from "Rockerfella" to jalapeños.

Fiddler's Restaurant, Steinhatchee, 352-498-7427
It has the proper ramshackle look from the outside and fisherman's cabin feel on the inside. But most of all, it has the menu right - flapping-fresh fish with a y'all drawl. Steinhatchee is fishing headquarters, so the seafood's gotta be fresh. You'll find most of the local classics here - fried oysters, grouper, scallops, crab cakes and combos - plus some fancier renditions such as shrimp Alfredo and the best ribs and sweet tea around.

Flora-Bama Lounge and Oyster Bar & Grill, Pensacola, 850-492-0611
Just as Florida is about to turn into Alabama, a strange thing happens. It's known as the Flora-Bama, among the last in a dying breed of America roadhouses. Even stranger, this local icon hosts an annual Interstate Mullet Toss every April, and has for more than 20 years. Besides throwing fish, patrons swallow lots of fresh, raw and grilled seafood within view of the Gulf of Mexico whence they came. (And booze, it goes without saying, considering people are actually flinging fish.)

Central Florida

Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant, Titusville, 321-268-5000
Though it may look kind of plain from the front, inside wildlife murals, stained glass and vividly painted sculptures brighten the place up and add a little local color. All that's just window dressing for the star of the show: shrimp. We're talking all different varieties of shrimp, depending on the season, right off the boat. Rock shrimp, that crusty little crustacean with a taste and texture often compared to lobster, is the specialty, served with side choices and corn fritters.

Lighthouse Landing Restaurant and Raw Bar, Ponce Inlet, 386-761-9271
Local characters huddle around a bar made from old schooner "Genevieve." Signs sass patrons with such legends as "Prices change according to attitude of customer." The best seating is outdoors around picnic tables on the deck overlooking the salt marshes of the Intracoastal Waterway, just before it empties into Ponce Inlet. Fare is pure Old Florida-style, mostly fried to the same golden hue as the marsh and the setting sun. Munch shark or gator bites with a vengeance, then go for broke with the Fisherman's Platter.

Skipper's Smokehouse Restaurant & Oyster Bar, Tampa, 813-971-0666
It looks as though a hurricane hit, this brand of outre-urban shack chic. Rusted tin roofs, new age murals and peeling clapboard set the stage for Skipper's famous smoked mullet (motto: "We smoke everything"), black bean gator chili, Louisiana mudbugs, fried catfish, raw oysters, and all forms of food that swam. But the real stage is outside under the trees in a courtyard where reggae, zydeco, funk and rock festivals are equally famous fare.

South Florida

Cabbage Key Inn, Cabbage Key, 239-283-2278
The Cabbage Key experience begins as every salty fish house experience should: with a boat ride. It's the only way to get there, and once you've sliced through the chop and gotten over your business with Dockmeister Terry, you're properly ready for something spiked with rum to quench your inner sailor. Famous for its cheeseburgers (maybe or maybe not inspiration for Jimmy Buffett's cravings), the historic inn also serves fresh-off-the-boat fish, especially at dinner. Don't forget to tape your autographed dollar bill to any viable surface. Rest assured it will end up in some charity coffers.

Joanie's Blue Crab Café, Ochopee, 239-695-2682
Down Everglades way, the seafood eatin' takes on a character of its own, tinged with the backwoods ambiance and swamp specialties of Florida's rugged outback. For instance, with the Swamp Combo at Joanie's, you'll be swallowing gator nuggets, crab cakes and frog legs with Indian fry bread. And you'll be eating 'em among kitschy stuffed owls and gator art in a shack that rustic just begins to describe. Staff catches the blue crab for Joanie's famous sandwiches. In season, order the stone crab: its food value was first discovered in these parts, some say.

Le Tub, Hollywood, 954-921-9425
Wise decision, methinks, that they named this after the old bathtub that graces the entryway, rather than the other bathroom fixture that accompanies it. That's just part of the flotsam-jetsam collection that decorates this Intracoastal waterfront restaurant in early Sanford & Son style. Take a bench outdoors in the jungle, order from a wide selection of beers, munch a fresh-fresh catch of the day sandwich, shoot some pool, and listen to the swell tunes of the jukebox, punctuated by the chug of passing boats and scented with that distinctive perfume of eau de salt and motor fuel that intoxicates the seaworthy.

Mangrove Mama's, Sugarloaf Key, 305-745-3030
In the Florida Keys, Old Florida collides with Caribbean style in a colorful splash like the one Mangrove Mama's makes. Hidden among the banana trees and namesake mangroves, it stakes its reputation on fresh shrimp and fish with tropical flair, local lobster in season, conch fritters (a Keys fundamental), and the best Key lime pie. (OK, every other joint in the Keys claims that, but this version is definitely a contender.) If you'd rather drink your dessert, try the Key lime martini.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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