By Bonnie Gross
and Bob Rountree
Nothing fancy: That could be the motto of the classic Florida fish shack.
You know the kind of place we mean: fresh air, funky style, a bit weathered, full of folks “dressed up” in Guy Harvey T-shirts and flip-flops.
Every city across America has seafood restaurants that try to suggest the ambiance of Florida fish shacks. They may get the weathered wood, the battered-license-plate décor, but, of course, they’re not the real deal.
An authentic fish shack has a real connection to fishermen; the closer to the source, the better. And, of course, the fish and all the fixings have to be fresh, local and delicious.
The good news is, despite a tendency to tear down the old and bring in the bland, there are many great fish shacks with fanatic followings around the state. As a result, we’re still discovering new ones -- and we hope we always will.
Here are seven of our favorites that are worth a stop on your travels.
Triad Seafood, Everglades City
With a location right on the Barron River, Triad is located on the docks through which Florida’s best and freshest stone crabs pass, including those destined for Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach.
Triad, however, has a few advantages over Joe’s. First, you won’t have to hunt for a parking space. Beyond that, you’ll find even fresher stone crabs at lower prices (though you should expect stone crabs to be among your priciest seafood choice.)
Being a fish shack, Triad puts on no airs. You dine in a screened patio overlooking the water on picnic tables. “Doesn’t look like much from the outside” is an over-statement.
Stone crabs are in season only from Oct. 15 to May 15, but Triad is worth a stop at other times for its fresh local fish, conch fritters, sweet potato fries and the key lime pie.
401 School Drive West
Entrees $8 - $15, except for stone crabs, which are market prices.
Peace River Seafood, Punta Gorda
You may think the best blue crabs come from Chesapeake Bay, but Jimmy Beall, co-owner of Peace River Seafood and a long-time area crabber, knows better. And he proves it five days a week with a fish shack that looks like it could be the prototype of a Florida fish shack.
Located in a 1927 cracker cabin, Peace River Seafood is shaded by a big old live oak tree. Even in the summer, it’s all open air, with newspapers on the tables, a parrot squawking on the porch and customers using mallets to crack open their delicious crabs.
Peace River Seafood serves fresh local shrimp, stone crabs, crab cakes, clams, grouper and mahi mahi as well as fresh fish from outside the area, such as salmon and lobster.
But crabs are king here. The fresh seafood here is sourced from local Punta Gorda fishermen, and it is also a wholesale market.
Peace River Seafood
5337 Duncan Road
Entrees from $7 to $37
JB’s Fish Camp, New Smyrna Beach
At JB’s Fish Camp, you know the crabs are fresh because tomorrow’s dinner is crawling around behind the restaurant. Live crabs are kept alive in double-decker “runs,” where they are nurtured until they meet their maker – you --courtesy of JB’s chefs.
These crabs are local, when available, and the restaurant has its own leased oyster beds, although the oysters served here may also come from Apalachicola Bay or Louisiana. The clams are equally fresh and often harvested from the lagoon.
JB’s has a pure fish shack ambiance – tablecloths are brown paper rolled out in strips; many visitors arrive by boat or kayak from Mosquito Lagoon. The outdoor deck overlooks the bays and islands of the Halifax River.
While the main attraction is crab, other favorites include rock shrimp and the to-die-for crab balls.
JB’s Fish Camp
859 Pompano Ave.
Entrees: $6.50 - $25
Hogfish Grill, Key West
Hogfish is as close to the Key West shrimp docks as you can get, and those fresh Key West “pinks” – the local shrimp, which are plump and pinkish-coral color – are one of the two must-haves at the Hogfish.
The other, of course, is the hogfish, best experienced in the World Famous Killer Hogfish Sandwich ($14.95.) This signature dish is made with fresh hogfish (a sweet, mild local delicacy caught only via spear-fishing) plus mushrooms and Swiss cheese on Cuban bread.
The Hogfish Grill is located in a hard-to-find working marina on Stock Island, which is located east of Key West and an island through which all Key West traffic must flow. For years, Hogfish was a locals-only spot, with reasonable prices and Conch Republic attitude. In recent years, however, Hogfish has been discovered, and was recently ranked as one of the 30 best seafood restaurants in America by Travel & Leisure.
Visitors will find Hogfish unchanged so far. It’s a big chickee hut with long tables and benches and sometimes loud live music on weekend nights.
Hogfish Bar and Grill
6810 Front Street
Stock Island, FL 33040
Lazy Flamingo, Bokeelia
This cozy little fish shack is on the north end of Pine Island, accessible by boat from Sanibel or Captiva via Pine Island Sound and from Boca Grande, Port Charlotte and
Punta Gorda by way of Charlotte Harbor. By car, take US 78 through Cape Coral and Matlacha, then drive north to the Four Winds Marina.
At the Lazy Flamingo, you can either dine outside on the deck overlooking the marina or at the bar and dining room inside. Your first order should be “The Pot,” a bucket of two-dozen clams and oysters steamed in beer with special spices, celery and onions. The menu also includes a delightful conch chowder and a hearty grouper sandwich, among other seafood specialties.
There are three other Lazy Flamingoes in the area – two on Sanibel and one in Fort Myers. We can only vouch for the ambiance in Bokeelia.
16501 Stringfellow Road
Entrees: $7 - $18
DJ’s Deck, Port Orange
A favorite dining destination in the Daytona Beach area, DJ’s Deck is your classic seafood and raw bar, and it’s a favorite of locals. You order from the menu at the window and pick it up when it’s ready. Waitresses move through the picnic tables spread across the dock under clusters of tiki huts to refresh your beverages.
The menu is your standard fish shack: fried, grilled or blackened specialties, such as the fish-of-the-day dinner ($12.99), grilled mahi ($13.99) or the fried scallops ($14.99). We never go there without pounding down a bucket of oysters or clams ($19.99) and a bowl of chowder ($4.99).
At times, you have to dodge the line of fisherman who sell their catch at the ice house next door, but that adds to the flavor of DJ’s. If you want a slightly less casual indoor dining experience, visit the “Down Under” on the other side of the parking lot.
9 Dunlawton Ave.
Entrees: $7 to $17
Alabama Jack’s, Homestead
You know Alabama Jack’s is an authentic Old Florida fish shack because nobody would open a restaurant on Card Sound Road today.
Card Sound Road is a toll-road through the mangrove swamps where Miami-Dade County meets Monroe County. It used to be a fishing community, but the only thing left is the ramshackle collection of shacks, docks and barges that constitute Alabama Jack’s.
Don’t be put off by the row of Harleys you’ll probably see out front. While it’s a popular place for motorcyclists out for a weekend destination, the place is full of all sorts of people, including many families whose kids delight in feeding the fish over the railing. On weekend afternoons, crowds build at Alabama Jack’s and country music is performed live on a small stage.
In addition to the ambiance, what keeps folks coming to Alabama Jack’s are the conch fritters, crab cakes and sweet potato fries. Alabama Jack’s is best known for its fried fare, but its conch salad is also popular.
58000 Card Sound Road
Entrees: $7 to $21