A Canadian development firm seeks to restart what was once an iconic waterfront Gulf Coast eatery and gathering house. The project is a tug between Old Florida and new customers.
Since the early 1970s, the Seafood Shack Marina, Bar & Grill has been a local landmark in the historic fishing village of Cortez. Many area residents worked at the restaurant in their youth or celebrated major milestones there.
So they're carefully watching its reinvention.
In 2014, Canadian developer Vandyk Group purchased about six waterfront acres in Cortez Village — which includes the restaurant and marina — for $4 million. Now the firm is revitalizing the restaurant site while still maintaining its Old Florida charm. It's a multimillion-dollar project that's a delicate balance of building something to attract new customers without turning away old ones.
“When the new owners decided to keep the Seafood Shack name, that meant a lot to a lot of people,” says restaurant manager Jason Holsinger. “There are people who came here when they were someone's grandchild 40 years ago, and they're now bringing their own grandchildren into this place. We've got a lot to live up to, and we're trying to hang on to the good and fix the bad.”
The two-story structure that overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway and the Cortez Bridge to Anna Maria Island has gotten a facelift inside and out. Power is being added to the upgraded docks at the 68-slip marina, which accommodates both short- and long-term stays. The outdoor patio features increased seating options, serving as a dog-friendly spot for a meal or drink.
The first-floor dining room now boasts a stylish-meets-funky “nautical chic” decor, courtesy of nearby maritime antiques shop the Sea Hagg. Nets, glass fishing floats, buoys, and other sea-worthy finds hang from the ceiling and walls. Diners sit at chairs painted shades of blue and can watch the action in the new open kitchen. A wall made of old doors creates a semi-private dining nook.
Redecorating the space has proved the easy part; reinvigorating the menu has presented more challenges. The recently hired Executive Chef Gerard Jesse, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, added several new items with a focus on fresh and local ingredients. The former culinary supervisor at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota Members Golf Club, Jesse says from service to plating of the food to the taste, “you're going to remember a meal here; I can guarantee it.”
But some long-timers grumbled about the disappearance of favorite items or the higher prices that come with better-quality ingredients. A solution to that issue: Management has sought out customer comments, both good and bad. “If you're not listening to people,” says Holsinger, who worked at the restaurant under its previous ownership, “you're never going to go anywhere.”
That means some old standbys have reappeared. “There are these onion rings that people just couldn't not have,” says Liza Kubik, the Seafood Shack's director of marketing and events and another former Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota employee. “So the onion rings are back on.”
Later in the spring, the site plans to formally unveil its second-floor meeting and event space, also in Sea Hagg style. The 6,700-square-foot main space features three walls of windows overlooking postcard-worthy views and can accommodate some 350 people for seated events or 600 people standing. A smaller space toward the front of the building will be well suited for business events or even small weddings.
Several independently owned businesses occupy space on the property, such as Annie's Bait & Tackle, H2O Watersportz and Waves Boat Club. And there's plenty more that could be done on the site by the Vandyk Group, which is behind other area developments, such as the One88 Residences in Golden Gate Point in downtown Sarasota and a mixed-used project in Sarasota's Burns Court.
But the first priority is to again turn the Seafood Shack into a destination for both tourists and locals. “Back in the day, the Seafood Shack was almost like the unofficial town hall; everyone would come here,” says Holsinger. “We want to make it more than just a place where you stop and eat. We want it to be a hangout.”