With his award-winning Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island, Sean Murphy has done as much as any local restaurateur to bring luxury culinary experiences to the Gulf Coast.
Now Murphy has ordered a new gastronomic experience. He aims to meld the extravagant with the essential, and do it in an easygoing, comfort food, eat-it-here kind of way.
In fact, Murphy's restaurant venture is called, simply, “eat here.”
“We are debunking upscale formality,” Murphy says. “We've taken all the flavors at Beach Bistro and put them with more accessible fish and beef products.”
Murphy's concept, too, is more than just a new menu that plays off Beach Bistro. For one, while Beach Bistro has the lone location on Anna Maria Island, with Gulf of Mexico views, the plan is to build a stable of eat heres, starting with the Gulf Coast.
The first eat here opened on Holmes Beach in December, less than a mile from Beach Bistro. A second eat here is set to open on Main Street in downtown Sarasota in November, and Murphy has begun to scout locations in Tampa and St. Petersburg for future eat heres.
In addition to more locations, Murphy tinkered with the entire high-end restaurant model he built at Beach Bistro. That restaurant consistently earns one of the top dining spots in Florida in annual Zagat's guides.
Eat here, Murphy says, offers smaller plates than Beach Bistro, and does it in a more relaxed atmosphere. The eat here menus, for example, are printed on regular paper, stapled together and given to customers on clipboards. The napkins are cotton kitchen towels.
“It has a cool and hip feel,” says Murphy, “but it's still casual and welcoming.”
Finally, the eat here business model depends on a quick and easy opening. The Holmes Beach location was built-out in a month and cost about $250,000 — ultra-fast and inexpensive, when it comes to restaurants.
Murphy, who opened Beach Bistro with his wife in 1985, brought on two passive partners for eat here. One, part-time Longboat Key resident Skip Sack, who once owned multiple Applebee's and is a past president of the National Restaurant Association, helps Murphy look for new locations.
“I think it's a great concept because it's a niche no one else is doing,” says Sack. “It's not like a chain.”
The concept is indeed off to a good start, says Murphy. The first eat here, next to the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce building, has 48 seats. It's booked many nights, Murphy says, and has seen little slowdown in the summer. “It has exceeded expectations,” he says.
The eat here idea, says Murphy, goes back five or six years, when he saw customers shift their attitudes about dinner out. “I began to notice dining out was becoming much more about being entertained,” says Murphy.
Murphy noticed that at the Beach Bistro and at the Mangrove Grill in Palmetto, a restaurant he helped open in 2004. Murphy also works in a consultant role with the restaurant at The Concession, a private golf club in east Manatee County.
While the shift to new dining-out attitudes is a big reason behind eat here, Murphy maintains the concept wouldn't work if the food wasn't all-star quality. That's the No. 1 lesson Murphy teaches budding restaurant owners, that food comes first.
“It's always about the food,” says Murphy. “You have to get an 'A' every time.”
Sean Murphy goes straight to the meat when he explains the menu differences between Beach Bistro and eat here.
Beach Bistro, the well-known restaurant Murphy owns on Anna Maria Island, serves rack of lamb. Murphy's eat here serves pot roast.
The Beach Bistro menu, moreover, screams upscale. There's roasted maple leaf duckling, which comes with a cognac demi-glace and costs $42. There's an order of Bistro braised short ribs, which run $19 for a small plate, $38 for an entree. And then there's the extensive wine list, which includes a bottle of ChÃ¢teau La Mission - Haut Brion - Graves, 1982. Price: $1,195.
The eat here menu is decidedly more manageable. Prices for entrees range from $9 to $17. Many appetizers are in the $5 to $8 range.
Designed and written by Murphy, the eat here menu also pokes fun at stuck-up foodies. The pan-cooked mussels, for instance, come with “frites (pretentious fries.)” There's the titanic salad, a plate of chilled iceberg lettuce and Maytag blue cheese that's the “last thing everyone on the ship saw — iceberg & blue.”
Finally, there's fried (tempura) beets, “because Sean's grandmother would roll over in her grave.”