Seafood At Its Best

Best restaurants in Sarasota Bradenton for seafood, Florida stone crab – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The Merman

Craving fresh seafood including Florida stone crab? Check out these restaurants from Sarasota, St. Armands Circle and Longboat Key to Anna Maria Island and Cortez fishing village.

Florida stone crab season has finally arrived, and that means one more fine reason to visit our favorite seafood restaurants in Sarasota and Manatee counties. These of course include several in the historic commercial fishing village of Cortez, which will be hosting its 10th annual Stone Crab and Music Festival Nov. 12-13, right there along north Sarasota Bay. 

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 and served at least partially pre-cracked: the tips appearing black while the rest of the claw arrives on your plate with its thick shell displaying vibrant shades of orange. You remove the ivory-colored meat using a seafood cracker, a cocktail fork, and, yes, your fingers; and then perhaps dip the prized chunks in melted butter, mustard sauce or both. Now, some places do offer stone crab served warm, but let me recommend enjoying them cold or at room temperature for maximum flavor.

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What does stone crab taste like? The tender, flaky meat has a highly craveable sweet flavor similar to its crustacean cousins. In other words, imagine a Maine lobster vacationing in the Gulf of Mexico, meeting a shapely shrimp and the couple producing a love child. 

Stone crab season opened Oct. 15 (continuing through May 1) and the prices I have seen at local restaurants recently while dining with my wife, Kristin, are about $30-$70 per pound, depending on the size of the claws. Yes, they are pricey. But one bite and you’ll know where the money went, as you sink into a state of pure gastronomic bliss; a state admittedly enhanced by a glass of white wine. 

We’ve included a dozen Sarasota and Manatee restaurants (several also double as fish markets) for this story, with many providing awesome waterfront views. You’ll find n suggestions for dishes, and some drinks, to pair with the stone crabs so that even if you’re not a huge fan of the claws, you’ll want to visit each of these places for their other tasty offerings.

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Each restaurant confirmed during the past week or so that they will be serving stone crab whenever available this season. However, you should call ahead to verify before visiting for a plate covered with delicious stone crab claws. Also, folks in Venice should note that one of our favorite south Sarasota County waterfront restaurants, Dockside Waterfront Grill, has elected not to serve stone crab this season.

Beach House

200 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach; 941-779-2222;

The only thing better than treating yourself to 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, where stone crab is served – $50 per pound, $25 per half pound during our recent visit – with their top-shelf mustard sauce (keep reading). 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, including the always impressive grouper, mahi-mahi, and steamed clams. 

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Blue Marlin

121 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach; 941-896-9737;

Reigning as an elite seafood restaurant now for more than a decade, 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 tables and the handsome bar, Blue Marlin has the Trap Yard, with outdoor tables, an additional full-liquor bar and a stage for live music. As for stone crab, you can enjoy it served various ways including by the half, or quarter pound ($15 during our recent visit). Also, Blue Marlin has been known in the past to offer specials such as their “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; the Thai snapper nuggets with red onion, jalapeño and cilantro salad; or perhaps a special like the smoked mullet fish spread I recently devoured. For entrees to follow a stone crab appetizer, I highly recommend the newly added Grouper Dijonaise that finds a perfect filet of fish egg-washed and sautéed with lemon butter and finished with dijonaise and served with sage potato and tri-colored carrots ($45). The always popular pecan grouper is another great option, as is the Grouper Fulford, which they will still make you even though it no longer appears on the menu.

All of these dishes, along with the chocolate peanut butter pie we recently had, are among the tastiest you’ll find in town. Finally, Blue Marlin offers a first-class beer, wine and hard booze selection that has been known to include the coveted Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve.

Restaurant reviews: Blue Marlin for Grouper Fulford, Blackened Fish Alfredo, Thai Nuggets

Captain Brian’s Seafood Market & Restaurant

8421 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-351-4492;

Found 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 — which is currently $42 for approximately a pound and includes two sides — 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 any of the freshly caught fish including personal favorites like the red snapper or tripletail.

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Columbia Restaurant 

411 St. Armands Circle, Sarasota; 941-388-3987;

The family-owned and operated Columbia Restaurant is famous for many reasons including being the oldest dining establishment in Florida, with the original location in Tampa’s Ybor City opened in 1905 and our Sarasota spot on St. Armands Circle welcoming guests since 1959. The restaurant is renowned for serving authentic Spanish-Cuban cuisine and its iconic Cuban sandwich perfected in Ybor. But let me go on the record as stating Columbia also happens to be a first-rate seafood joint.

Our feast this past Sunday afternoon started with an order of handsome stone crab claws, the three-quarter pound of claws — three that I believe would be classified as large  — served with a smart mustard sauce and drawn butter kept warm by a strategically placed candle ($48.75). We paired this course with the Scallops “Casimiro” that finds the sweet sea creatures baked and served in a clay casserole with lemon butter and topped by deftly seasoned bread crumbs and white wine.

While my goal was to focus strictly on seafood during this recent visit, Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad is perhaps my favorite salad on the planet and we just couldn’t resist. For those unfamiliar, it’s tossed tableside and includes crisp iceberg lettuce, julienne of the restaurant’s exceptional house baked ham, natural Swiss cheese, tomato, olives, grated Romano cheese, Lea & Perrins worcestershire sauce, and Columbia’s peerless garlic dressing, which you can purchase by the bottle in the restaurants’ gift shop or at Publix, but, trust me, their salad always tastes best when served tableside.

Columbia’s most acclaimed seafood entree is probably the paella made with a long list of mouthwatering ingredients including clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and calamari. Recently, though, I find myself adoring the restaurant’s Snapper “Adelita.” The boneless fillet of snapper arrives grilled and flavor-bombed by hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and onions; with a side of their delightfully buttery yellow rice set off by peas and laced with onions and green peppers.

And while I loved the snapper entree, even more exciting was what they did with the Salmon Almeria. The perfectly chargrilled filet of Verlasso Patagonian salmon achieves a remarkable balance of sweet and savory with diced tomatoes and Spanish olives laced throughout the citrus-butter sauce. In fact, next visit I’m going to find out what else I can pair with that irresistible sauce. 

Finally, if you have any interest in sangria, be sure to order a pitcher of Sangria de Cava. It’s made tableside with a judiciously balanced mix of Spanish sparkling wine, brandy, orange liqueur and fresh citrus juices. The seafood also pairs extremely well with Estrella Damm, the legendary lager beer brewed in Barcelona, Spain, that Columbia serves on tap. 

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Cortez Kitchen

4528 119th St. W., Cortez; 941-798-9404;

Located in the heart of the historic fishing village, Cortez Kitchen is a priceless slice of Old Florida, the open-air wood structure hugging the water with easy access to Sarasota Bay. A favorite among locals and tourists alike now for about two decades, the Kitchen has been owned by Joe Oelker for the majority of those years and he can often be found there quietly overseeing everything from his favorite corner barstool. 

You can enjoy a dinner of about one pound of stone crab — approximately six medium-sized claws — for $45 that includes two sides, and you’ll want to make sure at least one of them is their fabulous fried okra. The sweet potato pies are also popular, and I’ve been known to put away quite a few of their hush puppies over the years. 

In addition to the stone crab, must-try dishes include the Buffalo grouper bites (fresh grouper deep-fried and dipped in Buffalo sauce) and the seafood platter containing shrimp, scallops, grouper and stuffed crab. They also offer several awesome grouper sandwich options including Buffalo, Reuben, fried, blackened and grilled. Oh, and one of the greatest blackened mahi-mahi sandwiches I’ve ever eaten came from the Kitchen.

In addition to the fresh seafood, the Kitchen offers a full liquor bar, which is known for generous pours, and hosts some of area’s best rock and country music acts. These include regulars such as Frankie Lombardi, the longtime member of Dickey Betts’ band who is scheduled to perform again from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28.

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Dry Dock Waterfront Grill 

412 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key; 941-383-0102;

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 populated by frolicking dolphins and plucky pelicans.

Dry Dock recommends enjoying a platter of fresh stone crab claws ($60 per pound, $30 per half pound) with their spinach salad that comes adorned with strawberries, glazed pecans and dried cranberries 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, Gecko’s Hospitality Group’s Tripletail Seafood & Spirits in Sarasota shopping plaza The Landings offers a menu similar to Dry Dock’s and is also serving stone crab this season, as appetizers and entrees.

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Fresh Catch Fish Market & Grill  

7119 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-413-7133;

Located on Tamiami Trail just south of Gulf Gate, Fresh Catch has established itself as one of Sarasota’s best seafood destinations since opening in 2017. A sit-down restaurant and popular market, it’s also one of the region’s top purveyors of stone crab, with owner Bob Provost proudly offering a full array of the prized claws. 

This year’s prices at Fresh Catch, either for dine-in and takeout from the market, are:

  • $39 per pound for medium
  • $49 per pound for large
  • $59 per pound for jumbo
  • $69 per pound for colossal 

Provost recommends dining in and enjoying the claws at room temperature with butter and perhaps a cold beer or a glass of chardonnay or pinot grigio, which they also serve. In addition, consider trying their mahi-mahi fish spread, homemade fish stew, or ahi tuna served with watermelon salsa. Have a non-seafood eater in your party? Fresh Catch also serves a popular brisket burger. 

Mar Vista Dockside 

760 Broadway St., Longboat Key; 941-383-2391;

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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Sandbar Seafood & Spirits

100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria; 941-778-0444;

The oldest and probably most famous of Ed Chiles’ trio of waterfront restaurants, Sandbar offers guests fabulous al fresco beach seating, as well as indoor seating with wonderful window views, including at the bar, on the north end of Anna Maria Island.

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.

Enjoy your claws – medium, large, jumbo or colossal – served cold with the mustard sauce made from Joe’s Stone Crab’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 augmented by sweet ginger-soy and then a side of their highly addictive honey sambal sauce. And again, I’m always impressed by the fresh grouper and mahi-mahi served at Chiles’ restaurants — especially when I order one blackened in a sandwich served on their freshly baked bread. 

Star Fish Company Market & Restaurant 

12306 46th Ave. W., Cortez; 941-794-1243;

Star Fish Company, 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 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 – which also has bar seating.

In addition to the stone crab (a perfect half-pound of medium-sized claws cost $29.95 during our recent visit), be sure to get yourself some stone crab chowder ($8.50) and a cold one or two. You will enjoy these items while watching seabirds and perhaps some dolphins playing 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 accompanied by lemons, plastic ramekins containing their mustard sauce and drawn butter, plus multiple sides such as their hush puppies, which happen to be my favorite hush puppies in town. 

What else should you consider ordering? Well, the Cortez Special Highliner with blackened grouper mahi and grouper 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 shrimp and oyster po’ boy, soft shell crabs and fried shrimp that were thoroughly enjoyed in 2016 by Emeril Lagasse.

Swordfish Grill

4628 119th St. W., Cortez; 941-798-2035;

Featuring a nice, nautical-themed indoor dining area as well as lively sports bar section, Swordfish Grill also has a waterfront patio with tables, a tiki bar and covered stage right there on Sarasota Bay, plus a newer area of open-air covered seating along the water across the channel from Cortez Kitchen. Opened in 2011, the restaurant is owned by John Banyas. He also owns the neighboring Cortez Kitchen property and N.E. Taylor Boatworks as well as Cortez Bait and Seafood, if you’re looking to enjoy some fresh seafood at home.

Swordfish started serving stone crab right on Oct. 15 and we were there to celebrate the start of season with a half-pound of medium-sized claws ($27) that could not have been any fresher. I also highly recommend the bacon-wrapped scallops (either as an appetizer or entree), the smoked fish spread and the Thai grouper bites special they were offering. On previous visits, I’ve also enjoyed excellent blackened grouper sandwiches while sipping a cold one and enjoying the live music at Swordfish. 

Walt’s Fish Market, Restaurant and Tiki Bar 

4144 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 941-921-4605;

It’s another busy year for stone crab at the century-plus old Walt’s, with fourth-generation owner Brett Wallin telling me on Sunday, Oct. 23, that each day they’re already selling 300 pounds! Wallin recommends pairing stone crab with their Linda’s Margarita or perhaps a locally brewed beer. 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 Square Grouper Sandwich is another essential item at Walt’s, with the fresh fish cooked to your liking (I prefer mine blackened) and served on ciabatta bread with lettuce, grilled tomato, crispy onions, and their habit-forming Key lime tartar sauce. In fact, the way to go at Walt’s might just be starting with the stone crab, sharing the grouper sandwich and then having another local fish such a 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.

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Wade Tatangelo is Ticket Editor for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and Florida-Georgia Regional Dining and Entertainment Editor for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He can be reached by email at [email protected] Support local journalism by subscribing.​​​​​​

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