It’s almost hard for me to believe, but I’ve lived in Sarasota for almost two and a half decades now. The changes in the skyline and the landscape are too numerous to list, or even remember for that matter. . . but there is one iconic symbol on South Tamiami Trail that has always been there — the huge shark hanging of the sign for Phillippi Creek Village, home of Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar and Restaurant.
It’s been a while since Jill and I have dined at “the Creek”, and upon entering it felt like I was travelling back in time. Sure, the restaurant has continued to evolve, as every good business must in order to survive, but basically the look and feel of “the Creek” have, thankfully remained the same over the years. It felt like coming home . . . which leads me to a little history lesson. Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar is actually the converted winter home of the Phillippi family, and has changed very little since being built in 1604!!! Take that, hurricane season!
Being at the tail-end of tourist season, and the beginning of “the locals-take-back-the-roads-and-restaurants season” (and even those calendar lines have blurred over the years), we arrived at prime-time to find the restaurant bustling. With no outside seating available, we were lucky to snag the very last booth overlooking the boat docks. When it comes to casual waterfront dining, Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar is no doubt at the top of everyone’s “must go there” list . . . judging from the patrons aged 1 to 100 that were dining there on an early Monday evening in May.
And speaking of waterfront dining, the owners of Phillip Creek Oyster Bar have doubled-down on their 12 year history as being voted “Best of the Best” Raw Bar and Seafood Restaurant, by luring the talented chefs and restaurateurs from the original Table Restaurant (of Hillview Street fame) and re-booted it as The Table Creekside, on the southern end of the property. What a winning combination! You’ve got the casual waterfront dining experience at “the Creek” and a more upscale experience at The Table Creekside. Between the two restaurants you’re sure to find a vibe that fits your fancy.
But back to “the Creek”. I love the laid back vibe here, where you can come in shorts and flip flops, whether by car or by boat. I was glad to see they’ve stuck with the “tabloid newspaper” format for their expansive menu! It’s a fun read, with a little history on the joint and lessons on various types of seafood on the outside, and a vast sea of choices on the inside.
Once seated, it was a nice surprise to see our all-pro server Sammy again! Warm, friendly, and efficient, she epitomizes what hospitality is all about and has been serving at Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar for as long as I can remember.
With a couple of cold adult beverages in hand, we start poring over the enormous menu. Well, at least the appetizer was a no brainer for me. I’ve been noshing on the steamed mussels for eons here. In fact, it’s entirely possible that I have never visited without ordering those. And if the truth be told, I’ve made lunch-time pit stops just for these delicious mollusks.
The preparation is sublimely simple: steamed in some white wine and butter with a hint of garlic, along with celery and onions. That’s it. This simple, clean preparation makes the mussels the star of the show, as they should be. Please, don’t ever change it! If I wanted frou-frou, there’s no shortage of variations elsewhere.
The only modest difference I saw in Phillippi Creek Oyster Bar since my last visit was that they have upped their presentation game. In the past the mussels were served in a hotel pan and accompanied with a plastic pail for discarding the shells. Now they’re served in a table space-saving wok on a plate arrangement. I love the wok, and have to smile when Sammy drops by with a white plastic bucket she tucks under the table . “You can drop your shells here,” she explains, “just for old time’s sake.” Didn’t I say she’s all pro?
For her entrée, Jill takes her time to find that perfect combination of fresh seafood and steamed veggies, staying away from anything fried or battered in flour. She zeroes in on the Shrimp and Scallops Norfolk, shell fish cooked in a buttery water, with a dash of salt and hint of lemon. This simple preparation is often overlooked, but it really allows the sublime flavor for the scallops to shine through, and equally embraced the shrimp. Other than swipe a few of my French fries, Jill is intent avoided fried food, so she offers me the accompanying hush puppies — usually her favorites. (Thank you, thank you, thank you!) Happily, the seasonal veggies were cooked al dente, tasting like they were plucked from the garden that morning, just as she likes them, and she couldn’t say enough about the sweet and juicy coleslaw. I don’t think she missed those crunchy hush puppies at all!
I have often said that my all-time favorite, hands down go-to meal would be a blackened fish sandwich, and a cold draft beer. From my side of the picnic table this evening, I normally would order the blackened grouper, but couldn’t resist the Soft Shell Crab sandwich. Close enough, right? I might go so far as to say that this might be all-time favorite number 1(a).
From the hot, perfectly crispy fries and the squeeze bottle of classic, house-made tartar sauce, to the crunchy spear of dill and banana peppers, my meal satisfied that ever-elusive Rubik’s Cube of a perfectly aligned ambience, service, and food that make eating out “a dining experience“. It’s Monday night, for Pete’s sake. I’m a happy man noshing away while watching the view both inside and outside the restaurant.
Throughout the meal, we watched several parents take their children out to the docks to take pictures, and maybe see one of the alligators we’re reminded not to feed. That’s pretty much what I did with my kiddos when they were young.
It was when I spotted a young lad wearing a “Jaws” shirt that made me jump from my seat and rush outside to ask his dad’s permission to take his photo – the ideal way to end this blog! From the shark hanging out front, to the hungry patrons happily munching away. . . this little guy’s shirt was an anachronism not lost on me, reminding me that some things are classic and never seem to change – nor should they.