sun staff writer
Once upon a time, when there more orange groves
than golf courses in Florida and more surfers than tourists
on Anna Maria, John Horn and Gary Harkness cleaned the
dirty dishes off tables together at Fast Eddies
Place. It was a time that was almost perfect. Perfect
for a lot of reasons that any Island old timer can tell
you, but also perfect for two friends to be starting out
in the restaurant business.
Fast Eddys was across from the city pier,
and John and I worked our way up through the ranks to
become president and vice-president of what pretty quickly
grew into a restaurant chain of Fast Eddies. There
were a bunch of them from Orlando down to Sanibel Island.
Eventually we closed or sold them all. John took over
the city pier, renaming it Anna Maria Oyster Bar, and
I went on to work with what was then a new company called
Cracker Barrel," Harkness, now managing partner of
Anna Maria Oyster Bar on Cortez Road, explained one recent
Now, its a fact if not law, that good friends in
the restaurant business try to stay in business together.
"John and I are very similar personality wise. We
love to have fun and laugh as much with our customers
as with our employees. Some of our employees are original
co-workers from Fast Eddies 20 years ago. John came
over to Ireland with me to surprise my dad at his birthday
party, and my father recognized Johns laugh before
he even saw us sitting at the bar. We are like family,
and I decided I wanted to be part of this."
"Gary is a big part of Anna Maria Oyster Bar and
why it works so well. Why do I call it Anna Maria Oyster
Bar?" John asked. "While we still had the place
on the pier, we opened up an Anna Maria Oyster Bar on
Tamiami Trail out by the airport. Then we opened this
place on Cortez and most recently we opened another in
Ellenton. We are a whole lot more than just oysters but
I guess the name just stuck from the original. We do tilapia,
lobster, king crab legs, grouper, shrimp and scallops.
I admit that one of the biggest draws is the value for
dollar for our customers. So we really get to know our
customers as a lot of them eat in here 3, 4 or 5 times
Just because its a 15 minute ride from Anna Maria
doesnt mean that inside it doesnt feel like
the island. Restaurateurs, like their customers, see seafood
not just as a plate of food, but also as a memory of childhood
at the seashore. Swim. Surf. Oysters. Seafood. Anna Maria
Oyster Bars look is all seaside eatery, with drift
wood paneling and dolphin stamped lighting fixtures. Life
preservers, brightly painted fish, model sailboats and
crab traps share the focus here with an unexpected visual
centerpiece: a roll of paper towels (decorated with a
red bobber) is suspended from a white metal clothes hanger
over each big comfy booth. Not in the mood for a booth?
You can sit at the fully stocked bamboo tiki bar and watch
the muted televisions or simply sit on a stool at the
counter and enjoy looking at your meal get cooked in the
squeaky clean open kitchen. But no one is coming here
for the decor. They are coming for seafood.
While not huge, the menu is large enough to touch a number
of bases, even including steak, barbecue ribs and a couple
Italian favorites as well as pasta selections. The emphasis,
though, is indisputably on shellfish and fish. We put
this to the test, ordering a variety of seafood dishes.
Far more than we could decently finish: fried clam strips,
oysters, popcorn shrimp and, for good measure, raw oysters.
The seafood is fresh and sweet, and never tastes as if
it has been sitting a moment too long. The clams were
crisp, crunchy and delicious. The deep-fried fresh-tasting
shrimp tidbits were most satisfying - no relation to the
oft-times leaden fried dough Southern variety we were
familiar with. Thick batter, often a problem with deep-fried
seafood, might have overwhelmed our order of fried oysters,
but the six bivalves themselves were so big and juicy
they easily surmounted their wrappings. We actually preferred
the baked version, called Oysters Rockefeller, cradled
in their half-shells on a bed of spinach, bacon and parmesan
cheese with a jolt from the garlic butter. The raw oysters,
how could we pass on them? The clean, briny flavors can
be as satisfying and refreshing as a walk on the beach.
But it was the Anna Maria Island Pasta that really did
it. If youre in it for the seafood, this is a great
way to go as sometimes a bowlful of noodles just cant
be beat. The day we were there, this dish was excellent
and lived up to John and Garys exuberant praise
and we did the right thing following their lead. It was
a generous coterie of sea scallops, shrimp, and artichokes.
A brightly flavored white wine sauce was spiked with raw
tomatoes and fresh basil adding a floral perfumed flavor.
Goodness! Too bad our capacity is never equal to our appetite,
so inevitably we staggered away super sated. But once
Ive made amends with my scale, I will return. In
the meantime I can consider that as well suited to casual
eating as the Anna Maria Oyster Bar is, it would be a
mistake not try this one at home.