Vol 6 No. 2 - October 5, 2005

Anna Maria Oyster Bar still has an Island vibe


The Anna Maria Island Pasta is a favorite dish at the Anna Maria Oyster Bar.
SUN PHOTO/LIZA MORROW

Liza Morrow
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 Eddie’s 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 Eddy’s 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 Eddie’s. 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 Sunday afternoon.

Now, it’s 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 Eddie’s 20 years ago. John came over to Ireland with me to surprise my dad at his birthday party, and my father recognized John’s 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 a week."

Just because it’s a 15 minute ride from Anna Maria doesn’t mean that inside it doesn’t 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 Bar’s 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 you’re in it for the seafood, this is a great way to go as sometimes a bowlful of noodles just can’t be beat. The day we were there, this dish was excellent and lived up to John and Gary’s 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 I’ve 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.

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