Seafood Shack in Cortez is back with new tastes, decor

CORTEZ -- Since The Seafood Shack was sold to a new owner last fall, a lot has changed at the venerable waterfront restaurant. But don't fear: The onion rings and the Oreo-crusted Key lime pie are still on the menu. The new chef wouldn't have it any other way.

Purchased along with its adjacent marina and 6 acres of land for $4 million last October, the 26,000-square-foot restaurant is being retooled to appeal to a larger potential clientele and move into hosting events. It has a revamped menu, a new waterside deck, all-new eclectic antique nautical decor and wedding-scale banquet space with a view of the Intracoastal Waterway.

All of it is the work of new owner, John Vandyk, and a restaurant team that spent the past few months figuring out what diners want. Pitting The Seafood Shack's old, fried-fish heavy menu against a slate of New Orleans-inspired seafood fare, the result is a compromise featuring favorites that go back four decades alongside fresh takes on grouper, shrimp and grits.

Liza Kubik, restaurant marketing

and events director, said feedback from Shack aficionados new and old yielded the right formula. The restaurant is using social media to keep in contact with diners.

"We let them know what we're doing and when they respond, we listen," Kubik said.

What's new is wrapped in quite a bit that is familiar to regular patrons. The expansive blue building with its 270-degree first- and second-story views of the water and bridge to Anna Maria Island is much as it was when built by previous owner Hamlin Jones. Inside, the nautical ambiance has been ratcheted up. In the dining room, about a half-dozen doors from old shanties have been assembled into dividers for private dining space, while the ceiling is festooned with nets, buoys and boating equipment.

In the second-floor banquet area, which is under construction until April, a 43-foot antique wood sculling shell is the decorative centerpiece. In a separate space, dubbed The Boardroom, more antique doors cordon off a private bridal suite to be used by an expected stream of wedding parties.

Jan Holman, owner of Cortez nautical boutique The Sea Hagg, is supplying the decor. As assembled, it definitely has a style.

"Upstairs is casual elegance," Holman said. "Downstairs is, I call it, crusty."

The elegance and crust -- the golden flaky kind -- carry over to the kitchen. Head Chef Gerard Jesse is keeping all of it fresh, bringing in locally caught fish daily then applying his Cajun coastal cooking. Yes, the fish and chips are as they have been for the past several decades. But the lobster mac and cheese and the bronzed grouper occupy neighboring spots on the menu for folks looking to try something new.

Gerard, a Manatee High School grad who has worked in kitchens in New Orleans and most recently the Ritz- Carlton in Sarasota, said he's enjoying driving his own cuisine.

"I saw an opportunity to put my own spin on it," Jesse said.

Kubik said the The Seafood Shack has a built-in appeal with a long-standing clientele of adult Longboat Key residents, mainlanders and tourists. The restaurant is also targeting new audiences. Young families will find a child friendly menu and a "treasure chest" full of nautical toys. Boaters traversing the waterway between Sarasota and St. Petersburg are also expected to seek out the restaurant and its improved marina. Electrical service is being added to all 68 slips at the facility, boosting its profile as a place to stop for dinner and an overnight stay.

Prices for entrees and other items are higher than in the past, with most entrees in the $18 to $24 range. Kubik said those prices did prompt some outcry from longtime diners, so the restaurant created an early dining menu with eight dishes priced at $9.99 available from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Vandyk, president of Ontario-based Vandyk Cos. and a part-time Longboat Key resident, has said he intends to retain the restaurant as part of his business portfolio. He has not ruled out additional development on the property, which includes several acres of open space and parking lot.

The Seafood Shack is open for breakfast and lunch 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.