As the remnants of the day’s catch were hosed off the loading dock, the late afternoon sun created a rainbow in the mist. At the end of this rainbow was no pot of gold, but rather a bucket of blue crabs.
“People come hundreds of miles to eat our blue crabs,” said Larry Corbin general manager at Peace River Seafood. Located on the side of the highway near the center of Punta Gorda in southwest Florida, it’s one of several establishments in that area that have retained the unpretentious charm of old Florida. Housed in a small 1920s home (the restroom still has the original tub) there is seating inside or out on the front porch and the newer covered deck. On the side of the restaurant behind a screen door is the small fresh fish market.
“We only do what we call boat-to-throat seafood here,” said Mr. Corbin. Because they are not on the water, each day contracted fishing boats are pulled out of the water and onto trailers driven directly to Peace River Seafood where the catch is off-loaded for use in the restaurant and the market. “We also sell to restaurants around the country. Our blue crabs are most likely what you are eating in Maryland,” he said proudly.
“Peace River is one of the only places in southwest Florida that really serves fish and crabs caught in these waters,” he said. “If we didn’t catch it that day, you won’t be eating it.” They also make the desserts such as Key lime pie. Peace River Seafood will satisfy your craving for authentic old Florida ambiance with dollar bills and fishing nets decorating the walls. The one detractor from the experience was the fast-food style plastic utensils.
There are a handful of other establishments along the Gulf Coast that have survived the crush of developers, strip malls and the lashing of highways crisscrossing the state.
Another place where you can sink your teeth into the past is The Bean Depot Cafe. It’s housed in an old post office and grocery built in 1922 along defunct railroad tracks.
“It also has a jail cell that used to hold prisoners until the train came,” said manager Jodi Ebertshauser. She was doing some touch-up painting before the cafe opened for the day. The Bean Depot has been around for 18 years in El Jobean, Fla., and has continued to draw regulars and tourists despite the lack of air conditioning. The ceiling fans are more like props and look nearly as old as the building.
It’s screened-in porch and walls covered in dollar bills (it’s a thing in old Florida) offer that lost-in-time atmosphere that so many newer spots try to recreate. This place doesn’t have a website, but you will find plenty of reviews on the internet. “Wednesday is live bluegrass and it’s nuts here,” she noted. The cafe is known for live music and their Suicide Simon burgers, named after a circus performer who used to be shot out of cannon. It’s a cash-only establishment.
Snook Haven in Venice, Fla. is not easily found. A rutted dirt road leads through a thick canopied jungle which finally opens up to let some sun shine on this Myakka River restaurant shack. Huge taxidermied alligators hang from the walls with names like “old Nik” and “Big Hank.” The menu, like most of these old haunts, is filled with deep-fried and breaded dishes, but again, it’s more about the setting than what’s on your plate. An outdoor stage hosts different local bands. This year every Thursday afternoon it will be the Gulf Coast Banjos, but the calendar of events is posted on the Snook Haven website to help you determine what kind of music you would like to go with your deep-fried alligator bites. If you want to burn off some of those comfort-food calories, there are kayaks and canoes for rent to use on the river, which is more like a very slow-moving stream rolling through the mangroves. If you do go out on the river, watch out for the alligators that haven’t been stuffed yet.
Matlacha, a former fishing village on Pine Island is defined by the road that runs through it. Just about a mile long, it is a blink-and-you-will-miss-it kind of place. You know you are there when you see tiny colorfully painted roadside buildings. These former fishermen’s shacks are now shops and art galleries. If you keep driving into Pine Island to Bokeelia you will find Captain Con’s Fish House, where you can enjoy more fried food while you watch the pelicans dive for fish. It’s been on the Charlotte Harbor waterfront since the 1920s.
On the National Register of Historic Places is Warm Mineral Springs, an Ice Age sink hole filled by a fresh-water underground spring. It boasts the highest concentration of minerals in the country. The spring is very popular with Europeans who have settled in Florida. If you listen to the chatter of visitors, it’s like a United Nations meeting with a lifegurad.
“American’s don’t seem to use it as much,” said a Russian woman as she floated by on a styrofoam noodle with her friends. It could be the tiny harmless spring fish, the size of minnows, that swim all around you while you float and soak in the minerals that is off-putting to Americans. The noodles are sold in the entrance gift shop along with water, sunscreen, postcards and more.
Warm Mineral Springs goes to a depth of 210 feet and has delivered some exciting archeological finds. A human skull dating back 10,000 years was discovered more than 70 feet down as were saber-toothed tiger bones. Located in North Port, Fla., it’s worth a dip for $20 a day. Plastic lawn chairs are first-come, first-serve on the grassy area surrounding the pool.
Warm Mineral Springs Motel is less than a mile away. Designed by architect Victor A. Lundy, who was known for his “more roof than wall” approach to architecture, it opened in 1958. The exterior retains that Atomic Age ambiance of an era gone by. While driving around Warm Mineral Springs you will notice some seemingly abandoned 1950s buildings with that “Jetsons” look as well.
A place to stay that is near the water is the Tropical Bay Inn Motel. It is a real throw-back to the roadside motel era. It’s made up of colorfully painted cinder block bungalows, each housing one-bedroom suites with efficiency kitchens and tile floors. “The motel has been here since 1957,” said Lisa, the property manager who did not want to use her last name. There are seven suites in total. The property was rehabilitated in the 1990s and has become popular with people who need a place to stay before their vacation rental is ready. Older clients enjoy staying longer. Each unit has lounge chairs, a palm umbrella and outdoor grills for a cookout. It’s located on Bayshore Road in Port Charlotte just across from the street from the Peace River and a very long fishing pier. Port Charlotte Beach Park is just three miles down the road.