Some recent upgrades at Phillippi Creek Village Restaurant & Oyster Bar hopes to keep the water from pouring down while waiting for your creekside dining table to open up.
Plopping down on a picnic table at Phillippi Creek Village on a recent afternoon, you get a sense that you're not in Sarasota anymore, but it turns out you're at one of the first spots of Sarasota way back when Fernando Phillippi sailed his vessel up the creek in 1569 and started developing the land and creating infill areas and the manmade island where the Phillippi Creek Village complex sits today.
"There's not too many locations in Florida that is true Florida," said vice president of operations Rafael Manzano. And Phillippi Creek is one of those true Old Florida restaurants.
The building has maintained its basic shape and structure since erected in 1604, and now has a tiki hut covering to provide some relief while you wait for your table and grab a drink.
"It's a place for couples to chill out and talk," owner Roy LaLone said, adding that drink service is available while you wait for the dining table. Eventually more features might be added to the area, he added, including LED star lights with fireflies underneath them, but i won't turn into a raucous tiki bar atmosphere.
LaLone is much like Phillippi himself, coming over from a foreign country (Korea) and having to figure out this new land for himself for the most part. LaLone started speaking English here when he was 12, about five years after he arrived. He started bussing tables and fell in love with the kitchen even in the Army.
He started out as coming into the oyster bar to help jumpstart the place for the previous owners when he was 26 years old and loved it so much he's stayed ever since and eventually took it over.
LaLone's style is to trust the talent he has around him and let them create and manager.
"If you have good people that are working with you, then you just got to let them do their things," LaLone said.
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That's where manager Rafael Mazano comes in, helping reinvigorate the menu along with chef Pedro Flores and general manager Amy Berlin with some fresh salads incorporating seafood options and protein, more specials, holiday drinks and new cocktails. Manzano loves the Florida touch of what Caribbean food can be with some of the new dishes just through the use of fresh ingredients with fish.
The newsprint menu at Phillippi Creek sets off an automatic reaction for this Marylander to not even read it, but instead placing it down and preparing an area to crack crabs.
But the menu is worth a read, along with the history of the area, there's plenty of food on it. Diners looking for some experimentation will find plenty of specials on a separate menu and the kitchen will come up with some creations regularly to surprise even regulars.
One of the standbys is the blackened Grouper—no matter the way, and a DNA testing showed that the grouper here is real. And is tastes that way, too. LaLone's personal favorite is the Calypso Salad with blackened grouper with the plantains.
Try the blackened grouper with the baby shrimp and scallop pot pie that's lightly flaked and incredibly filling. If you're wanting something that feels like a good bar dish with a health kick, opt for the Florida Cobb Salad, which features crispy Grouper bits with smoked bacon, egg, avocado, mango and more. There's plenty of grouper to go around here. The restaurant serves 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of grouper each week, Manzano said.
The place grew from a 60-seat seafood joint to having a full bar while keeping Phillippi Creek a family style restaurant. Today the Oyster House seats 225.
"You won't find any TVs in here as a family restaurant," he said. "I used to have TVs but when I found the significant others watching TV, it really took away from the whole experience."
Instead of investing in televisions, LaLone invested in high-end high chairs for small kids that can secure a carrier and double as a high chair.
And for the older kids, they can enjoy the balloon artists, face painting at the boardwalk area and the reopened gift shop Creekside Trader on the weekends, and can expand to five days a week once tourist season is booming. (Expect to see Santa Claus starting Friday at the restaurant to check to see who's naughty and nice, too. )
More big things are to come from LaLone. He's setting up a catering company off site highlighting fresh, high quality food at a competitive price. LaLone said he will reveal more details soon of the operation that will tie into the existing brands.
The experience at Phillippi Creek is enjoying the conversation with your party, and sometimes, the silence. You won't hear live music blaring across the bar, but instead the hum of traffic and the occasional splashing in the creek from manatees and Sarasota Bay dolphins making their way up the waterway to explore and diners making note of their new guests in the creek.
"I'm very blessed with the clientele," LaLone said.
Think about that for a minute—waterfront dining in Sarasota. For a city with world class beaches, the only way you can do waterfront dining is by taking a packed lunched, so finding spots by other waterways is the way to go.
"I'm trying to make it a destination place for when people come visit Sarasota," LaLone said. "I want them leaving knowing it's a different thing and they can't get this in Tampa with the little ambiance with this."
No matter the high quality of the food and the freshness, LaLone tries to make his prices competitive, even with the market price, and focuses on the customer experience.
And if all goes right, dining shouldn't be a hassle for anyone on either side of the counter.
"There's a certain allure that gets in your blood and on certain days, it doesn't feel like work," LaLone said.