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Behind the Line: Changes in latitude
Sanibel sports bar reinvents with gourmet food, becomes island hotspot
By Lauren Kramer
July 01, 2012
Nine years ago, The Island House was a nondescript sports bar on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida, serving burgers and wings. Then a light-tackle fishing guide who worked nearby became an acclaimed novelist and approached the sports bar’s owners with an idea: Reinvent the establishment, upgrade the menu, name it after the protagonist in his novels and see what happens.
The novelist was Randy Wayne White, who worked as a monthly columnist for Outside magazine, but whose real job was boating the waters around Sanibel as a guide at Tarpon Bay Marina. In those days, he’d occasionally sell the fish his clients didn’t want to The Island House chef.
Then he opted to focus exclusively on writing novels, and became a successful author. But he also brought success to the owners of The Island House, who took White’s advice and reinvented their restaurant as Doc Ford’s Sanibel Island Rum Bar & Grille, later opening a second Doc Ford’s in Fort Myers Beach.
Both restaurants sell White’s novels and hold book signings twice a year. White has become an honorary owner at Doc Ford’s, receiving royalties for use of his protagonist’s name and income from the sale of his books.
The Island House’s metamorphosis to Doc Ford’s occurred in 2004 and one of the most noticeable changes was its menu. Ninety percent of the dishes are seafood, and as much as possible is sourced from local waters.
“We always have local snapper, grouper and mahi as well as phenomenal stone crabs in season,” says Kristopher Zook, executive chef. “But we also menu calamari from Asia, Chilean salmon, blue lump crab from China, blue mussels from Prince Edward Island and bluefin tuna from Costa Rica.”
The menu at the 150-seat restaurant is more diverse and interesting than typical sports bars. There’re still burgers and wings, but there are also items like quinoa salad with grilled shrimp, seafood paella, ceviche cocktail and Campeche fish tacos. The tacos, made with local grouper, are among the most popular dishes, along with the paella, banana leaf snapper and mahimahi, which is seared and served with prickly pear ginger vinaigrette.
Zook’s favorite local fish is triple tail, which he pan-sears and serves over plantains. “My signature is a Caribbean, or Floribbean flair,” he says. “I love serving a tropical fruit salsa with my dishes and adding as many Caribbean and South American ingredients as possible.”
The sports bar’s reinvention was an overnight success. “We hadn’t surfaced as a hot spot until the Doc Ford’s concept came up, and when it did, it increased our notoriety and we became the busiest restaurant on the island,” he says. In high season, vacationers from all over the United States and Canada come for meals, and Doc Ford’s serves 1,000 diners each night. But even in the quiet season, the restaurant has numbers in the range of 200 a night.
Regulations make it illegal for Zook to buy fish from locals at the restaurant’s back door. These days his main suppliers are Blue Star Seafood in Fort Myers, Fla., Jug Creek Co. in Pine Islands, a supplier of stone crabs, and occasionally Sysco.
A Fort Myers native, Zook attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, worked at the Ritz Carlton in Naples and other Florida restaurants before joining Doc Ford’s three years ago.
White still writes novels and says he loves the symmetry of his partnership with Marty and Brenda Harrity and Mark and Heidi Marinello, owners of Doc Ford’s. “I helped provide seafood here way back in the 1970s, and now, because I’ve joined this excellent team of restaurateurs and staff, I have the opportunity to play a small role in providing fresh fish here once again,” says White.
Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia