Every time I come down from New York to visit my parents in Sarasota, I go looking for patches of old Florida. A few years ago I heard that I could find one of these patches at Owen’s Fish Camp in Burns Court. It took me a little while to find it – Burns Court doesn’t attract tourists – but the moment I walked into Owen’s porch and saw an old rusty sign saying “We have crabs “, I was transported to Florida with gunpowder. -the blue Buick convertibles. Here, a short walk from Louies Modern, was a fish shop that appeared to have been in business since at least 1950.
I was in the paradise of old Florida. Then I found out that Owen’s Fish Camp opened in 2009. So Owen’s is the Disney World version of Old Florida, but you know what? After eating there for the past three years, the place feels real to me. Co-owner Mark Caragiulo has gone to great lengths to make this happen. His attention to detail is worthy of a Broadway set designer, and if Owen’s Fish Camp were up for the Tony Award for Best Set, I’d vote for him.
“I grew up on Long Island where we had these clam shacks that opened near the beach from May to September,” says Caragiulo. “I love the energy of the click of a screen door, that of people drinking beer and eating oysters. My inspirations were these clam shacks, the O brother, where are you? lobster soundtrack and rolls.
Most of the junk strewn around the restaurant is genuine: old lobster traps, an Iroquois canoe, a Johnson Motors sign that looks like a shark has taken a bite out of it. The main dining room is in an authentic 1920s Sears & Roebuck catalog house.
And the food is great too. If the stone crabs are in season, I crack them until my fingers bleed. I also like the blackened “market fish” (grouper, of course, but when isn’t the “market fish” in Sarasota the grouper?) And the smoked sausage shrimp and grits.
I was recently at Owen’s and the place was buzzing. You can wait up to an hour for a table, but what’s the rush? Grab a beer and enjoy it on the old swinging porch in the back.
Michael Riedel is the theater columnist for the New York Post, host of Theater conference on PBS, and author of the recent book Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway.