MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. — Fishing charters are wildly popular along the sunset coast of Florida. The Gulf Coast, from St. Pete Beach to Clearwater, has some of the best deep sea fishing in the country and plenty of days of sunshine and calm seas. It's dubbed the "grouper fishing capital of the world," but mackerel, snapper, barracuda, tuna, dolphin, wahoo, hogfish, and more are also plentiful. Most charters guarantee that the boat will bring back fish, and they often include free fish cleaning and ice. But what do you do with your catch if you're staying at a vacation resort or local hotel? These restaurants in the St. Pete Beach area will gladly prepare your keepers: You catch 'em, they'll cook 'em.
It's not unusual to see folks with plastic bags of fresh, fileted fish entering the aptly-named Friendly Fisherman (150 John's Pass Boardwalk, Madeira Beach, 727-391-6025, www.gofriendlyfisherman.com).
The bustling, multi-level restaurant, which sits next to Hubbard's Marina and is owned by members of the same family, is used to preparing and serving whatever you catch. Go out on a charter with Hubbard's (727-393-1947, www.hubbardsmarina.com), then bring whatever you reel in to Friendly's. "About 70 to 80 percent of the folks that go out with us take advantage of this," says Captain Dylan Hubbard. Recently, we handed a bag of gray snapper to the hostess, and before we could finish our first glasses of ice tea, there were platters of blackened and Cajun fried snapper and plates of crunchy fries, sweet corn fritters, and tangy coleslaw on the table ($8.99 per person). The delicate fish was nicely seasoned, and it couldn't be fresher!
The friendly staff at the widely popular Sea Critters Café in St. Pete Beach (2007 Pass-a-Grille Way, 727-360-3706, www.seacritterscafe.com) won't bat an eye when you bring in your own, just-caught fish. "We have a local man and his wife who come in at least five times a week with fish they've caught. I guess they don't want to dirty up their own kitchen," says manager Byron Bates. "Of course, if you're vacationing here, it's a great option, and we'll cook anything, from sheepshead to grouper to sea trout to tripletail." Hand your filets over, grab a seat on the deck, and order a couple of appetizers. Your fish comes fried, blackened, jerk, char-grilled, or broiled (you can order it several ways if you choose), with a choice of two sides ($8.99 per person).
The lively and relaxed Conch Republic Grille (16699 Gulf Blvd., N. Redington, 727-320-0536, www.conchrepublicgrill.com) has a be-happy, Key West-style ambiance, and friendly staff, who will be more than happy to scoop your catch and get it to the kitchen the moment you arrive. You can order it fried, Cajun, or grilled ($8.95 per person). The fish is served family style, but each diner gets a choice of one side (we liked the well-seasoned black beans and rice and zucchini marinara) and a dinner salad. While they're busy cooking your catch, nibble on Conch fritters, served with remoulade sauce and mango salsa, and Conch cracker shrimp, drizzled with a sweet and spicy Thai chili sauce.
For a highly personal, upscale experience, you can't top the private "Gulf to Grille" dining experience at the award-winning Maritana Grille (3400 Gulf Blvd., 727-360-1882, www.loewshotels.com/don-cesar/dining), located inside Loews Don Cesar Hotel in St. Pete Beach. You don't need to be a guest at the hotel, simply reserve the private Chef's Table (a 48-hour advance notice is preferred). Maritana Grille chef de cuisine Jose Cuarta will work with you in recommending possible preparations and accompanying dishes. Your fresh catch will be the main course of a seven-course meal, and might be prepared in a variety of ways. For example, Cuarta may recommend your fish come with a bed of gnocchi, crab, broccolini, fennel, and saffron fumet, or perhaps with lemon risotto and baby artichokes. Stronger-tasting fish could do well with the chef's special coco bean, pork, and baby octopus accompaniment. The "Gulf to Grille" experience is available for two to eight people. The cost is $200 per person, $275 with wine pairings.