The new management at Tarpon Creek Restaurant knows what it’s about. It’s winning over popular opinion — local by local -– as it establishes itself as one of the Middle Keys’ best places to eat. We would call it fine dining, but it doesn’t take itself that seriously despite the fabulous food and great setting.
“One of the things we wanted to create is a restaurant that integrates very well with the community,” said owner Bill Spottswood, “not something that’s just there for the tourists. We want the locals to be proud of it and enjoy it. The rest will follow from there.”
Certainly, the bones of the operation were already in place. Behind the new Holiday Inn Express is a decidedly un-”chain” restaurant. The main structure is an enormous tiki hut that encloses a full kitchen and is fully furnished with modern tropical furniture — comfortable chairs and tables and bar seating with clean lines. The view doesn’t skimp either; colorful kayaks dot the horizon on aqua waters framed with waving palm fronds.
There are two main things to know about the restaurant, under new management for the last three months. One, it serves fresh and local fish only.
“It’s never frozen. In fact, we buy it from the fishermen at our own docks,” said general manager Stephen Schroeder, adding that the cost is significant higher but well worth the restaurant’s serious reputation stake.
Locals favor the butterflied yellowtail or the yellowtail and chips. The first is served grilled in a beautiful crisscross pattern and served “tail on” and the other is flash fried in the lightest of tempura-like batter.
The second thing to know about the restaurant is that it has an honest-to-goodness wood-fired oven.
“I think it’s rare, these days, for diners to enjoy that down-home wood-fired taste,” Schroder said. It makes pizzas in the oven (an Italian version, an upscale meat lovers version, and a pie with grilled shrimp). But it also grills mahi, yellowtail, steak frites, seafood and surf & turf over mesquite wood logs, too.
“It’s the wonderful taste that everybody remembers from their childhood, sort of like a Weber grill, only better,” Schroeder said.
He describes the restaurant’s fare as southern comfort food that meets a Latin twist along Overseas Highway. Tarpon Creek’s signature dishes include the Cuban rice ball appetizer and a lobster pot pie — the sinfully rich dish encased in flaky puff pastry.
Tarpon Creek patrons like to start the evening with a cocktail, of course: a signature mojito or margarita is recommended. For a finish, go for either the Key lime pie or the chocolate mousse and brownie. Both come highly recommended by the eatery’s regulars.
The food at Tarpon Creek is deserving in its own right. But when paired with the fantastic view — a sort of Keys living theatre — it’s irresistible: the wide canal of blue Caribbean water features the comings and goings of an active resort complete with charter fishing boats and the natural wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for a rolling tarpon, a flash of a silvery-scaled back hunching in the clear waters signaling the fish’s search for its own meal. It is, after all, the restaurant’s namesake.
Tarpon Creek Restaurant is located behind the Holiday Inn Express in Marathon just north of Sadowski Causeway on the oceanside. The phone number is 305-289-1332. It is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.