If Marathon had a signature “taste” this would be it: mahi-mahi char-grilled with jerk seasoning, served over coconut rice with black beans and mango salsa. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

Sunset Grille and Raw Bar isn’t “just” a restaurant. That isn’t what John Kotch set out to create nine years ago — he wanted a package, an experience. And that’s what guests get — paradise realized, what they were dreaming of sitting in snow-bound homes in the frozen north. 

“Visitors ask, ‘Where can I go to see the sunset?’ Kotch said. “And locals direct them here.”

But it isn’t just sunset — there’s the “beach” with cornhole and lounge chairs. There are special parties two or three times a week, whether it’s Sunday Funday, or football, or large-gathering events; think DJs and contests and promotional booze giveaways. There’s an 18-foot-wide screen for movie night. There’s the dock for hungry boaters ready to disembark and eat after a hungry day on the water. There’s an extra sea-level tiki bar and seating area. And there’s an extra amenity unique to Sunset Grille which is open to every guest whether they are ordering a mojito or blue crab mac and cheese. 

“People walk in here and stop to look at it. ‘There’s a pool?’” said Kotch, smiling as he recounts the astounded reaction of visitors. And, yes, that’s cool, but what makes this restaurant unique is the location — in the shadow of the iconic 7 Mile Bridge. “I never wanted to create a place that was just about coming to eat. This is NOT about dine and dash. This is an experience.”

The restaurant is hard to miss. The huge tiki structure dominates the tiny island of Knights Key just west of “downtown” Marathon. It features a main, raised dining area, and then the pool deck and a handful of slips for diners who come by boat. Colorful umbrellas compete with the blue ocean views for prominence.

Kotch estimates that the number of guests through the door — for breakfast, lunch, happy hour and dinner — can swell to 1,000 a day. That’s word of mouth, plus blurbs in “Coastal Living” and airplane travel magazines. While the shout-outs are nice, what satisfies Kotch the most is the restaurant’s connection with Marathon — hosting big dinners for everyone from political candidates to graduating high school seniors or just a group of neighbors who want a night out.

“This is a year-round place,” he said. And, why not? The weather is always fine and the sunset happens once a day.

Kotch owns two other restaurants in North Carolina, and came to the industry after an obsession with baseball and a three-year stint bartending in the islands. He started small, but with a bang, in a shopping plaza before acquiring a 700-seat restaurant. He has established a strong bond with his employees, 100 just in Marathon, who stick with him through the highs and lows (Hurricane Irma).

“Retaining the core group of employees is important; it’s how we maintain consistency which is very important to me,” he said, leaning against the rail at the Marathon restaurant wearing a backwards Costa visor, titanium necklace, and a pair of board shorts. “We’re blessed.”

Sunset Grille & Raw Bar:
7 Knights Key Blvd., Marathon
8 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily
What to order: fresh seafood, any kind

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