Hook, Line & Sinker
Owen’s Fish Camp
Forget six degrees of separation. You and Thomas Edison are practically first cousins. Your one degree of distance? That banyan tree you’ve undoubtedly admired while scarfing down succotash or waiting for your reservation alongside that seated statue you were sure was a real man the first time you dined at Owen’s.
You’ve been to Owen’s Fish Camp, right? I know you have. Or you’ve got plans to go this week. You’re either a local who, when faced with the dinner dilemma of “Where should we go eat?” has Owen’s at the top of the short list. Or, you’re a guest in town and family, friends, Yelp, or Sarasotans on Siesta Key told you to make your way there.
Thus, you know what tree I’m talking about.
Let’s backtrack. Owen’s is memorable in every which way. Every nook and cranny, every corner and crook, flaunts some sort of feature that fits perfectly into the fish camp concept. It’s hard to pull off a themed restaurant without coming across like an amusement park knockoff, but owner Mark Caragiulo has managed to make Owen’s feel like a natural habitat.
Mark is like an incognito master of ceremonies, a behind-the-scenes conductor with a magic wand. He tends to shy away from too much adoration, but the man deserves praise as his atmospheric visions have created some of Sarasota’s most favorite hangouts, from Shore Diner to Nancy’s BBQ to the upcoming Veronica Oyster Bar on Hillview. A few years of working on films seeded an admiration of set and production design in a young gourmand, later helping to shape him as an expert at creating landscapes to love.
“There’s a parallel between a restaurant and a movie set,” Mark says. “One starts with a script, the other starts with a menu. Your major players shift from lead actors and directors to chefs and managers. Restaurants still put on a theatrical production, just through food and experience.”
It seems so obvious once he says it. So what was the artistic inspiration for Owen’s, I ask.
“Oh, a screen door, a lobster roll, and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Beyond brilliant backgrounds, in order for a restaurant to work, you better make menus worth marveling at, or what’s the point of the joint in the long run? Owen’s paper menu, which also serves as your placemat, not only looks the part, with its vintage bikini-clad gals, fish hooks, and casual fonts, it also boasts a lineup of craveable cuisine centered on seafood and Southern favorites. Let’s just name a few: Chicken-fried Lobster Tails, Fried Green Tomato Salad, Creole Fish Gumbo with Crawfish Tails, Blackened Mahi Po’Boy, Fish ’n’ Chips, Fried Oysters, Seared Scallops, Shrimp and Grits, and Succotash.
Dishes have to meet production quality too, of course, with fried softshell crab coming out on newsprint, grilled goodies in overf lowing baskets, and country boils served in buckets. Every item is action-packed with bold flavors like spicy remoulade, pepper jelly, brown butter hollandaise, or that famous redneck caviar. Is your mouth watering? Mine too. And carnivores? Worry not: There’s barbecue pork, fried chicken, and sirloin just for you.
And we haven’t even touched on that ingenious backyard space with its stone fire pit churning out chargrilled oysters topped with jalapeños and bacon, icy buckets o’ beers for the taking, kid-tested tire swing, and the soulfully sweet country sounds of a live bluegrass band. It may be one man’s set design, but for the rest of us Owen’s is magical slice through time, a remembrance of good things past.
And what about that beautiful banyan tree that marks the entrance to Owen’s? The one part of the restaurant that Mark couldn’t stage? That gem was given to Owen Burns, one of Sarasota’s founding fathers and the Fish Camp’s namesake, by Mr. Thomas Edison, a friend of his who frequented Ft. Myers and whose huge brainbox made him interested in a million things, from lightbulbs to botany, thus leading him to gifting his pal Owen with an Indian Fig Ficus sapling that now looms over the perimeter of the Fish Camp. And here you thought it was just a pretty tree.
“Any future plans for the Fish Camp?” I ask Mark.
“Eh, any kind of change we do will just be an amplification of our original idea, just a more focused attempt to compress our identity as ‘that Florida fish shack,’” he explains. “We’ll never serve coconut shrimp or tuna sashimi ... it’s just not in our window of expression.”
Fine by all of us, Mark. Amplify and express your heart out. We’ll all just be waiting in the shade.
► Owen’s Fish Camp: 516 Burns Lane, Sarasota; 941-951-6936; owensfishcamp.com
For the Seared Scamp with Salsa Verde and Succotash recipes visit ediblesarasota.com