Before we moved to Florida, I would have guessed that the vast majority of the restaurants in the state would be of the dockside fish shack variety; that is, small, shot-and-a-beer type saloons with Doobie Brothers playing on the stereo, salt-spray ocean odor wafting through the open windows, and piles of fried seafood available to anyone who wants it. Grizzled fishermen would be perched at the bar, staring at a NASCAR race on the big screen while tourists from Iowa wandered in, briefly surveying the menu before leaving in search of a tiki bar.
Now that we're here, I see that the reality is a little different. Most eateries in the greater Tampa area are pretty much the same as they'd be elsewhere, the usual mixture of fast food, sit-down chain outlets, quasi-ethnic ventures (a surprising number of joints serving both sushi and Italian food, for example), and a smattering of high-quality, more trendy establishments. Finding the fish shacks proves to be more difficult, but they do exist, if not quite exactly in the form I envisioned. When our local food critic, Laura Reilly of the Tampa Bay Times, released her listing of the top 50 Tampa Bay restaurants in 2015, I was startled to see such a place included on the roster, the Olde Bay Cafe in Dunedin, which can, in fact, be found dockside on the harbor, with more boats than cars parked next to it. When Mrs. Hackknife and Hackknifette wanted to meet junior and me for dinner after a mom-daughter beach afternoon, this is where we decided to rendezvous.
The place is small (we'd walked by a few times before to/from the dock to watch the sunset and I'd never noticed a restaurant there) with all seating outdoors (except for 3 or 4 barstools inside) so patrons can better enjoy the balmy tropical climate.
What you see to the left of the bar above is the kitchen. The whole kitchen. No fryers (you can't get popcorn shrimp here), just a stove for pan-searing and an oven for finishing, plus refrigeration and a little prep area. With such a limited space, you would guess that the menu would be brief, and you'd be correct.
Appetizers run the gamut from crab cakes to ahi tuna. We went for the blue crab fish dip (simply delicious) and a half-dozen plump, briny Gulf oysters, one of which had already slid through my gullet before I took this picture.
Had we been ambitious enough to catch our own fish (unlikely), the cook would have prepared it for us ($8.99 per person, including salad and 2 sides). Instead, I opted for the fresh grouper sandwich with a side of potato chips and a tasty cup of house Asian noodle salad (Mrs. Hackknife chose a pair of fish tacos). While not the best grouper sandwich I've ever had, I'm convinced that the craft beers on tap (no Bud to be found) and the shoreline setting made everything taste just a little better. For now, Olde Bay Cafe seems to most closely represent the fish shack I had in my imagination (but I'll keep looking for others)...