By Eileen Ogintz
CLEARWATER, FL (Day 1) — Ready to Hook and Cook?
The best part: after a few hours on a boat, the kids can run around playing Wiffle ball or horseshoes while parents sit at picnic tables nursing a beer or owner Nancy O’Neill’s famous Sangria. “We do a lot for kids,” says owner-chef O’Neill, a contractor turned successful chef and restaurateur. Nauti Nancy’s was packed on a recent Saturday night, with live music in the patio—a mix of locals and tourists, she explained, drawn by the casual vibe, excellent, well-priced food (shrimp-n-grits for $14.99; southern fried flounder dinner with fries and coleslaw $13.99; burgers for $7.99, with sugar coated piping hot beignets for desert.
It’s easy to see why this unassuming place ranks high on Yelp for all of Tampa Bay. A pretty good second act for a 62-year-old former wallpaper contractor who came to Clearwater in her early 20s to help an ailing grandfather and never left. The restaurant, she explained, came about after the recession tanked her business.
She knew how to cook… the building a few blocks from Clearwater’s famous beaches was available… and here she is seven years later. “We’re a fun place,” O’Neill said, surveying the crowd.
The restaurant kitchen is tiny—just a six burner stove. There is a big patio festooned with colored lights and live music every night and the field beyond with the picnic tables. Inside, the walls are decorated with painted mermaids and fish. “The good news is that our food is good. The bad news is that the kitchen is small,” which means waits can be long. No one seemed to mind—certainly not us as we dug into a huge platter of a smoked fish spread served up with hot sauce, onion, jalapenos and banana peppers and some ceviche.
The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and apparently is busy all the time, seating 40 inside, another 60 on the patio and more on the picnic tables in the field beyond. The seafood is fresh daily “Nothing is cooked until you order it,” O’Neill said. No one seems to mind the wait. The crowd is a happy mix of tourists and locals, couples, families and groups of friends.
Kids will eat fish and chips, or burgers, grilled cheese or pasta.
O’Neill had a close friend she often visited in New Orleans—thus the touches from the New Orleans hot sauce, the grits and of course, beignets.
“You have to come back for my gumbo and jambalaya,” she says.