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Longboat dining options about to expand

Restaurants coming soon promise new variety without leaving the island.

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  • | 2:40 p.m. January 19, 2022
Owner Estela Villegas seeks to open La Villa Mexican Restaurant by the summer. The restaurant is located at 5610 Gulf of Mexico Drive Suite No. 5. File photo
Owner Estela Villegas seeks to open La Villa Mexican Restaurant by the summer. The restaurant is located at 5610 Gulf of Mexico Drive Suite No. 5. File photo
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Courtney Rossler, a longtime Lazy Lobster employee, and her business partner Kevin Pass were hungry after a day of boating in July 2021.

But there was a problem. 

“Without exaggeration, we went to every restaurant between the Lazy Lobster and Beach House Restaurant (in Bradenton Beach), and everyone was on a two-hour wait,” Rossler said. “We were kind of just like, ‘Wow, we really need more restaurants.’”

Courtney Rossler has worked for 11 years at the Lazy Lobster. (File photo)
Courtney Rossler has worked for 11 years at the Lazy Lobster. (File photo)

The experience Rossler and Pass shared that summer day and the familiarity she has gained while working 11 years for Lazy Lobster Owner Michael Garey evolved into a notion, then a plan, then something more. The recently submitted a new development application to the town for Lo Key Tiki Bar, to be located at 5620 Gulf of Mexico Drive near the corner of Tarawitt Drive.

It's the second restaurant/bar to apply to do business on the island in recent weeks, while others are also in the works. La Villa Mexican Restaurant's owner announced plans to open in 2022. And developers of the Buccaneer, on the site of the former Pattigeorge’s, are also moving through the development process. Construction has started on the Residences at St. Regis Longboat Key resort, which will offer a range of dining and drinking options when it opens, as early as 2024.

Beyond more treats for the palate, the restaurant upswing also means something close to Longboaters’ hearts. They can stay close to home for a night out.

“At times, you can’t get off the island both the north and the south of people going to Anna Maria (Island) for sunset dinner to St. Armands or Sarasota for happy hours and dinner,” Pass said.

Navigating traffic congestion is a challenge Longboat Key resident Fred Lawson said he tries to avoid during snowbird season. And he’s not alone, on the road or in his feelings about congestion. He recalled a February dinner reservation he had set for 6 p.m. in Sarasota a few years ago.

The traffic fiasco that ensued meant an hourlong drive to the mainland. Never again, he said.

“Ever since that, (if) we’re meeting friends there, I wouldn’t go to any dinner reservation in Sarasota earlier than 7 p.m. in season,” Lawson said. “You just don’t.”

Beyond on-the-go delays, Rossler said arrival will be easier at her place, too. 

“Anna Maria, that’s their biggest downfall,” Rossler said. “They’ve got twice the amount of restaurants we have, but they have nowhere for anyone to park and that’s why I think that’s part of the issue with the (traffic) congestion.”

Pass said he envisions providing Longboat Key something it doesn’t have.

“There’s no Tiki bar on the island,” Pass said. “We want to have an island feel, and everyone loves a Tiki bar.”

Lo Key Tiki Bar is the former site of Tina’s Beauty Salon, which closed at the end of August 2021.

Like Pass and Rossler’s proposal, La Villa Mexican Restaurant owner Estela Villegas also seeks to develop a restaurant unlike others offered on the island.

In December, Villegas already received final approval from the Planning and Zoning Board to allow a special exception request.

“I always wanted to have a place close to the beach,” Villegas said. “There’s no Mexican food on the island.”

Villegas, who owns and operates the original La Villa Mexican Restaurant in Valrico, seeks to open her Longboat Key establishment by the summer at 5610 Gulf of Mexico Drive Suite No. 5. Like many other industries, Villegas said she’s had to deal with disruptions and delays of late.

“Another thing that is taking a lot longer is that kitchen equipment is just not there either,” Villegas said.

Villegas said she wishes she could open sooner.

“That’s something that sometimes I worry about, about the seasonal business,” Villegas said. “I feel so bad that I’m missing the high season because right now is when people come to the island.”

Contingent upon P&Z Board approval, perhaps as early as Feb. 15, Pass estimated the Lo Key Tiki Bar could be open in August or September. However, he purposefully does not plan to have the grand opening during snowbird season, preferring to have the business running smoothly before crowds ramp up.

“People want somewhere to go where it’s not necessarily fine dining, but it’s also not a dirty…(like) you feel like you need a shower when you leave,” Rossler said.

When Villegas was asked about what customers she hoped to attract, she mentioned the need to make Longboaters and visitors feel welcome.

“I would love to have people that live there,” Villegas said. “I would like to have families that are visiting the island.”

Several other Longboat Key restaurants have opened in recent years: Whitney’s opened in January 2020 and the Shore restaurant opened in 2019.

Shawn Hamilton, the property owner of  Lo Key Tiki Bar's location, purchased the building in January 2019 for $1.125 million. In 2021, Hamilton accepted Pass’ offer to a five-year lease for the property.

Pass and Rossler said the preliminary plans would be to seat about 125 people, make the establishment dog-friendly and to gut the existing structure.

“If you notice on the very front of the structure, there’s a garage, we’ll cut that basically in half, take the roof off,” Pass said. “That outline of that garage will be the bar, and that’ll have a Tiki roof over it.”

Pass said there will be a larger tiki dining area along Gulf of Mexico Drive near the property line.

“Kind of like you see at the Shore, we’ll have the ability to drop down curtains when it’s like today when it’s so windy to provide kind of a so-called indoor atmosphere,” Pass said.

Longboat Key’s parking rules require one parking spot for every 150 square feet of total floor area and outdoor dining areas.

Rossler said it will be bittersweet for her to leave the Lazy Lobster and Garey after more than a decade.

“It’s going to be a sendoff of all sendoffs,” Rossler said.

Rossler said she will slowly transition into a full-time role with the Lo Key Tiki Bar in the coming months.

“He realizes this is her dream, and one thing Michael does is he develops people,” Pass said.



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