Owen’s Fish Camp in Lakewood Ranch opened May 26 to a full house. Wait times for tables ran up to two hours throughout the weekend.
The new location in Casto's Center Point development has 180 seats, twice what the original Burns Court restaurant in Sarasota can accommodate. There’s also a larger kitchen that can offer more menu options, including a vegan heirloom tomato tart and, co-owner Mark Caragiulo’s personal recommendation, seared sea scallops and pork belly.
The newness of the location is apparent when pulling in as the restaurant is surrounded by construction. But step onto the Fish Camp, and some purposeful seasoning already is in place.
“With a new building, it’s tough, but you try to get some soul into the place,” Caragiulo said. “We had a Dremel tool out for the last five nights, so people could carve their names into the pylons out back.”
Upon opening the door, guests are greeted with a crystal chandelier peeking through an open wall behind the hostess stand. The crystals are paired with over a hundred antique fishing lures and two preserved blowfish.
The bar takes over an entire wall and the size alone says this was never an actual fish camp. But to reach the bar area, guests walk under a flat archway of vintage glass nautical lanterns. Inside the room, old wooden canoes hang from the ceiling.
Family and staff photos, plus a headshot of Johnny Cash, take over the hallway leading to the restrooms. Whoopie Goldberg's photo graces the wall, too. Caragiulo said Goldberg isn't the most famous person to eat at the original fish camp restaurant, but she is the celebrity who ate the most crab legs.
The paintings and drawings on display are mostly originals. Two of the drawings were particularly exciting finds for Caraguilo. When he first opened the Fish Camp downtown 14 years ago, he had found two original drawings by Lionel Barrymore, who played Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Four months ago, he found two more while shopping in Mount Dora. They’re mounted on the back wall when first entering the restaurant.
A 25-foot Indian schooner lines the pathway leading to the backyard that overlooks a pond. Built in 1908, it’s not a usable canoe, but a frame that was used to make canoes.
The wait for a table will be mitigated, or at least more enjoyable, once the backyard is finished. Construction couldn’t start until the building’s permit was closed out, so it’s running a few weeks behind the rest of the project.
Once completed, the yard will feature an oyster grill, a stage for live entertainment and remote control boats to play with on the pond. For now, tarps shade the picnic tables to give the newly planted oak trees time to grow.
“Fish Camp is a layered experience. We’ll keep layering forever. That’s what’s kind of fun about a place like this. It’s never been about just going out to eat a piece of fish,” Caragiulo said. “It should be a soulful destination, where you get a surprisingly good deal and you feel like people took care of you. And you feel like maybe you got a little piece of Florida from it, a time passed.”
With an original Fish Camp downtown, Caragiulo said the biggest challenge was connecting the dots without duplicating, so they decided to make the Lakewood Ranch location more of a “lake culture fish camp.”
With fishing poles adorning the ceiling and a cozy seating area on one end, the back porch feels like a family lake house, a place to linger versus wait.
Currently, the restaurant is open Monday through Saturday. Sunday is a chance for management to take a breath and see what’s working and what’s not.
“It’s nice to go dark for that day, instead of having the pressure every day of doing it again because you never really make the changes because you’re in it,” Caragiulo said. “Big corporations don’t do it that way, but we do. We’ll be six nights for maybe a month or so.”
Once in full swing, there will be live music seven nights a week.
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.