Hooked on Seafood Shacks
The Best Seafood Shacks in the St. Pete Beach area.
By Kimberly Rebman
Photos by Steven Kovich
The locals rave about them, visitors want to discover them, and food critics everywhere praise them. They represent Old Florida at their finest. Seafood shacks along the St. Pete Beach and Tampa Bay beaches offer up some of the freshest and tastiest fish dishes in the state, and we at the Beaches Visitors Guide researched and vetted the best of the best Best Seafood in St Pete Beach.
So pull up a chair, grab a plate and join us on an epicurean journey through the beaches’ most beloved shacks. Oh, and if you want to lick Old Bay off your fingers, we won’t judge.
244 Boardwalk Place, Madeira Beach FL 33708, at the east end of John’s Pass Village
The shack operates on “island time,” so it is best to call before you make a trip over. And be sure to get there early when they do open. It is first come, first serve.
The aromatic fusion of sweet smelling sea air, aged wood, spicy seasonings and deep fried bliss lingers around a quaint little shack nestled quietly behind the heavily trodden boardwalk of John’s Pass in Madeira Beach.
Walt’z Fish Shack is off the beaten path for good reason—it’s just too darn special to be grouped with the rest.
Owner Walt Gerbase started up the rustic, full-of-character shack eleven years ago, though the little wooden structure has been there far longer. Back in the early 1940s it served as officer barracks during WWII for MacDill. And prior to dishing out seafood, the shack was a coffee shop.
The well-respected Gerbase, originally from Marathon, Florida (he was born at the Key West Naval Base Hospital), is passionate about food and it is quite obvious with every bite of his perfectly prepared dishes.
The Florida native worked in a variety of old school seafood establishments over the years and also acquired cooking skills through way of his parents. He traveled all over the Caribbean and added on to his recipe book throughout his journeys. Today, Gerbase brings the recipes from the old timers in the islands and his hometown back to the beloved fish shack.
In addition to some borrowed, many of the recipes are his. Gerbase beautifully captures fresh island flavors with the most palatable of ingredients. The grouper cheek cakes are, by far, the best I’ve ever tasted. A great local dish that definitely is a contender to the more commonly served crab cake. The snapper is perfectly blackened with Gerbase’s very own seasoning. You can also try the fish lightly fried, which is a refreshing change compared to many restaurants that heavily batter their fish, taking away from the taste of the actual filet.
All the seafood at Walt’z is fresh, never frozen, and what is served depends upon the season. The shack works hand in hand with local boat captains that bring in their catches straight from the nearby docks. Hog fish, black grouper, amberjack, cobia, kingfish, gulf pinks (shrimp) and a variety of snapper can all be found on the shack’s menu at one time or another. And because the seafood is so fresh, when it runs out, it’s gone. Gerbase doesn’t offer his patrons standard menus; rather, he has chalkboards with the catches of the day listed. When he sells out of a particular fish, it gets crossed out with chalk. At Walt’z it’s quality, not quanity.
Gerbase’s flavorful, homemade soups are a must-try and a side of island rice (the recipe is from the Virgin Islands) is pure heaven on a plate. Another not-to-pass-up side is the sweet slaw with raisins. It’s crisp, light and not overly sweet like many cole slaws can be. And what’s dinner without dessert? Even if you are full you have to find a way to have a couple bites of the delectable Key Lime pie. It’s made from scratch and tastes Florida- authentic. The sweet graham cracker crust balances out the tart custard, creating a perfect pairing for the palate.
It’s important to remember when dining at Walt’z not to just eat your food, but to savor it. After all, one of the best ingredients used in every single one of the shack’s dishes is love, and it’s not just Gerbase who feels a strong appreciation when it comes to cooking. For it is said that behind every great man there’s a great woman. Sue Zirneskie is Gerbase’s life partner and also contributes to the shack’s success. Tired of being a nurse, Gerbase talked her into the restaurant business, and the rest now is history. Zirneskie has been by her partner’s side through the most difficult of times, including when he suffered a brain aneurysm four years ago. Gerbase was in a coma for 45 days and nearly died. He now recalls his darkest days while sitting at the end of the shack’s bar, grateful for Zirneskie’s love and companionship.
And it’s not just the couple that makes the shack so special. The staff at Walt’z is efficient, knowledgeable about the menu and incredibly friendly; you feel taken care of, almost like you’re family. Most everyone that works at the shack has been there for years. If you visit, you’ll understand why.
The food and staff are just part of what Walt’z has to offer. For over a decade, Gerbase has been collecting colorful and quirky beach décor to liven up the wooden walls of the shack. A nostalgic, Key West vibe is what has been captured, and in the evening, there is a certain magical ambiance that emanates; warm, cozy and inviting.
So, the next time you’re craving fresh seafood, stop by Walt’z Fish Shack. It’s where native Floridians go for the ‘real deal.’ It’s where local flavor is captured, without the touristy-tacky feel. It’s where you can dine and watch the dolphins crest in the bay just yards away. It’s where the smell of the food is just as scrumptious as the actual taste itself. It’s where you can personally thank the owner for a delicious meal and then chat away like long-lost friends. It’s where one can eat and then proudly post as a “life event” on Facebook.
Walt’z Fish Shack is where it’s at for fresh fish and great atmosphere; a blend of two very important ingredients needed for the perfect recipe when looking for the ultimate seafood shack experience. It’s delicious simplicity at its finest.
1350 Pasadena Ave. S., South Pasadena, FL 33707
Ted Peters doesn’t need a blinking side to grab your attention as you drive by. It is also doesn’t need to be painted neon bright. As you near the little brown shack on Pasadena Avenue, just roll your car windows down and breathe.
The intoxicatingly fragrant smells of Ted Peters’ smoker is olfactory bliss; rich, musky and woodsy, like a campfire.
For over fifty years the modest, no frills fish restaurant has been smoking up fresh, local fish and doing a darn fine job. Ted Peters serves up four kinds of smoked fish, including mahi mahi, salmon, mackerel and mullet. The last two mentioned are local favorites, and because the mackerel is seasonal, it sells out quickly.
The fish are laid on racks over burning red oak. This type of wood is very similar to northern hickory. The fish cook and smoke for a few hours, usually between four to six, depending upon size and thickness. The end result is smoked delightfulness.
In 1945, Ted Peters, originally from upstate New York, got interested in the fish business while working in Madeira Beach at the Fisherman’s Co-op. Peters found it odd that fish smoking was kept in seclusion, often done just in backyards or in the woods. He wanted to get a smoker and run it for everyone to see…and smell. So, one day Peters came upon an old smoker, salvaged it and put it out on a very public road near the beach. It wasn’t long after that he started up the legendary shack we know and love today. For decades Peters’ family members helped run the restaurant and even provided many of its famous recipes, such as the ever-popular German potato salad and fish spread. Ted Peters spans five generation of family and is still run that way today; in fact, Peters’ great-grandson, Ben Cook, smokes the fish now.
The staff at Ted Peters, even those that have no family ties to the founding father himself, are consistently first rate. They are efficient, personable, and well versed with fish and the smoking process. On our recent visit to Ted Peters, we met Megan, a gregarious and laid back waitress who listened well to our requests, retrieved our dinners quickly and even took time to share some stories about restaurant recipes, patrons and history. For a gal who has only worked there for just shy of two years, you’d think she had been there at least a decade with her level of knowledge and expertise.
And of course, Ted Peters is more than just a friendly face and competence, it’s what’s on the menu.
Smoked fish is signature here, and it’s what keeps patrons returning time and time again. Each type of fish is just as delicious as the next, so you can’t go wrong with your choice. We tried a Ted Peters’ favorite, the mullet. The texture of the fish was thick and meaty; the taste was flavorful and smoky. To lighten up the woodiness, the fish is paired with fresh tomato slices, lemon, onion and a dill pickle. Looking for a bit of a kick? Try the creamy horseradish sauce seasoned with Jamaican jerk. Dinners come with sides of cole slaw and German potato salad, both of which are heavenly. The slaw is cold and creamy, while the potato salad is warm and tangy with a pinch of sweetness. For an appetizer, we highly recommend the fish spread. It is made on the premises and is the freshest around. The spread is made with a 60/40 mix of mullet and mahi-mahi and is slightly sweet with a mixture of mayo and pickle relish. And though there is mayo in the recipe, it does not overpower. Packets of Saltine crackers are served with the spread, along with a mug for the wrappers. Simple, unassuming yet pleasantly perfect in every way. Wash it all down with a frosty mug of Miller High Life draft, the restaurant’s one and only beer.
The fish spread, German potato salad and cole slaw are so popular, Ted Peters sells them to take home by the pint or quart.
Food is served nostalgically on old-fashioned plastic plates in 1950s Florida-inspired colors. Most of the dining experience at Ted Peters is from yesteryear. Outside on the covered patio is the main eating area, complete with varnished wooden picnic tables and benches; the kind like your grandparents sat at when they first ate here. The patio is perfect for watching cars on the busy stretch of road out front, and also allows for cool fresh breezes. The creaking sound of an old screen door leading to the kitchen is reminiscence of days past. And if the weather is perhaps too warm or too chilly, inside dining is a great alternative. Ted Peters’ interior is cozy with an old-timey log cabin feel; plenty of rich, dark wood, a rustic fireplace and a comforting woodsy smell.
It’s no surprise that patrons have been visiting the smoked fish house for generations. Ted Peters definitely has a well-earned reputation that has remained constant for decades. Some who once dined at the picnic tables as children are now returning as grandparents. And it’s not just the locals who love this place so much, it’s also travelers and tourists from all over the world, including a few pretty famous faces. Ty Pennington, Ruben Studdard, Mike Alstott, and a couple local news anchors. Ted Peters has also been featured on numerous food shows such as Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with host Guy Fieri and The Best Thing I Ever Ate on the Food Network. Fieri was so impressed with the restaurant that he later came back when he wasn’t filming with his wife.
415 2nd St., Indian Rocks Beach, FL 33785
595 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach, FL 33706
It’s a Saturday evening and a line of people-some tourists, some locals- snakes around the side of the building. These folk are all looking for the same thing- “the best seafood on the beach.” After all, it’s a promise that PJ’s Oyster Bar is willing to make.
The restaurant opened its doors in 1985 in Indian Rocks Beach, and with great success eight years later, PJ’s added its second location in St. Pete Beach.
The family owned and operated oyster bar has a loyal customer base due to its scrumptious seafood selection, inexpensive prices and genuinely friendly staff.
PJ’s fresh seafood is purchased off of local fishermen, straight from the docks. The Florida Gulf grouper can be prepared fried, beer battered, broiled, grilled or blackened. You can also choose from one of PJ’s great combos, all of which are served up the same way. These include cod, scallops, mahi-mahi and the local favorite, shrimp (this may be done scampi or coconut style). Crab cakes, oysters and clam strips are all fried to a golden brown; picking just one is a challenge.
Feeling crabby? PJ’s offers three different varieties of the decapod crustaceans- Alaskan Snow, Alaskan King and Dungeness.
The restaurant’s best seller, however, is their giant lobster tail ranging from 16-20 oz.; a generous amount of sweet, delectable meat for a very reasonable $39.99. For the smaller appetite, an 8 oz. tail is available for only $22.99.
PJ’s famous New England clam chowder is a must-try; creamy and flavorful, this recipe is hard to beat. And because this is a raw bar, clams and oysters are regularly served and most definitely well-loved. Choose from a variety of preparations aside from the straight up raw and chilled- steamed, Rockefeller ( baked or broiled with ingredients such as parsley and other green herbs, a rich butter sauce and bread crumbs), or Chicago style (baked in parmeseam cheese with garlic and butter) are all delicious ways to try popular Florida shellfish.
And when it comes to seasonal stone crab, you can’t get much fresher than PJ’s. The wait staff can tell you just when the claws come in from the docks. Get them served hot or chilled, either way you can’t go wrong. The meat is buttery and there is always plenty of it in each shell. The dish is garnished with fresh lemon and an “oh so” lovely mustard sauce. But don’t bother asking for the recipe- PJ’s staff is tight-lipped about the secret ingredients that make it so yummy.
There are lots of great sides to pair with the seafood as well, including PJ’s cole slaw, veggies, fries, rice and baked potato (served after 5 pm). Our favorites were the brocoli, which was perfectly steamed, and the lightly creamy, cold and crisp slaw. Both married well with our broiled grouper dish, well flavored with a beautiful texture.
PJ’s lunch menu has 18 items all from ridiculously low prices of $4.95-6.95, including favorites such as crab cakes, shrimp and even salmon. Their children’s menu has much to offer as well, unlike other local competitors.
After a hot day on the beach, an ice cold brew or tropical cocktail couldn’t be more inviting. Behind the bar, PJ’s patrons can choose from a large variety of beer and liquor; frozen drinks conjure up an island feel and the rum punch goes down easy. At the Indian Rocks Beach location, bartender Jimmy (a PJ’s employee for over 17 years) keeps thirst buds quenched and nerves calmed. According to the well-seasoned drink mixer and beer pourer, the staff at the oyster bar is hardly transient. “My co-workers stick around. They are passionate about what they do and love being at PJ’s.” And really, who could blame them? Not only is the food superb, but the atmosphere is just way beyond fun.
The Indian Rocks Beach PJ’s is located inside an old bank; the former vault is now used as a “gift vault,” aka the gift shop. Out front, The Blues Brothers (that is, a statue of the iconic pair) greet guests, setting the stage for a dining experience full of character and quirk. Graffitied dollar bills and vintage license plates cover the walls. Look up and you’ll find dozens of old album covers, everything from Buffet to the Bee Gees. “Going to the Chapel” emanates from the speakers, then switches over to “The Hustle,” and is followed by the “Happy Days” theme song. The vibe is funky nautical, like Key West on a bad acid trip. Mermaids and tie-dyed surfboards are randomly propped around the dining area, while sailboats and saxophones hang from the ceiling. There are wall murals, plenty of silly signs and parts of cars on display to exercise your eyes while your mouth’s busy chewing. Be sure to look for the mounted swordfish head with a leg coming out of its mouth; it’s guaranteed to get a giggle from even the most serious of PJ’s patrons. The St. Pete Beach location is much more subtle with its decor.
For messy hands, grab the paper towel roll dangling from a wire hanger over your table. You’ll want to get dirty with this fun and practical invention! And if the wait to get in is too long, no worries; just do what the islanders do and hula hoop (to avoid tummy aches, hoop before and not after your meal!).
Before you head out the door, don’t forget to introduce yourself to PJ himself. The 33-year-old yellow naped African parrot is always eager to meet visitors.
PJ’s, undoubtedly, has an entertaining feel that not only keeps the staff happy, but also brings customers (both seasonal and local) back time and time again. While we were busy sampling a few of the restaurant’s delicious dishes, a long time patron chatted with us. The white-haired gent turned out to be the retired Chief of Police in St. Pete, and he couldn’t say enough good things about his favorite seafood place. And now, so can we.
PJ’s eclectic atmosphere and savory seafood has us craving more. It’s where flip-flops and straw hats are encouraged, boredom ceases to exist and appetites are heartily satisfied.
Hours: 7 days a week, 11 am-10 pm
1519 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach, FL 33785
It may be located in a strip mall, but don’t let Keegan’s no-frills façade fool you. This prized seafood establishment serves up some of the beaches’ finest fresh-from-the-water fare.
It’s ranked as a Top 100 Restaurant in the Tampa Bay area, consistently wins People’s Choice for Best Lunch on Indian Rocks Beach, and received the Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence in 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 2007, the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’” host Guy Fieri visited Keegan’s and gave it his seal of approval.
The casual seafood restaurant is low-key, laid back and has plenty of well-priced menu items, making it a local favorite since 1985.
With its old-school checkerboard flooring and its turquoise and black booths reminiscent of days gone by, Keegan’s is just a stone’s throw from beautiful Indian Rocks Beach; a perfect dinner choice after a day of sunning by the surf.
Jackie Schnowski took over as Keegan’s second owner in 2008. She made it a family affair; her son is the head chef.
Dishes are beautifully presented, much like miniature works of art. The American Red Snapper, a tasty local fish, was delightful with its flavorful Caribbean jerk sauce. The filet is served over rice and is garnished with diced papaya, mango, red onion and a sprig of spearmint, giving it a very “Miami-esque” quality. Paired with fresh squash and broccoli, this tropical seafood dish is not only palate pleasing but amazingly healthy.
Other fresh catch selections include Triggerfish, Swordfish, Wahoo and Cobia. All of Keegan’s fish is hand cut by the chef, and all the perfectly paired sauces are made from scratch.
The South-of-the-Border Cobia dish is a Keegan’s favorite. The fish is served with fresh pico de gallo, placed on top of mouth-watering chipotle mashed potatoes and garnished with fresh cilantro. And because the dish is so divine, it runs out quickly. According to Keegan’s staff, it becomes available to order at 5 pm and sells fast.
Another well-loved menu item is Grouper, prepared blackened. Patrons can also order the fish grilled, fried, charbroiled or Buffalo style (mild or hot). The blackened Grouper sandwich is a signature dish at the restaurant. Grouper cheeks are also a popular item at Keegan’s.
Shrimp Leones is a classic with its delectable Parmesan crust and topped with a spicy aioli sauce. Another must order dish is their She-Crab soup; decadent, rich and full of flavor. The recipe was brought over by the chef from his previous kitchen at Clearwater Beach’s popular Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill.
Key West cracked conch and Gulf pink shrimp are great shellfish options, while the Seafood Gumbo is as authentic as the New Orleans’ variety.
By far though, our personal favorite was the Charbroiled Octopus, aka “the purple lobster.” A Greek inspired dish and one not often seen on very many menus, especially along the beaches, we were eager to taste. The octopus is cooked and steeped in a mixture of garlic, wine and herbs and finished over a lava rock flame. Unlike most octopuses, Keegan’s was wonderfully tender. The charbroiled flavor was savory. The octopus was enough for two people, but I could have easily order a couple more plates worth of this exquisite dish. And when served with drawn butter, the octopus became absolutely heavenly. This famous Keegan’s menu item easily rivals similar charbroiled octopus found in the Greek town of Tarpon Springs.
And how could we possibly leave without a nibble of something sweet? Keegan’s offers up authentic Key Lime pie, a dessert that no self-respecting Floridian should go without. One of the pie’s best features is its unique Ritz cracker crust. Typically Key Lime pie is prepared with a sweet graham cracker crust, but the slight saltiness of the Ritz cracker pairs ever so well with the tart, lightly sweetened custard. The creamy texture was blissful. Our server, Ryan, claimed it was “by far” the best he had ever tasted, and as a Florida beach native, that says a whole lot.
And speaking of servers, the staff at Keegan’s couldn’t be more efficient and friendly. We were highly impressed with everyone’s knowledge on the menu items, as well as their congeniality. Ryan, who was especially courteous, feels great comradery with his coworkers. “We’re all like family here.” No doubt that helpful, happy staff is part of the equation for a successful, well-run restaurant.
Keegan’s Seafood Grille has been pleasing beach crowds for decades, making it a tradition among locals and tourists alike. Great word of mouth goes hand in hand with great taste in mouth, two things this legendary restaurant are known for.
Keegan’s Seafood Grille is open seven days a week:
Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-10 pm
Friday and Saturday, 11 am-11 pm