Island Tales
Great Balls O Fire - Open kitchens make for a thrilling meal©
- Libby Boren McMillan

Want to add an exciting twist to a dinner on the town? Reserve your seat at the heart of the action - near an open kitchen, in one of our area's fine eateries.

We really like to pop into Twilight Café. A seat at the bar affords one a view of all the comings and goings of Head Chef and Owner Robert Parks, as well as his staff and patrons. Those lucky enough to secure a barstool will be facing the grill; at Twilight, this is a ringside seat.

Parks is innovative, and his menu reflects it (i.e. flat bread crisps with Cajun crawfish). You'll enjoy watching him at work. Open kitchens bring the senses to life, and Twilight Café's smoke-free policy accentuates the mouth-watering aromas from the kitchen and its oak-burning wood grill.

Twilight "specializes in cutting edge cuisine, using only the freshest seasonal and regional ingredients," according to Parks. (Spying 'flat bread crisps with Cajun crawfish' on the menu certainly validates this claim.)

The four seats at Twilight's bar are intended for dining. "We do take reservations for those seats," says Parks. "People sometimes resist sitting there," he laughs, "and then they try to reserve that seat their next visit."

Twilight Café is located in a charming, historic Sanibel building and shares its traffic with neighboring Tower Gallery co-op.

It's a sure bet you'll enjoy yourself when you visit Trader's Store & Café on Sanibel (or the newly opened Trader's in Bonita) . Traders, with an interior that amazingly blends primitive art and industrial décor, has ambience to spare. It's a sexy place to be, with high ceilings and intimate spaces.

For the best view of the kitchen, grab a seat at the left end of the bar. All food leaves the kitchen by passing the bar, however, so these are great seats for watching Chef Michael Patnode and his crew at work.

Café manager Mike Schwartz points out that Trader's has no heat lamps; "Everything goes out fresh," he says. We notice an extra bonus at this particular open-kitchen scenario. One can observe all the comings and goings of a busy café, without the one part a diner never wants to see: the clean-up. Trader's has cleverly hidden all aspects of washing behind large, swinging doors, so no visuals, no noise. We only see fabulous new plates of food being plated as fast as they come off the grill, like the blue-crusted Portobello.

Trader's doesn't take reservations for its bar seats, but if you have to wait, you'll enjoy walking around the store, which shares space with the café. It's filled with home furnishings, books, toys and clothing from around the world.

Santiva Lazy Flamingo
Want to see the hardest-working chefs in all of Florida? Stop by any Lazy Flamingo. This locally owned restaurant has a casual environment, terrific food, and cold beer. The kitchen is as much a part of the restaurant as the tables are, especially at the Captiva location near Blind Pass.

Visit this "Santiva" Lazy and you'll be in awe of a kitchen operated entirely by one person, even when the restaurant's full. Orders are taken by the bartender, who clips them up, and sends them flying back to the chef on a steel wire. Everything is happening faster than you've ever seen it happen in a restaurant. Yet you can sit back, relax, and soak it all in.
Chefs Russ, Sergio and Tom will be mixing Caesars, grilling grouper, burgers, cooking pasta, making garlic bread and preparing shellfish . . . all at the same time, for an entire restaurant of hungry locals and visitors. And while you may not consider a bartender part of the kitchen, at the Lazy, the barkeep is shucking oysters, serving meals, pouring beer and wine, calling out names for tables, taking all the orders, and taking the money.

New York City Ballet has nothing on these guys. They are operating in full gear, multi-tasking all day and all night long; it's a dance you've never seen, and food you won't forget.

Our favorite seat might be at the bar at Captiva's Sunshine Café. With only six tables inside, and a handful of open-air tables on the porch, Sunshine is one of the coziest place in town. The secret is out, however, and reservations are recommended, particularly if you want a barstool - there are only two!

An incredibly well-orchestrated kitchen staff works side by side in Sunshine's 10x20 kitchen. Sunshine uses a wood-fired grill; enticing smells are constantly emanating from the kitchen, including the trademark roasted clove of garlic which accompanies beef dishes.

"It's impressive how they do what they do like it was nothing," says owner Sandy Stillwell, of her kitchen crew. Diners seated at the bar couldn't be closer to the action. Desserts are made directly in front of you; all meals are plated just to your right, the grill is all of 8 feet ahead. This is exciting dining, an excellent example of how thrilling an open kitchen can be.

The Sunshine was conceived in the mid-eighties, and its patrons have remained loyal.

Sunset Grill is another great example of an open kitchen on the islands. The seats at the bar don't really afford much of a kitchen view, but guests in the intimate dining room will enjoy watching the chef at work, that is, if they can tear themselves away from the view of the Gulf of Mexico just across the street.

Sunset's oak- and mesquite-fired wood grill makes adds tantalizing smells to the sizzling sounds of the grill. Request a table in front of the kitchen and you'll enjoy watching each plate leave the kitchen. Sunset Grill also has a nice wine list to complement its menu.

Breakfast sets this restaurant apart from others; if you're an early riser, perhaps the smell you'd most enjoy would be bacon on the grill.


If You Go:

Trader's Store & Café
1551 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel
Open 11 am - 10 pm daily
(239) 472-7242

Sunshine Café
Captiva Drive, in the "Village"
(239) 472-6200
Lunch 11:30 - 4:00
Dinner 5 - Close
Closed Mondays, Call ahead on Tuesdays

Twilight Café
751 Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel
Open 5:30 - Close, Mon - Sat
Closed in September
(239) 472-8818

Sunset Grill
Pine Avenue at San-Cap Road, Sanibel
Breakfast, 8 - 3
Lunch, 11:30 - 3, Mon-Sat
Sunday, Noon - 3
Dinner, 5 - 9:30
(239) 472-2333

Lazy Flamingo
Serving 11:30 am - 12:45 am daily
6520 Pine Avenue near Blind Pass, Sanibel
(239) 472-5353
1036 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel
(239) 472-6939
Four Winds Marina, Bokeelia
(239) 283-5959

* Originally published in Times of the Islands - 7/01
© Libby Boren McMillan - Legal Rights Apply
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