Best Waterfront Dining on Sanibel and Captiva

The islands offer plenty of opportunities to gaze out at the Gulf while dining at casual fish houses, historic institutions and highbrow fine-dining establishments.


1. Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant

You’ll need a boat to reach this outpost that has earned fame through the decades for its history (it’s located on an ancient Calusa shell mound), currency-plastered walls and Jimmy Buffett vibe. (Some claim Cabbage Key inspired his song “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”) Cheeseburgers most certainly appear on the lunch and dinner menus, along with stone crab in season and other local seafood, plus frozen Key lime pie. Lunch gets crowded with tour boats arriving daily at this hillside spot. 


2. Gramma Dot’s

Part of Sanibel Marina, Gramma Dot’s has a suitably casual posterior with lattice trim and salty flair along a canal just off San Carlos Bay. Indoor and outdoor tables offer views of boat traffic in and out of the harbor and the residential community around it. The all-day menu satisfies happy, sun-weary diners in search of beer and wine, plus headlining grouper and shrimp dishes. Don’t skip the Key lime pie, often declared the best on Sanibel.


3. The Green Flash 

The name refers to the elusive sunset phenomenon that lights the horizon as the sun winks adieu. Sightings are rare, and so is a waterfront restaurant like The Green Flash on Captiva Island’s leeward side overlooking the mangrove-fringed sea. Popular with boaters for lunch, it also has a loyal following of diners looking for seafood satisfaction with a view. Shrimp bisque and the Green Flash sandwich star at lunch, and you can’t go wrong with stuffed grouper or pasta du jour for dinner.


4. The Mad Hatter Restaurant

Here’s one rabbit hole you’ll be happy to go down for a whimsical fine-dining experience overlooking the Gulf. Murals starring Alice in Wonderland characters adorn the one-room beach cottage. And, there is no shortage of playful modern American dishes, starting with an amuse-bouche, like dainty crab claws with microgreens in a delicately truffled vinaigrette. Creations like panko-and truffle-dusted scallops with caramelized shallot beurre blanc may just drive you mad with epicurean delight.


5. Mainstay North Captiva Restaurant & Gift Shop

Accessible only by boat, North Captiva is the type of place where time stands still. Long known as Barnacle Phil’s, the newer but equally funky successor keeps the nomenclature and old-island vibe. Burgers, tacos and seafood carry the menu (have the latter fried, blackened or grilled), and a tiki hut provides shade for outdoor eating near the docks. Grab an over-garnished bloody Mary at the Barnacles Bar when you arrive and dessert at the ice cream shop before you shove off.


6. The Mucky Duck

Mucky Duck takes the notion of a British pub, sets it seaside and has some fun with it. The menu expands from the expected fish-and-chips pub fare to include specialties like duck fingers, barbecue shrimp wrapped in bacon, baked grouper in white wine and lemon, and blueberry sour cream pie. Planted shanty-style on the beach, the restaurant has seating outdoors with live music (although sunset steals the show) and in its indoor dining area. Both bars serve beer and wine.


7. Old Captiva House

One of Captiva’s oldest surviving structures, the once-schoolhouse sits across the road from the beach at ‘Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa, with window and courtyard views of the Gulf. Despite white tablecloths, it maintains a casual attitude. The kitchen serves arguably the best breakfast on Captiva Island (try the artichoke-chorizo benedict), but dinner is its shine time. Choose from creations like blackened snapper with cucumber-watermelon salad and pomegranate-glazed lamb chops.


8. Thistle Lodge

The view overlooking an expanse of green lawn to the sea draws fans here. Inside Sanibel’s Casa Ybel Beach Resort, the restaurant recreates a historical restaurant from pioneer days, but in its own time. The elegant, Victorian interiors and open-air patio make brunch, lunch or dinner a special occasion with exacting dishes in classic American-Euro style, like seafood Provençal and seared diver scallops topped with lobster and lump crab.


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