This has been the summer of canceled vacations.
With many staying closer to home, destination dining is seeing a boom in popularity. Venturing outside of the circle of convenience that surrounds your home or business, while still remaining in your backyard, opens up options that are often overlooked under normal circumstances.
And there is little normal about the current world.
Southwest Florida is known for its barrier islands, which are ripe and ready for culinary exploration, including captivating Captiva. An island that is mostly residential and resort, if there was a downtown Captiva, it would be along Andy Rosse Lane, a shady, shell-lined street that dead ends at the Gulf of Mexico.
Home to a small grocer, galleries and vacation rentals, the majority of restaurants on this lazy strip, as well as Captiva in general, are owned by hospitality guru Sandy Stilwell Youngquist. She’s the woman behind Latte Da, RC Otter’s Island Eats, Cantina Captiva and Sunshine Seafood Café & Wine Bar.
The 18-year-old Keylime Bistro, though, is her anchor.
Having owned Keylime since 2002, Youngquist has weathered quite a few storms (hurricanes, oil spills, red tide) but none have hit quite like COVID-19.
“One day you’re ordering food, stocking for full service and then boom, no notice, we are shut down, takeout only,” Youngquist says.
At the same time, vacation rentals were suspended on the island, further strangling the restaurant’s already modest takeout operations.
No guests, no business.
“At one point we were the only place open on the island,” Youngquist recalls, calling Keylime Bistro, “a mainstay; people can always count on us being open.”
Like many in her position, Youngquist took advantage of the forced shut down to spruce up her properties. It’s a rare opportunity for a seven-day-a-week business to tackle projects that would normally affect daily operations. And those projects kept employees on the payroll.
The chefs remained at work, but instead of wielding knives, they manned jack hammers to uproot old tiles.
“We have new floors in the kitchen, we’ve cleaned and painted; the restaurant looks better than ever,” Keylime’s general manager Andy Biddle says.
Now up and running with social distancing and masking up the orders of the day, the tropical bistro is back to serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
The crab cake Benedict tops breakfast and brunch orders at Keylime Bistro; an English muffin is stacked with a freshly prepared crab cake, a slice of tomato and poached egg, then drizzled with Keylime’s twist on Hollandaise.
“It is richer than a traditional Hollandaise and it’s a little more orange in color,” Biddle says.
The “Shrimp to Shore Bloody Mary” is a classic Keylime cocktail for breakfast and brunch, but can be had anytime of day. A meal unto itself, the spicy tomato juice and vodka cocktail is loaded with jumbo shrimp, asparagus and hearts of palm.
Sandwiches and salads highlight Keylime’s lunch menu. And grouper is a mainstay; order it fried, grilled or blackened with a side of Key lime aioli. Favorite salads include grilled portobello mushrooms with goat cheese over a bed of spinach in a balsamic vinaigrette. For a twist on a Caesar salad, Keylime tops it with fried seafood: calamari and baby shrimp.
Grouper also plays a starring role on the dinner menu.
“We stuff it with big chunks of lobster meat and crab then roll it up and bake it,” Biddle says. Finished with Key lime Hollandaise, he adds, “It’s number one, hands down.”
The bistro’s namesake Key limes are used in sauces, cocktails and most notably in an award-winning pie; a dessert many say makes the drive out here worth it.
“It’s the best in the world,” Youngquist says, gushing.
On a trip to Paris, she struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler who bragged about having the most incredible Key lime pie he had ever tasted — on Captiva Island. He had no idea he was talking to the pie’s creator.
Many guests who drive for a meal at Keylime Bistro combine the outing with beach time, sunset being the most popular: dine early then walk to the beach for sunset; sunset then dinner; drinks-sunset-dinner, dinner-sunset-dessert — any combination works.
Youngquist’s many mix-and-match dining options on Andy Rosse Lane make the combinations all the more plentiful.
Sunshine Seafood Café is the most upscale of Youngquist’s restaurants. Boasting a cozy indoor space, outdoor cabana dining has been added for social distancing. The tents even have elegant chandeliers. With limited seating, reservations are requested.
RC Otter’s, with its blue picket fence, is universal, appealing to the entire family with items ranging from fried seafood baskets and oysters on the half shell, to baby back ribs and cheeseburgers. Similar to Keylime, RC Otter’s also serves breakfast and features live entertainment daily.
Cantina Captiva has brightly painted picnic tables outside, in addition to indoor seating. Mexican and Southwestern-inspired cuisine makes up this menu. Snack on nachos and guacamole or dig into tamales and chile rellenos with pitchers of sangria, margaritas or beer to wash it all down.
Then there’s Latte Da, a small shop selling coffee drinks, ice cream and various gift items.
While Youngquist says she will never recover the financial losses from COVID-19, she has gained a wealth of gratitude.
“There are so many things I’ll not take for granted anymore, like a hug,” she says. “Being able to embrace and be close to one another, I’ll never take that for granted again.”