Nearly a century of family history goes into this Sarasota classic, evocative of another era a rapidly changing state.
It’s a touchstone of the city, and a link to what this city, and what this state, used to look and feel like. In a town of transients, transplants and snowbirds, Walt’s Fish Market is that rarest of Florida institutions: An old school place that’s been in the same family for four generations.
The history of the family that runs it is a story it would be hard to imagine outside of Sarasota. The Ringling Brothers Circus casts a big shadow here, as the town served as their winter headquarters. When the circus hit town in 1918, they had a young Swede in their ranks who’d fled his home country to join them. Claus Wallin, the young Swede, settled in Sarasota and became a commercial fisherman.
Claus passed his fishing knowledge down to his son Walt, who sold fish on Whitaker Bayou, then opened his own market after returning from World War II. Eventually, it began serving food as a restaurant, and it’s remained a family establishment ever since. Walt passed the business to his sons Walt Jr. and Tom, who in turn passed it to Tom’s son Brett, who runs it today while continuing to fish and crab the waters around the city.
While Sarasota today trades on that history of being “Circus City” (there’s a museum, and even a brewery that goes by that name now), the commercial fishing industry has grown harder to navigate. And yet, Walt’s Fish Market on South Tamiami Trail continues to stay deeply connected to the nearby waters. As you go along the counter, you’ll see a few items imported from elsewhere. But if they tell you the seafood came from Florida, you can be sure it was swimming that morning, and that the owner can tell you the name of the person who caught it.
Like the business he owns, Brett Wallin is something of an anomaly in a city defined by rapid development. He’s kept a family business alive by treating the people who work there like family. (Edible Sarasota ran an excellent piece on Brett and the way he runs the business, which you can read here.)
Throughout my life, Walt’s is one of the handful of places whose consistent presence has kept this strip of South Tamiami surprisingly familiar in the midst of the city’s population explosion. Along with other local institutions like Demetrios Restaurant and Pizza (with that same sign all these years later), Karl Ehmer’s Meats (Home of the Original Turducken!) and Fogt’s Gulf Coast Music Center (your place for rentals and repairs!), Walt’s is a reminder of a Florida that many people looking to make a buck off the landscape seem all too ready to forget.
In 2012, Brett Wallin oversaw a redesign of both the space and the menu, and the results were excellent. The place still has the feel of Old Florida. It’s kitschy without being ironic. Stuffed fish and wooden ship wheels adorn the walls. The tables are lacquered wood and the bar (Chickee Hut) has a tiki theme and classic cocktails suited to the climate. But this isn’t a design for the newcomers so much as it is a salute to what always made the area what it was. There are photographs of old fishermen who kept the market stocked, there as much in reverence as in remembrance. For anyone who grew up here, the place feels like home.
Mussels in garlic butter and white wine. Classic.
The menu in the restaurant and the offerings in the market remain true to that old spirit. Appetizers like steamed mussels, conch fritters and hush puppies. Sandwiches of grouper and mangrove snapper. Unbelievably delicious stone crab claws, which were available in bulk when I was a kid and now sell for up to 35 dollars a pound. And most importantly, the famous smoked mullet spread, which my family demanded I bring home for a Thanksgiving appetizer.
I know this place. I’ve seen gilded stores up the street like Lechmere and Circuit City come and go. I saw the Sarasota Quay as it was built, and I saw it as it was demolished. I watched the Ringing Towers come down a Ritz Carlton fill its place. My elementary school, Phillippi Shores, now sits about 300 yards from where it was when I played touch football on the playground. My parents even had a restaurant over here, where my mother was the chef. The door was just under a mile from Walt’s.
Walt’s has been at its current location since 1977, one year before I was born. The restaurant my parents owned no longer exists. My old neighborhood is barely recognizable. But every year I drive down this road and see that Walt’s is still there, and I’m thankful for that.
Walt’s Fish Market and Restaurant is located at 4144 South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. They have different hours for different parts. The fish market is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, except Sunday when they open at 10. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. every day, as does the bar. The restaurant closes at 10 p.m. and the bar closes at 11 p.m.
Walt’s has a website here.