By Suzy Kridner
PONCE INLET -- More than 30 years ago when I first moved to Florida, I found a little seafood restaurant in Ponce Inlet with the best fish sandwich and Key lime pie.
It was a great place to take visitors, watching the dolphins and pelicans floating on the waves on the Intracoastal Waterway while we enjoyed tropical drinks.
Customers could enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner, watch the dolphins, visit the gift shop and listen to music on the outside deck.
Through the years, Inlet Harbor Restaurant and Marina has had its ups and downs, closed for a while, and reopened with new owners. But the fish and key lime pie are still tops in my book.
Now, new restaurant general manager Leland Lewis, formerly of Paradiso 37 at Downtown Disney and Texas de Brazil steakhouses in South Florida, and Becky Smith, marketing director, are working to return Inlet Harbor to its glory days that began in 1936 when William Redwood Wharton founded Inlet Harbor Fishing Camp.
That also was the year he purchased the "Gay Wind," a 30-foot cabin cruiser from a boat builder in St. Augustine and traveled nearly 70 miles to a rustic fishing village, Ponce Park, at the southern tip of Daytona's peninsula.
Capt. Wharton was instrumental in growing the charter fishing boat business that continues in Ponce Inlet.
Capt. Wharton built the Sand Dollar Grille in 1946, and after it burned in 1959, he reopened it as the Inlet Grille. The name was changed to Inlet Harbor Restaurant in the early 1970s. Capt. Wharton sold the property in 1984, when it then changed hands several times and closed for a while.
A group of locals purchased it in 1995, and renovated and expanded the property.
Some of the original artifacts from the "Gay Wind" have been restored, Ms. Smith said, and will be featured in the restaurant's Redwood Wharton Captain's Lounge.
Talking with Mr. Lewis and Ms. Smith one afternoon last week, they suggested trying Inlet Harbor's Signature Sangrias ($4.75). My small samples of both -- I did have to go back to work -- were delicious and each featured fresh sangria fruit.
The sesame crusted ahi tuna ($14.99) could be a meal in itself. The sushi grade tuna is crusted in black and white sesame seed and Panko crumbs, said Mr. Lewis.
Chef Anthony Nuzzo said he's been in the kitchen for eight years, working his way up to chef.
Chef Nuzzo was happy we chose another signature dish, Mediterranean Shrimp and Scallop Pasta ($19.99), so we could enjoy the Feta cheese butter sauce. Fresh tomatoes, spinach and garlic were mixed with the seafood.
I thought my companion was going to lick his plate, he enjoyed it so much, and luckily I had leftovers for him the next day.
We also had leftovers from the Captain's Platter ($27.99) that included grilled shrimp and scallops on skewers and a crab cake. The seafood was done perfectly and served with baked or sweet potatoes.
My favorites were the perfectly grilled scallops, and of course the Key lime pie. Chef Nuzzo said they experimented with other recipes but due to customer demand went back to the original recipe, which my companion said was his favorite so far and didn't make his mouth pucker.
Mr. Lewis is looking to revamp the menu next month and has many ideas featuring seafood, adding mussels, new appetizers and entrees and fusion food with a Caribbean influence.
Chef Nuzzo has been experimenting with dishes and also putting his Italian influence in some of them.
Both Ms. Smith and Mr. Lewis said locals won't have long waits anymore since reservations and preferred seating are now being taken.
"We listened to our locals to provide more of a value and also a friendlier atmosphere, shaking hands and greeting customers," Mr. Lewis said.
He said his father docked his boat at Inlet Harbor for many years and Mr. Lewis recalled fishing off the dock and coloring on the placemats that showed an earlier layout of the restaurant.
He said in April, Inlet Harbor will be the new home of the King of the Inlet Fishing Tournament.
"We want to give a little love back and be a destination for tourists and locals."
"Tourists like to go where the locals go," he said.
Tourists who catch and clean their fresh seafood from the fishing boats that day can have it cooked for $6.99 a pound, Mr. Lewis said.
He's also planning a new bar menu featuring tapas and other items.
"We want to cut the chef loose and tweak the menu," he said.
And the focus will be on food, staff and marketing, he added.
Mr. Lewis said favorite dishes like seafood platters and clam chowder will remain on the menu.
"We want to have a resort feel to the restaurant and provide that level of customer service you find at a resort," he said.
Inlet Harbor's slogan is "the place to go with plenty to do," and that's a fact.