Stilts: a new eatery stands tall on Marco's beach

When a restaurant offers something special, the word gets around in a hurry. You might expect that most of the clientele at Stilts, a beachside bar and grill within the Marriott Crystal Shores vacation club would come from visitors staying at the facility, but you would be wrong. The majority of the patrons packing Stilts at lunchtime one Tuesday were either Islanders or full-time or seasonal residents who had heard the buzz.

Stilts is the new kid on the block among Marco restaurants, opening on March 6. Both poolside and beachfront, the eatery is inside Marriott’s new interval ownership resort, on the site of the former Radisson hotel. As if to emphasize its name, the dining room sits up on concrete piers, which gives the place a stunning, uninterrupted view of the beach and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. Colorful umbrellas dot the sand, pelicans patrol the shoreline and parasail boats cruise offshore.

“Sunset here is unbelievable,” said restaurant Manager Eugene Martin. To enhance the view and take maximum advantage of the Gulf breezes, Stilts is built without walls on three sides, so it is definitely an outdoor dining experience.

Martin fills a dual role at Stilts. He serves both as executive chef and food and beverage manager for the resort.

“I call our food island cuisine,” Martin says of the menu he created along with Brian Klein, Marriott Vacation Clubs vice president of food and beverage, saying, “People come here, they want seafood.”

Unlike some establishments that inundate diners with page after page of puzzlement-inducing choices, the bill of fare at Stilts is simple and brief, and offering familiar items with a twist, such as the “Mother of all nachos,” or grilled chicken and pineapple quesadillas.

Starting at 4 p.m., the Island dinner section of the menu is available, offering heartier fare, such as a 12-ounce, charbroiled strip steak, sweet chili-glazed grouper and teriyaki pineapple chicken. Along with the island-style food go island-style drinks. At the full bar, the whir of the blender is heard regularly, making up piña coladas and strawberry daiquiris; the frothy concoctions Jimmy Buffett immortalized as “boat drinks.”

In addition to a selection of Budweiser beers on tap, a surprise favorite among the beverages is the draft Blue Moon wheat beer. Served with a generous wedge of orange, the cloudy brew provides thirst-quenching cool with a tropical twist, and has become a favorite among patrons.

No stranger to opening new restaurants, Martin has been with Marriott for 24 years. Starting his career in Atlanta, he worked in Baltimore, Boston and four different Marriott locations in New York City. He was working at the Marriott Financial Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We were feeding the rescue workers,” he remembers. “It was good at least to be able to help out and give something back to the community.”

Martin brought that philosophy with him to Stilts. Along with insisting on the freshest ingredients — the restaurant gets its seafood delivered twice a day by the Incredible Fresh Fish Company, of Naples — Martin says that people are the key to a successful food operation.

“We weren’t just looking for bodies,” he said about creating the staff. “This is a hospitality business; you have to enjoy working with people.” In the short time they’ve been in operation, he added, the restaurant has gotten so busy that they are hiring again.

“A friend said, ‘You gotta go there,’” said Gwyn Steiner, a winter resident who splits her time between Cape Marco and Minnesota. “We just wanted to try it.” She opted for the grouper taco, which she pronounced excellent. “Very tasty,” she said, adding that it had been recommended by her “source.”

Her friend, Joanne Kuhlman, chose the mini-burgers, which she reported she couldn’t finish, despite her best efforts.

Doug and Cindy Anderson, visiting from Minneapolis, also came to Stilts because of a personal recommendation. Doug had the lump crab salad and praised the way the goat cheese set off the flavor. Joanne couldn’t say enough about the pan-seared scallop poppers, wrapped in bacon and finished in the oven. “They’re awesome,” she proclaimed, “Just as good as I was assured they would be.”

Tom and Mary Carrico, staying at Cape Marco while visiting his folks, brought Tommy junior, 6, and Sam, 5, along with them to check out Stilts. The couple liked what they saw, including the child-friendly bar and kids’ meals. “This is a great atmosphere,” said Tom. “They’ve done a nice job here.”

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