When Curt and Jacquie Koon in 2008 took over an Esplanade restaurant with Smokehouse Bay views and later renamed it CJ’s on the Bay, they bought more than just the inanimate fixtures.

“They bought me along with the furniture,” says the ever-smiling executive chef and restaurant GM Laura Owen, whose imaginative cuisine – along with imaginative branding by the Koons – quickly elevated CJ’s on the Bay into one of the island’s top dining draws.

“My menu has always featured a little something for everyone,” says Owen, “but I’ve always focused strongly on fresh seafood caught locally, as well as local produce.”

In summer, CJ’s pretty much keeps its regular menu intact, but Owen likes to woo locals and European and South American tourists with her daily special sheet – and at the same time suggesting wine or beer pairings to match those specials.

And, a visit to the “Heart of the Rock” – another Koon branding gem – can be moderately priced depending on the order.

“People can have cocktails and appetizers ($8,99 to $14,99) in the outside bar, or they can have a nice dinner like steak and lobster before a movie or a show. We can do that too,” Owen says. “In summer, it’s about us adjusting for the level of business.”

For appetizers, incidentally, think Owen’s crispy calamari, in-house crab cakes or award-winning blue cheese potato chips.

And, as for the pairing suggestions, Owen is at the moment suggesting craft beers such as Fat Point from Punta Gorda, Three Daughters from St. Petersburg, and also drafts from Naples Beach Brewery.

To round off, Owen says her most decadent dessert is “chocolate madness,” consisting of chocolate cake, caramel, brownie chunks, toffee bits and fudge throughout – and then drenched with chocolate sauce.

“This one will take care of any chocolate craving you may have,” Owen says with a chuckle.

Owen, incidentally, is also a regular contributor to the Sun Times “Wine talk” column.

If you go:

What: CJ’s on the Bay

Where: Esplanade

Price range: Medium

House specials: Yes

Reservations: Recommended for bigger groups

Hours: Seven days a week, 11 a.m. onwards. Kitchen and outside bar close 10 p.m.

Full bar: Yes

Access: Boat or car.

Hours: Every day 11 a.m; kitchen closes and outside bar close 10 p.m.

Call: 389-4511;


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