Finding an authentic fishing village in Florida seems like an impossible quest – unless you can travel back in time.
To my surprise, though, that’s just what you’ll find in Cortez.
While today it is surrounded by modern sprawling Bradenton, Cortez started as a rural community of fishing families in the 1890s. Descendants of those settlers still live here and a few dozen of the original little cottages are still homes to proud Cortez residents. There are still commercial fishing operations here, some dating back many decades.
Cortez has a funky old Florida feel, like the best of the Florida Keys. But it’s really quite tiny with a limited selection of things to do. Basically, there’s a small, free maritime museum; a few blocks of a cute, historic cottages, and some picturesque scenes along the waterfront.
There’s a really good reason to visit, though: To eat in one of the classic casual Florida fish shack restaurants that dot the shoreline.
At these restaurants, you’ll eat outdoors with views of the water while pelicans, herons and egrets gather photogenically nearby. (On our recent February visit, a flock of 50 big white pelicans were loitering on a sandbar off the fishing docks on the southern shoreline of Cortez. Gorgeous birds!)
Since seafood is shipped all over the country from the docks in Cortez, this really is a place to find the freshest seafood.
If you consult Yelp or TripAdvisor, you’ll see a half dozen competing seafood spots, all based on a similar premise – an open air fishing dock/marina atmosphere and a variety of fresh fish, simply prepared.
We’d long heard about Star Fish Company Restaurant, one of the top ranked spots, so that’s where we headed at noon on a Sunday.
The Star Fish restaurant is an outgrowth of and is adjacent to the large seafood wholesale company that was founded in the 1920s. Its current owner opened the small waterfront restaurant in 1996 and its fame has grown.
Star Fish has perhaps 15 tables overlooking a beautiful expanse of water and mangrove islands in the northern end of Sarasota Bay. The view includes an iconic fish shack on stilts that appears on all the Cortez marketing materials.
At Star Fish you stand in line to order your meal at the counter and it gets delivered to you in a to-go box with plastic utensils at your table. At peak times during the winter season, the line can take an hour. We waited about 30 minutes to order, with one member of our group holding down a table, sipping a beer and enjoying the scene.
If you’re in a hurry or want to be waited on, Star Fish is not for you. (Blame Emeril Lagasse for featuring Star Fish in his TV series.)
Was the food worth the wait? We would enthusiastically answer yes. We rated as exceptional everything we tried – the seafood chowder ($3), the seafood salad ($7.95), the blackened mahi sandwich ($12.95) and the smoked mullet ($7.95), which we took home to use in fish dip. We weren’t in a hurry, we enjoyed the company of our tablemates and our time at Star Fish was an experience, not just a meal.
There is a small outdoor bar serving the variety of beers and wine to help pass the time.
Be warned: Prices are reasonable, but Star Fish is cash only.
Star Fish is just one of your excellent choices in Cortez, however.
We walked around the peninsula checking out other waterfront restaurants, each of which had outdoor seating and great views.
Right at the causeway that takes you from Cortez to Anna Maria Island, you’ll find Tide Tables restaurant, a seafood restaurant with a mighty reputation for super-fresh fish and great views. (Tide Table currently occupies the No. 1 ranking on both Yelp and TripAdvisor.)
Tide Tables does offer table service and people rave about the grouper, fish tacos and mahi. It has an ideal location overlooking the wide Intracoastal and causeway. Since it faces west, it is ideal for sunsets.
Tide Table and Star Fish are in the top two spots on most lists, but there are actually other well liked seafood spots in Cortez too. Read reviews of Cortez restaurants on TripAdvisor and Yelp to check out alternatives.
Keep in mind: Poor little Cortez is plagued with giant traffic backups. The only through street in town is the causeway to Anna Maria Island (just five minutes away) and when the drawbridge opens, you have no choice but to be patient.
Planning your visit to Cortez, Florida
- 4415 119th St W, Cortez, FL 34215
- (941) 708-6120
- The museum is small but free and visitors give it good reviews. It tells the history of Cortez and includes shells, ship models and changing exhibits. It is located in the restored 1912 Cortez Rural Graded Schoolhouse. Volunteer docents make the visit memorable for many. Parking is adjacent. Nearby is the 1890 general store and post office, which was moved to this location from its original waterfront site.
- 12306 46th Ave W, Cortez, FL 34215
- (941) 794-1243
- 12507 Cortez Rd W, Bradenton, FL 34210
- (941) 567-6206