Southern, seafood and Cajun on the menu in Punta Rassa
Southern, seafood and Cajun on the menu in Punta Rassa
It’s easy to have tunnel—or should we say causeway—vision when approaching Sanibel from Fort Myers and breeze right by SS Hookers, the three-story restaurant at the entrance to Punta Rassa. But when crossing the causeway from Sanibel, you can’t help but notice the stately structure, especially at night with its tiki torches, lighted landscape and occasional glow from heat lamps on the deck—warm and inviting.
Celebrating its one- year anniversary last October, the southern, seafood and Cajun-based restaurant is running full steam through season.
It took Southwest Florida entrepreneur Sandy Stillwell three years from the time of inception to get the doors open. It’s her eighth Southwest Florida restaurant but the first one she built from the ground up. “It was the riskiest as a result,” she says, “but I think it has the greatest potential, so I’m really excited about it.”
Imagine driving by the preconstruction site and seeing a wellheeled blonde in the bucket of a cherry picker taking photos. That’s exactly what Stillwell did during the design phase, explaining, “I went up and looked all around the property to find the best view.”
The property is very narrow and Stillwell wanted patrons to see more of Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel, and as little as possible of the tollbooth. The building was redesigned three times.
Getting the building permits was difficult, but not Stillwell’s only challenge. Once the permits were in hand, she had trouble finding labor, as the area had been in a building slump. Construction “took forever,” according to the businesswoman, who adds, “We had planned to open a year before.”
Partnering with powerboat racer Steve Page, the two set their sights on this premium property for a number of reasons, including its historical significance. The restaurant overlooks the area where in 1885 the first tarpon ever to be caught on a rod and reel was reportedly hooked: a 93-pound fish on a bamboo pole.
The restaurant name, while sounding slightly suggestive, pays homage to the area’s well-established history of boating (SS) and fishing (Hookers). The history continues inside with old photos lining the tall walls of the cupola above the bar.
Another highlight is the handmade boat suspended over the bar, where you can sip on creative cocktails with names like Bronzed Redfish, The Big Easy, Snapped Rod and Lake Okeechobee Water Release.
When SS Hookers first opened, the menu had many Cajun-inspired dishes. While several still exist, executive chef and general manager John Feagans says, “We had to tame down a lot of the true Cajun meals; a lot of customers didn’t like the spice, so I had to refine what I was doing.”
One example, according to Stillwell: “We were having the muffuletta breads flown in from New Orleans, but people were complaining they were ‘too bready,’ so we changed it.” The menu is still full of NOLA-inspired favorites such as po’boys, gumbo, etouffee and jambalaya.
Feagans continues, “We have a lot of traditional dishes but with my own twist; I think it’s something every chef does.”
One of his favorites is the Snapper Bienville. “It’s fun to eat and fun to make,” he says. “It presents itself well.” The sautéed fish is topped with a creamy sauce of bacon, onion, shrimp, garlic and mushroom, then served over rice.
Stillwell’s favorite is the Tuna Martini, an appetizer that is the chef’s version of a Hawaiian tuna poke. The sushi-grade yellowfin is diced and tossed with teriyaki, sriracha, scallions and sesame seeds, and served with wakame. Everything, including dressings and sauces, is made in-house.
Southern favorites include squash casserole, shrimp and grits, and pot roast. The menu always includes a fresh catch, as well as a good selection of beef dishes, since fishing isn’t the only history tied to the restaurant’s location. Cattle barons also frequented Punta Rassa back in the day, loading their herds on boats bound for Cuba.
When Hookers first opened, the restaurant’s managers threw everything at the wall to see what would stick—breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night. Now, breakfast is served only on weekends, with a killer Bloody Mary bar on Sundays.
It’s not all decadence here; a dietician was brought in to help with healthful dining options as well. Icons on the menu designate not only gluten-free items but also indulgence-redefined selections for those on plant-based diets.
As is the case for many businesses, SS Hookers is a work in progress. A chickee hut has been added for anglers to get bait and supplies, décor is being added to the ground floor, there is live music every night and lots of special promotions such as ladies night. Check the website for updates.
And check the bar for Stillwell. You can often catch her dining there, striking up friendly conversation with regulars and visitors. “People are on vacation and having a good time,” she says. “It’s always fun and makes me realize we’re so blessed to live here.”
The restaurant overlooks the area where in 1885 the first tarpon ever to be caught on a rod and reel was reportedly hooked: a 93-pound fish on a bamboo pole.
At SS Hookers, the last stop before the Sanibel Causeway, Cajun Crab Cakes and the Tuna Martini are menu favorites.
Enjoy the sunset from the restaurant’s balcony while indulging in colorful cocktails or the chef’s interpretation of classic dishes, like this pimiento cheese sandwich with fried green tomatoes and bacon.