Louie Mura grabs the bottles of domestic beer from the glass door refrigerator and places them neatly in a cooler packed with ice. When we order our long necks they’re practically frosty. This is just one of many reasons we love visiting Annie’s Bait & Tackle in Cortez.
I take a satisfying sip of my ice-cold Budweiser and survey the low-ceiling covered with what appears to be bamboo beach mats and Christmas lights. The walls of the tiny dining area are decorated with a rich array of wonderfully tacky pictures, signs and a few flat-screen TVs. There’s no air conditioning but plenty of fans and a fine breeze drifting in from the Intracoastal Waterway.
“The only thing sweating is our beers,” says my amazing wife Kristin, the Manatee High graduate who has been frequenting Annie’s much longer than I have.
Time for the next round of beers and she also asks for a purple koozie that’s otherwise identical to the faded orange one she uses at home. Emblazoned with the name and location of the establishment, the koozie is also adorned with Annie’s motto: “Unattended children will be sold as bait!”
Not always so well-behaved young ones are a common sight here during season, especially on the deck outback by the docks where people can enjoy splendid views of our world-famous sunsets. Now, though, at about 6 p.m. on a Friday in the dead of September, less than half of the dozen bar stools are filled. We love this time year. Nothing but locals. That’s pretty much our conversation with Louie, who has been working at Annie’s for “12 or 13 years” and came here because it’s “extremely, extremely casual.”
Louie is not exaggerating. Best known, at least among fishermen, as one of the last full service bait and tackle shops on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it’s not uncommon to be sitting at the bar enjoying a meal and have a group of people come in barefoot just wearing bathing suits. They’re here to buy some of Annie’s live bait, “delivered fresh daily.” Hooks, lures and other terminal tackle for catching everything from pinfish to kingfish are also popular. Six-packs of beer cans and cigarettes sell well, too.
But if you’re into extreme, extreme casual like we are, Annie’s is also a great choice for dining. We order the “Famous Grouper” dinner that comes with fries and slaw ($14.95) as well as the spicy version of Annie’s “Almost Authentic Cuban,” which comes with black beans and rice, chips and pickle ($8.50.) The grouper has a moist middle and lightly fried exterior made with the restaurant’s tasty batter. My sandwich is a nice combination of pressed Cuban bread holding deli meats and cheese given a welcome kick by some fiery mustard.
“That mustard is what makes our Cuban just a little different,” Louie says with a smile.
“But not too spicy,” Kristin adds happily.
We finish our food, have one more round, and share a laugh when we look up and notice an illustration hanging by the bar. It shows two manatees smiling devilishly. They’re driving a power boat right over the same people who come down here from places like the Midwest, rent boats for the day and often do the same thing to our beloved sea cows. Yeah, it’s the kind of picture you won’t see at most places but it should be expected at an Old Florida treasure like Annie’s Bait & Tackle.
Annie’s Bait & Tackle, 4334 127th St. W., Cortez; 794-3580; anniesbaitandtackle.com