For 30-plus years, Gramma Dot’s has been a Sanibel fixture. The restaurant is tucked into Sanibel Marina on the northeast end of the island. It started as a place for boaters to grab food before or after their days on the water. It’s grown to be a hidden island favorite.
A drive over the Sanibel Causeway is always an adventure.
The colors of the water, the occasional kite boarders, the cars parked for cookouts and fishing, the birds that soar parallel to your car now and then as you top the highest span, sometimes so close you feel as if you could touch them.
After descending the Causeway’s final bridge, you’re greeted by the island’s first four-way stop at Periwinkle Way, Sanibel’s main street. A majority of motorists turn right to the west end of Periwinkle, which is lined with galleries, shops and restaurants. It also leads to Captiva Island.
A left turn at this intersection dead ends at the historic Sanibel Lighthouse. The drive is scenic and mostly residential. It’s on this stretch you’ll find the pristine white docks of Sanibel Marina and its quaint restaurant, Gramma Dot’s Seaside Saloon.
Gramma Dot is a real person, and although she died in 1998 at the age of 96, her spirit is alive and well in her near-famous Key lime pie recipe and her eponymous restaurant’s hospitality.
“She never met a stranger,” restaurant and marina manager Stephanie Peterson says of her grandmother.
Dot Ireland, widowed, moved from Long Island, New York to Sanibel in the 1960s.
“She drove a big Cadillac with the top down and the A/C on and she outlived every boyfriend. Even the younger ones,” Peterson says, laughing.
When Dot’s son, Myton Ireland, bought the small Sanibel Marina more than 30 years ago, he established the restaurant as a service to seafarers, a place for them to grab a bite before or after hitting the water. The restaurant remains a destination for boaters, but those who travel by land are also in on this secret.
Gramma Dot’s menu, which has changed little over the years, focuses on local seafood. Customers will find shrimp, scallops, oysters, soft-shell crab, and a grouper sandwich that is the undisputed king of lunch. The Gulf fish can be fried, broiled, mesquite grilled or blackened, and is served with herbed mayonnaise instead of traditional tartar sauce.
Burgers are big here, as well, 8 ounces of fresh ground sirloin to be exact.
“People are also happy that we’ve added a veggie burger,” Gramma Dot’s executive chef Mitch Zamudio says. He crafts it with black beans and corn, but Zamudio won’t reveal its other secrets.
The chef is also tight-lipped about what makes the breading on his Blue Point oysters so appealing.
“It’s not just flour or fish batter. We use four or five different mixes and seasonings to keep it light, not so greasy.
The oils used to fry Gramma Dot’s fish and chips are kept separate, and cleaned every day for fresh flavor. Speaking of the chips, they are house-made and they are legendary.
“They’re so light and crisp,” Peterson says of the side dish that comes standard with all the restaurant’s sandwiches.
The chips used to be served in mounds, alongside lunch entrees in big wicker baskets, but in the wake of COVID-19, ceramic plates are being used to allow for better sanitation. Tip: Ask for a side of that herbed mayo for chip dipping.
Gramma Dot’s lobster bisque is another longtime favorite. For every four gallons of the cream and sherry-based soup, chef adds six pounds of lobster meat.
“It’s thick and creamy and there is a lot of lobster in there,” Peterson says.
Chunks of claw meat are used in the restaurant’s coconut-curried lobster salad, as well as in its lobster roll.
Gramma Dot’s also serves dinner specials, such as lobster tail, king crab, New York strip and more grouper, to name a few. Just be sure to mind your arrival time. The restaurant is in a residential area where the City of Sanibel enforces a rule requiring the last guests be seated by 8 p.m.
Always save room for dessert, especially Dot’s famous Key lime pie.
“I’m a Fort Myers native and have been eating Key lime pie my whole life,” server Jill Coleman says. “This is the best one I’ve ever had.”
Coleman has worked at Gramma Dot’s for 16 years. She’s not alone in her longevity. Most of the staff have a decade or more of tenure under their belts. They are like family, according to Peterson, who says they in turn treat guests like family.
Gramma Dot’s dining area offers views of the marina on one side and of the Causeway on the other. Indoor dining feels like being on a friend’s screened-in porch, but with cool air filtering down from corner air-conditioning units. New tables with blue-and-white chairs and umbrellas have been added to the front patio area for additional seating, surrounded by well-manicured bushes and bronzed statues of mermaids and dolphins.
Gramma Dot’s is currently trying its hand at reservations. The verdict is still out on whether the service will continue going into season, when wait times can traditionally exceed an hour.
That said, this gracious little waterfront restaurant remains something of a hidden gem.
“So many people still didn’t know we’re here,” Peterson says. “The food is great. It’s so charming, warm and cozy. It’s one of those places people can’t wait to come back to.”