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A night of seafood and stargazing

Electric fans spun slowly over light fixtures. A candle flickered in a low bowl. Behind me, a man with a British accent said, “I think I’ll just tip the girl $125 for a $5 lunch.” I had visions of being in a café in the middle of Africa, like Rick’s in “Casablanca,” only everyone here was in Florida casual wear and nobody was playing the piano.
We were at Lee’s Crab Trap II in Ellenton, indulging in seafood before heading out for some country-road stargazing. My husband and I had packed our binoculars and stopped by Books-a-Million to pick up star books. We were timing our dining to linger until nightfall.
As you might guess from the name, there are two Lee’s Crab Traps. No. 1 is in Palmetto on U.S. 19. We like No. 2, off U.S. 301 west of Interstate 75, near Prime Outlets in Ellenton, for its on-stilts architecture, open layout and lakeside view.
The décor combines nautical, tropic and swamp motifs in a way that Home & Garden Television show experts likely would admonish. Mermaids and a light-strewn sailing ship float on the walls, near mounted gator heads and skin. Overhead looms a chandelier hewn from a cypress stump and its sprawling roots. Cloth toucans and fish dangle below fake stalactites.
“Ewww,” a young boy said from the booth next to ours. “Gator balls.” We felt pretty much the same way he did about gator, ostrich, kangaroo, frog legs or wild boar, all of which are on the 15-page menu. Well, actually, I might be talked into wild boar.
In addition to crab and various unusual offerings, Crab Trap brags on its steaks, but we would never think of ordering anything but seafood. The Old Smokey Fish dip, concocted of fresh Gulf mahi-mahi, arrived shaped like a face, with a body of sliced red peppers and black olives, surrounded by cucumber circles and resting on a bed of lettuce. The salt on the rim of the margarita glass was neon green.
We ate three-crab soup, Caribbean conch chowder, spinach salad, coleslaw, a broiled tilapia dinner, and a mixed platter of broiled tilapia, scallops and shrimp. Dessert was key lime pie and white chocolate, macadamia-nut cheesecake. The food was excellent, as always. Without live music or sports-blaring TV sets, our focus remained on conversation and chow. My Bradenton-native husband started unspooling local tales —appropriate since the Crab Traps have been around for a long time and our theme on this night out was Old Florida.
After dinner, it was time to find out how far we would have to drive in rapidly growing Manatee County to find darkness deep enough to view constellations.
In the parking lot, lights illuminated the tall oaks heavily draped with Spanish moss. It made me think of how seaside Savannah looks after dark. At the motel next to the restaurant, a shirtless man lounged in an open doorway. Nearby, a woman walked two large, furry huskies so white the dogs practically glowed. “Oh, look — a bobcat,” my husband said. While my attention was on the pet dogs, this wild creature had sprinted past our car, across the street, and into the woods.
We drove west on Memphis Road, then north on Ellenton-Gillette, catching sight of Jesus glowing through the stained-glass window of a Baptist church in the deepening shadows. We passed the Southeastern Guide Dogs grounds and crossed over Interstate 275. Driveway after driveway swam by, each leading to a home with its exterior lights on. “Houses out here still have some spaces between them,” my husband said.
About a 6 1/2 miles’ drive from the restaurant, we found a fairly dark spot and pulled over. Of course, we had forgotten flashlights, which limited our ability to check our star charts. Thin clouds moved in across the sky. But we picked out Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Cancer, Virgo, Libra and Hercules.
The enchanting bowl of the heavens was rimmed with the luminescence of surrounding communities. But mainly I felt seized with a fear that colossal, red-eyed alligators would steal from the woods and bite us. I stamped my feet loudly and called “Gator, gator,” in hopes it would keep them away. Then something small and numerous — not gators, but bugs — attacked my neck and legs. For days, my ankles bore strings of marks. Which constellations, I’m not sure.