Juli Cragg Hilliard

Taking in the Sandbar at sunset

The little red boat pointed the way to the beach. As we rounded the south end of the Sandbar, intent on a pre-dinner stroll along the Gulf shore of northern Anna Maria Island, the small vessel in a quiet corner of the restaurant's front yard provided a grace note to open the evening. I slipped off my flats as we crossed a short boardwalk to the sand, and my husband gallantly carried them for me. It was Friday night, high season and crowded. But we chose to walk before signing in for a table for two.

Dining at a beachside eatery presents the possibility of toasting the sunset from an outdoor seat, thereby casting oneself in a favorite movie scene or on a postcard. Yet, an amble in the salt air as the day grows late is equally inviting and romantic. You win both ways.

The tide was out. The sand, dotted only with smooth coquinas and other tiny shells, felt cool and hard. The open water offered its own hypnotism, absent of swimmers this brisk night. The few boats were simple silhouettes on the horizon.

I've always said that if I were to live on any island, it would be Anna Maria, with its laid-back soul and multiple municipalities with spirited and quirky politics. Free of high-rises and neon, and marked mostly by two-story condominiums over garages and modest one-story homes, it possesses little in the way of franchised businesses, apart from a Shell's seafood restaurant, name-brand gasoline and a Domino's pizza.

It seems private without being snooty. And, unless someone blasts a boom box, this beach is quiet. Waves and seabird cries wash away tension. Relaxation lends itself to companionability.

We passed a sandcastle. "Somebody will be increasing the price on that soon," my husband joked.

A family group beamed at a baby in a wagon. A man fished in the surf. From the blue-gray surface of the Gulf, a dark ribbon uncoiled into the sky, and over our heads soared a line of about 100 birds that we think were cormorants. The sun went rosy and then seemed to flatten, top and bottom, as it set. We had walked for an hour, and food appealed. Now that we were ready, though, it would be another 45 minutes before were seated.

The Sandbar is one of three restaurants that Ed Chiles owns in Manatee County. We also have visited the Beachhouse in Bradenton Beach and Mar Vista on north Longboat Key, but most often search out the remote feeling of the Sandbar, constructed of weathered, untreated eated wood. It is where we bring out-of-staters, so they can view the Gulf, listen to live music, eat seafood, and sit with their toes in the sand. Once, we saw a small sunset wedding about 20 feet from our table.

The indoor and outdoor sections of the restaurant have separate hostesses, menus and kitchens. As usual, we wanted to sit outdoors. Waiting, we lounged out of the wind in a breezeway, browsing posted menus. A teenage boy trundled tall lamppost-like heaters to the deck. The dusk water-colored the sky, past a string of festive lights that hung over the tables.

When we were seated, it was not at any of the dozen or so sandy-toes tables, but one on an upper deck, in a spot that felt distant even though we could gaze on other diners and their plates. The breeze had diminished with nightfall, but we were glad to sit near one of the heaters. So was a small and unobtrusive cat.

We lingered over drinks, an appetizer of smoked fish dip with capers and chopped onions, entrees of blackened grouper, and slices of key lime and chocolate-peanut butter pies. One of the regular entertainers, John Dewey, played guitar and crooned smooth-jazz, easy listening songs in a voice like a sweet bell.

We were our own island, and a million miles from anywhere.

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