The Florida of today doesn't reflect the tenacity of those who first settled the area, and it is difficult to find vestiges of early Southwest Florida. Before the Matlacha Bridge was built, the only access to Pine Island was by boat, and to build without power or easy access showed the commitment to this area by early residents. As time evolved, less and less properties have maintained a true history as that of Tarpon Lodge, 13771 Waterfront Drive, offering a view into the past.
Rob Wells is a member of the family that owns Tarpon Lodge, as well as Cabbage Key, another historic destination only minutes away by boat. He shares, "Mom and dad moved to Cabbage Key in 1976. My dad is an avid angler and had a historical photo of Tarpon Lodge, originally as a private fishing residence for the Wilson family in 1926."
The still-original lodge overlooks the bucolic setting and stupendous view of Pine Island Sound on a beautifully landscaped property. Additional buildings were built in the late 1930s through the '50s. When the Wells family bought the property, they strongly committed to preserving the history of the location and 150-seat dining room, 22-bedroom lodge.
Tarpon Lodge’s restaurant on Matlacha offers an array of meat, chicken and vegetarian meals in their historic building below.
Carol Orr Hartman
At the time, Wells was living in New York, and returned to the area with his brother to complete their father's vision for the property.
"We have acknowledged the historical quality of the place over time as we discovered the history and developed a love of that history and how hard it was to build on the island and the toughness and pioneering spirit in the original settlers. Since we have opened, locals have fallen in love with what we have done," he said.
"When people walk in the door, they are stepping back in time; they can leave the worries of everyday problems behind."
Many of the items decorating the restaurant walls are those brought to the family by others wanting to keep the tradition and history of the lodge alive, with black-and-white photographs, aquatic decor, pictures of the neighboring islands and many antiques.
"Many return proud to see their donation prominently displayed," Wells said. "The building, itself, has beautiful views and a nice feel. We always wanted to have a higher-end food product in a casual setting, allowing people to come here and have the level of quality food that they could get in a cosmopolitan setting, yet maintaining the simplicity. We don't fry anything; we only have fresh fish on the menu that we have been able to get in locally. The menu is limited, but the goal is to have as fresh a product as possible, and we tried to also have something that would meet most every taste, from steak, chicken, vegetarian, salad, entre and seafood."
And it is obvious when you enter that the Wells have achieved their goal of a step back in time. Photographs, memorabilia and mounted fish greet you when you first enter and are visible throughout the restaurant, carried through to the food designated as a four-star restaurant.
Open for lunch and dinner, there is even a kid's menu, bar menu and special occasion menu, all offering a variety to suit any taste's desire. This is one of those menus that people hate there is so much that looks so delicious, you have a difficult time choosing what you want. A suggestion is to bring some friends and share several dishes to try all of the mouthwatering choices or plan repeat trips.
The lunch menu offers starters like Burrata cheese with heirloom tomatoes, fennel, tarragon and olive oil; or Pine Island littleneck clams served in a saffron broth with parmesan cheese and saffron aioli crostini. Try the delicious bronzed gulf shrimp over romaine lettuce, with roasted sweet potato and green apple salad with mango coulis.
Lunch entrees range from the Tarpon Lodge bacon cheeseburger, a Cuban sandwich, blackened fish tacos made with the fresh catch of the day or a succulent shrimp and crab fettuccini with sauted shrimp, roasted red peppers, onions and spinach tossed with fettuccini and blue crab garlic cream sauce.
Dinner menu highlights include the headliner "Tarpon Lodge Fresh Catch of the Day." Caught in local waters, you can't get any fresher than this, just like the early settlers of this area.
Varied tastes may also enjoy items like the chicken and crab (sauted chicken breast layered with crabmeat and monterey jack cheese in a white wine lemon sauce, served with sauted spinach and garlic).
Meat lovers may enjoy the Harris Ranch "natural" black angus New York strip steak or the slow roasted short rib. Vegetarians are not overlooked, as a tasty vegetarian pasta dish offers wild mushrooms, roasted Roma tomatoes and spinach tossed with fettuccini and a pesto white wine sauce, served with Parmesan cheese crostini.
The bar menu is varied and served from 4 to 9 p.m., offering smaller versions of some of the entrees and tasty choices in the eclectic bar filled with historical memorabilia. Selections like the British Isle cheese board, Tarpon Lodge pork sliders, blackened fish tacos or crab cake sliders will accompany your favorite beverage.
The kid's menu offers choices that kids love like a jumbo hot dog, cheese pizza, cheeseburger or buttered pasta with cheese, so the little ones aren't overlooked. The special occasions menu (like on Mother's Day) offers a special selection of chef's specialties for that particular day.
Live music plays most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays to enhance the diners' experience.
Wells shared his thoughts on what he wants guests to experience.
"I hope people will leave us with less anxieties than what they came with and an appreciation of Old Florida and natural settings, but also a thought of how the original settlers lived and pioneered so that we can preserve that history in the original setting," he said. "I want our guests to leave with a sense of peace and satisfaction so that people want to return again and again."