Plenty of Florida restaurants specialize in fresh seafood. After all, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida produced 110 million pounds of seafood in 2021 at a value of around $262 million.
Examples of Florida restaurants that are known for their fresh seafood are Euphoria Fish House in Orlando, J.B's Fish Camp in New Smyrna Beach, and Harry's Old Place in Winter Haven.
However, none of those can claim that they harvest all of their own fresh seafood or serve up to 500 pounds of grouper per day. But there is a dockside restaurant on Florida's west-central coast that can make that claim.
What's So Special About Rusty Bellies?: Located on the iconic sponge docks of Tarpon Springs, Rusty Bellies has been in business since 2005. However, one of the owner's family has been operating a seafood boating business since the 1970s. And that is how Rusty Bellies has access to the freshest seafood available.
The boats pull right up to the restaurant's dock and deliver the day's catch. In fact, the menu revolves around whatever is available and fresh that day. So you're getting fresh, wild seafood every time you eat there.
While the menu revolves around seafood fare, the menu is said to offer sophisticated options that will satisfy a variety of palates.
In fact, a reviewer called Rusty Bellies the "best seafood in Tampa Bay" in 2019. Here is a video from Visit Clearwater to give you a taste of what you might experience there.
When you eat at Rusty Bellies, you will notice that the names of menu items are unique. That's because the dishes are named for the local fishermen and boats that supply the restaurant with its catch.
Interestingly, a "rusty bellie" is the nickname given to a large, male gag grouper.
What Should You Order at Rusty Bellies?: Since the restaurant serves so much grouper, that is always a popular choice. However, any seafood on the menu should be fresh, since Julie Russell, who co-owns the restaurant, told ABC Action News in 2021, in part:
"We catch our own shrimp. We catch our own grouper. We catch our own stone crabs. We catch our own mackerel...From day to day, the menu will change based on what we catch. We sometimes feed one thousand to 1,500 people in a day."
So if a seafood item is on the menu, it was very likely caught that same day. And the volume that Rusty Bellies does is reflected in their reviews - they have almost 10,000 Google reviews. And those reviewers do love the fresh grouper, crab cake, fish and chips, cajun pasta, and peel-and-eat shrimp.
Is Rusty Bellies Reasonably Priced?: Since this restaurant specializes in fresh-catch, wild seafood, their prices reflect that. While some will consider the prices worth the quality of the food, others may see it as a splurge. Here are some dinner examples. The grouper dinner is $29. A shrimp trio (peel and eat, banger, and scampi) is $34. Shrimp and scallop skewers served over yellow rice are also $34. Sushi rolls range from $10.00-$14.00. Shrimp tacos are $14 and steak tacos are $18.
What Do Locals and Reviewers Say About Rusty Bellies?: As mentioned above, this joint has nearly 10,000 Google reviews, and its average rating is 4.5. The food was almost unanimously praised, and most people enjoyed the water views, the live entertainment, and the staff. Those who had complaints were generally focused on wait times.
Rusty Bellies is admittedly quite often packed. But they do offer a waitlist and reservation system to try to help alleviate some of your wait.