Robbie’s treasures the funky, fun Keys

Local artwork, fresh seafood and tarpon keep visitors coming back

Keys Sunday contributorJanuary 15, 2010 

As you walk into Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada on a sunny Saturday, you’ll feel like you’ve taken a step back to a simpler Keys time.

One of the first people you’ll encounter is artist Nadine Lahti, working on a painting of two yellowtails in front of the art stand she shares with her husband, Glenn, where all of their works are framed in old lobster traps.

“It doesn’t get any Keysier than this,” she said. “All of these traps were locally fished, and all the barnacles, rust and crustaceans on the wood are natural. Our art is based on island life, and we live right down the road.”

Across the path, at the Palm Tree Treasures pavilion, Mary Schreiber, a 16-year snowbird, makes change and chats with customers, as they browse the surprisingly low-priced shell jewelry.

She’s only worked there for five years, but recalls the shop’s modest beginnings.

“They started out with a picnic table, and then it went to a shack,” she said. “It was funny because when tall guys tried to walk through, the palm fronds that were supposed to give the place character would fall on their heads.

“People still come back year after year.”

These stories of old traps rescued from the sea and a kind of organic expansion provide a peek of Robbie’s rich past that still spills over into the present, as the marina sprawls peacefully among lush tropical landscaping, towering shade trees and coconut palms. The docks, restaurant and hidden beaches offer a stunning view of where the Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean converge.

Shortly after the end of World War II, the entire Lower Matecumbe Island of 918 acres was sold to Lewis Hall, Jack Davis and Ellis Gideons for $120,000.

About 17 acres of the upper end were sold to Capt. Buck and Ruth Starck in 1946. They moved a small lime packing house down to serve as construction quarters while building the first permanent residential home on the island. Next door, they built Starck’s Fishing Camp.

At that time they, along with the owners of Wynn Tyner’s Toll Gate Inn and Fish Camp, were the only full-time residents of Lower Matecumbe Key.

By 1976, the fish camp had closed, and Mona and Robbie Reckwerdt bought it, opening a small boat rental operation. That soon grew into a few charter boats, a fish house and a modest restaurant. They also began to run two party boats out of Holiday Isle.

“My father originally intended to partially retire, but it didn’t suit his personality,” Michael Reckwerdt said. “We just slowly added one thing and then another. We’ve always been conscious about not changing the mix too quickly and staying true to what we are. We’re just a fishing business.”

The tarpon feeding started around 1978, after the now-legendary Scarface was rescued. The tarpon was floundering in the shallow water near the dock, and when Robbie saw that the right side of its jaw was torn open, he got a local doctor to sew the fish up with his wife’s mattress needles and some fishing twine. After six months, Scarface was released but kept coming back, and he brought friends.

“We started out just feeding them carcasses from the fish house, but eventually people didn’t like that too much,” Michael said. “We switched over to selling the buckets of baitfish.”

Now Robbie’s is forever known as the place “where you go to feed the tarpon.”

And rightly so, as crowds gather with their blue buckets of baitfish, the tarpon never cease to impress, leaping out of the water to be hand-fed —sometimes trying to take the hand as well. There is even a popular webcam both at the dock and underwater where people can watch all of the activity.

As Robbie’s continued to expand, Michael and his wife, Annie, took over the business in 1995 and built an eclectic mix of activities and shops.

They still do the charters and boat rentals, and the party boats have moved over from Holiday Isle. The kayak shack offers rentals of kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, and the Reckwerdts added snorkeling and ecotours. The marina is also the jumping off point to visit the historic islands of Lignumvitae Key and Indian Key, now state parks.

A year ago, they opened up more retail space, bringing in the Fishbone Gallery, which features cut steel aquatic sculptures, and the Fly By Boutique. The Fly By showcases the work of Tim Rahn Photography, Blue Water Pottery, Tru Art and other local artists in a variety of mediums along with casual clothing, hammocks and gifts.

“We were cautious when selecting our vendors,” Michael said. “We don’t want to create a carnival-type atmosphere — just a cute little group of shops where people can take their time and walk around. While there are a few things that are a little more expensive, we wanted to keep the prices reasonable.”

The funky décor features a shark coming out of a wall with a poinsettia wreath around his neck and a hook with Christmas ornaments in his mouth. Mementos from Michael’s mother line a high shelf.

Other pieces of Robbie’s history are incorporated, such as old cutting torches, portholes, a ship wheel and anchor chain. Even the dressing room is made out of wooden doors and a fighting chair footrest from an old Hatteras.

“There are little pieces of us everywhere,” Michael said. “These doors were made at a time when you could still get hardwood like this Afromosia. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw it out.”

Over the years, the original restaurant was leased out and became the Hungry Tarpon, which garnered a solid reputation for being one of the best places for breakfast and lunch in the Keys. In January, the Reckwerdts took over again and chose to keep everything exactly the same except for dinner, which they decided to take in a new direction.

They brought in Chef Joseph Sassine, whose unique blend of French and Caribbean flavors seemed a natural fit. Trained in France, he moved to the Caribbean to work at the Agave Terrace restaurant where he received a rave review from the New York Times.

In contrast to the fish shack atmosphere of the small 30-seat eatery that has been standing since 1947, he creates gourmet cuisine in the open kitchen.

“Chef Joseph just loves interacting with the people,” Annie said. “They love watching him cook. I won’t even order anymore. I just ask him to make me what he thinks I’ll like.”

To complement the menu, they have hand-selected boutique wines, from which they list suggested wine pairings for each item on the menu.

A few years ago, when property values were so high, the Reckwerdts faced several aggressive offers for the property but refused to sell.

“It’s impossible to separate where Robbie’s ends and my family starts,” Michael said. “Everything here has a story — from the anchor out in front of the marina to the old fighting chairs bolted to the docks. When I see those things, I see the people attached to them. If we sold, it would become Chez Robbie’s, and that would just kill me. Plus, we have five kids; at least one of them is bound to want to be here.”

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