Soon enough, however, they discovered that the close-knit community was just right for their philosophy. Schuch is now on the board of the Grand Central District Association, and the shop has evolved to fill the needs of their regulars. The menu has expanded, the second seafood case was ripped out to make room for a small bar area, and the bistro side of the business is now the focus.
But seafood from Gulf waters is still the driving force behind the place, and that seafood is becoming harder to find and more expensive by the day. "Because we're a market we get reports from the government every day," says Moch. "Most people don't know this, but the fishing is closed from Louisiana all the way to the Keys."
According to Moch, there's just a little strip of water where fisherman can still pull up a catch. Island's clams come from near Cedar Key, which is still clear of oil, but closer to the Panhandle than is comfortable. When the restaurant can find local seafood, it costs double what it did a year ago. "If we can't get local seafood, I don't know what we'll do," she says.
In the meantime, however, Island is still serving plates of scallops and shrimp, big sandwiches loaded with whatever catch is available, and whole lobsters that are one of the few things they fly in from elsewhere. The food is just as humble as the location.
Crab cakes have an almost ideal combination of lump and shredded meat, with a crisp crust and just enough seasoning to add a little interest without destroying the buttery flavor. Island's smoked fish spread is simple but brilliant, heady smoke wafting from every creamy spoonful dolloped onto saltine crackers. The restaurant's tomato-based chowder is classic, with a bounty of local clams throughout.
When Island reaches beyond its comfort zone into more complex dishes, the results aren't nearly as successful. A curry special came with beautiful scallops, but the sear ranged from non-existent to barely there, with almost no curry flavor on either them or the mound of white rice underneath. Ceviche has enough citrus to do the job, but there's no herb punch, green peppers overwhelm every bite, and the fish chunks are too big and too chewy.
So stay in the restaurant's sweet spot and get a fish sandwich. Some of the specialty options are a bit odd -- rare slices of tuna topped with melted cheese on marble rye? Philly fish steak? -- but the basics are worth a revisit. All the fish is grilled and doused in either a minimal amount of blackening seasoning or Island's subtly zesty citrus rub.
It's more homey fare than you'd find at a more polished restaurant, the kinds of things you'd likely construct at home, but the lack of pretension is part of the restaurant's appeal. Plus, they probably have a better beer selection than what's contained in your fridge. Swigging from a bottle of Sierra Nevada Summerfest makes refinement seem entirely optional.
While you're sitting there chatting with Moch, enjoying a brew and noshing on a messy sandwich, you'll see a microcosm of Grand Central's diverse local crowd stream in for takeout or to order more beer for one of the sidewalk tables. Like most restaurants and bars in the area, it fosters a feeling of community, a rare commodity in Tampa Bay outside of Gulfport and here.
But if you want to experience that vibe at Island, come by fast. If things don't get better in the Gulf of Mexico, things are definitely going to get worse for local seafood restaurants.
Island Seafood Market- 2057 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-821-8181, islandseafoodmarket.com.