Come by land or sea to the Big Hickory Seafood Grille to experience a bit of Old Florida charm while enjoying quality fresh from the sea entrees. Herons and pelicans may be your dinner companions as you relax by the waters of Estero Bay in a place where time seems to slow from its modern frenetic pace. Tucked between Bonita Beach and Fort Myers Beach, just south of the Big Hickory Pass Bridge, this waterfront gem is far removed from corporate dining options and well worth the drive for those seeking a more authentic Florida experience.

Opened as a fish camp in 1969, Big Hickory has been a local favorite for decades, with most of its clientele coming by boat in the early days. “We just want to create a nice feeling for people to come in and relax and enjoy a little bit of Old Florida,” said Lorna Shrigley, who purchased the Big Hickory Marina and its accompanying restaurant with husband Mike in 2008. Our neighbors from The Meadows of Estero, the Shrigley have made improvements every year since, advancing the restaurant’s reputation for high quality seafood in a relaxed, natural setting. “It’s a very beautiful dining experience,” said Mike, pointing to the tiered al fresco dining area, ensuring every guest enjoys a lovely view of the water. The Shrigley also have added a cozy side patio with attractive, flame-encased heaters for those breezy nights by the bay.

 During lunch hours, guests may be fortunate enough to enjoy the company of Big Hickory’s “mascot,” Emerald. He’s an elegant white heron with emerald green eyes. “He usually waits for our fishing charter to come in,” Mike said.

Although the calm bay, the unpretentious building, and the hammocks draped from the dining room ceiling beckon guests to “come on in and stay awhile,” the caliber of food would be fi t for any white linen establishment. Just because the server is in shorts and a T-shirt, don’t make the mistake of thinking Big Hickory is only a place to get a good grouper sandwich.

While the restaurant does serve outstanding seafood sandwiches (and amazing Mahi tacos), the diverse and attractively plated dinner selections would surely please the most discriminating of palates. We started with a trio of mouthwatering appetizers: conch fritters, fried a lovely golden brown and served with raspberry chipotle sauce; cooked-to-order tuna tataki served with ponzu sauce, sambal chili, wasabi and pickled ginger; and spicy krab rolls with a zippy mayo and teriyaki glaze.

These egg roll- inspired creations offered a complex flavor, throwing a subtle kick of heat at the end. Next, we moved on to the soup and salad course, immensely enjoying the calypso lobster salad, with its amply sized chunks of meat. A tomato crown stuffed with artichokes began the illusion of a lobster’s shape, completed with wafer “claws” jutting off the plate. Our party also enjoyed three fabulous soups. While the lobster bisque was amazing and the seafood gumbo quite flavorful (arriving topped with a mussel), it was the New England clam chowder, which really blew us away. Topped with bacon and chives, this creamy soup was hearty and comforting with a smooth, rich flavor to rival any chowder served in the Northeastern states.

I would’ve been content to stop right there, leaving with a chowder-induced euphoria…but then I would have missed out on the amazing seafood yet to come. While landlubbers will be happy to know prime rib is served every Monday night, we had come for fish. Selecting an entree from Big Hickory’s “Signature Dishes” proved a daunting task. Our party opted for diversity, providing plenty of options for sampling! One ordered the classic, fried seafood platter (Gulf grouper, jumbo shrimp, scallops, and oysters), while another feasted on skewers of cusabi shrimp and scallops. Our other dishes came infused with fruity sweetness.

The apple mango grouper featured pan-seared fish served over Island Rice with a passion fruit drizzle, all topped with mango salsa. Flavors fuzed nicely with the sweet chutney packing a crunch from the apples. Perhaps our favorite dish was the mahi mahi coco loco, featuring Key West mahi-mahi encrusted with coconut and panko bread crumbs. The sauce of sauteed pineapple, finished with coconut rum and pineapple beurre blanc, created a sweet and creamy topping for this piña colada inspired dish. Although we probably shouldn’t have, we couldn’t resist finishing our meal on a sweet note. The rich and creamy, yet soft-flavored Tiramisu and the lovely panna cotta (Italian pudding) adorned with mint sprig and berries were a perfect ending to our cozy evening by the bay.

Big Hickory also is home to an award-winning key lime pie, acclaimed for its rich and dense “fudge-like” texture and tanginess by food critic Jean Le Boeuf. The bayside establishment also has been voted “Bonita’s Best Waterfront Restaurant” and awarded honors for “best seafood” and “best grouper sandwich.” Big Hickory Seafood Grille is located at 26107 Hickory Boulevard, two miles north of Bonita Beach Road. Reservations are not required but may be helpful, especially during the season, by calling (239)992-0991.