Central Florida is a vibrant melting pot whose identity is shaped largely by the cultural diversity of its residents. Out-of-towners may only associate Orlando with Central Florida, and that's ok, but there's so much more to the heart of The Sunshine State than just theme parks and resorts (even within Orlando).
Whether Central Florida is home or you're just visiting and you're craving some authentic Maryland-style seafood, or maybe you're looking to try something new, take the drive south to Bartow, Florida and stop by Charm City Seafood! I had the opportunity to meet with owner Nik Minadakis to learn more about his journey and how the son of a Greek immigrant from Maryland found his way to Bartow and how Charm City Seafood came into being.
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From Greece, to Maryland, to Bartow, Florida
Like many residents of Central Florida, owner Nik Minadakis is not originally from The Sunshine State. Nik's story starts in Greece when his father decided to immigrate to the United States in search of the American dream. Mr. Minadakis' first attempt to enter America was illegally at the age of 17. He was deported soon after but that didn't diminish his spirit of determination of pursuing a life of greater opportunities; he later followed the appropriate process for migrating legally into the United States.
Nik Minadakis' father settled in Maryland and worked very hard to eventually purchase the family's first business, the Chevrolet Inn, a small bar located in front of a General Motors factory. The factory operated all day and night which allowed the Minadakis business to thrive being a convenient stop for workers before and after their shifts.
Mr. Minadakis' eventually sold the Chevrolet Inn, purchased an old bingo hall, and converted it into (what will later be the iconic) Jimmy's Famous Seafood. Nik, owner of Charm City Seafood, got his start working at the family business at 14 years old bussing tables. His father was always laser focused on fulfilling the dream that motivated him to leave Greece. Nik recalls how hard his father always worked to build the family business even to the point where he probably missed some important moments in the life of his children.
Nik's father was successful in building the business into something (that I believe) fulfills what Mr. Minadakis sought - the American dream. "Jimmy's Famous Seafood was built by the hands of my father," Nik proudly shared, "and he grew it into a 700-seat restaurant that has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives twice."
Nik worked at the family's restaurant until he was 17. By 25 he and his pregnant wife moved to Central Florida with hopes of making it big in real estate; Nik also worked part-time as a cook at his father-in-law's restaurant. Working at someone else's restaurant didn't allow him to experiment and express himself through his cooking - he wanted to have more control over the food that he put. To do this Nik Minadakis needed to go into business for himself.
The Birth Of Charm City Seafood
Taking after his father, Nik Minadakis started his own food business. Nik's first entrepreneurial venture was Jimmy's Famous Seafood Express, a top-rated food truck serving menu items that would eventually make their way to Charm City Seafood. In 2017, Nik introduced Greek food to Polk County, Florida through his second food truck, Famous Greek. Although Famous Greek wasn't a huge success with locals, it was a learning opportunity that helped steer Nik's focus into expanding his first venture.
Charm City Seafood opened in 2019 at its current location in Bartow, Florida. In order to raise enough money to buy the building Nik had to unfortunately sell his first food truck, but the risk paid off. Even through the pandemic, Charm City Seafood has thrived! And it's no wonder, the restaurant has a small but varied selection of creative and delicious options that can please everyone in the family.
Maryland-Style Seafood & More!
Charm City Seafood's menu boasts a blend of authentic Maryland-style seafood classics, like their award-winning crab cakes or jumbo shrimp, and creative twists such as their Crabby Mac & Cheese or Crabby Fries. There are also some traditional Florida favorites like their mahi or shrimp tacos, collard greens, and fried calamari.
The previous owners of the building operated Curly Tails Barbeque and they left behind an incredible tool that Charm City Seafood takes full advantage of: the smoker! Having a smoker on site adds an additional layer of uniqueness to Charm City Seafood. I mean, who doesn't love BBQ?!
The smoker infuses even more flavor into their ribs, chicken, and pork which make up several items on the menu. Smoked pork is transformed into your choice of a pulled pork sandwich, bowl, or tacos. Their ribs can be enjoyed in their traditional form as an entree (served with house-made potato chips [that are delicious!] and coleslaw; or get a side for just $1) or try them battered and fried as an appetizer. The smoker also infuses charred notes on Charm City's wings, which are smoked, fried, and then topped with choice of sauce (honey Old Bay, Old Bay hot sauce, Old Bay dry rub, or sweet bbq).
If you're a crab lover, you're at the right place! Charm City Seafood gets fresh crab flown in weekly from their supplier in Louisiana and is the star of their menu. If you want to try some unique items that you probably won't find at other restaurants, try the Charm City Crabby Ribs (fried ribs topped with crab dip and lump crab meat), Crab Balls (mini crab cakes), Crabby Fries (topped with crab dip, crab meat, Old Bay, and chipotle sauce), or their Super Grouper (fresh grouper topped with crab dip and crab meat).
"Everything is made from scratch, which is true to the authentic Maryland style."
There was no way I was going to be able to eat everything I wanted to try in one sitting, but that's why I will go back! My personal favorites were the Crabby Fries, the crab cakes, and the smoked/fried chicken wings. Beyond their normal menu, owner Nik Minadakis hosts a monthly event called Marylanders Unite where patrons can enjoy fresh steamed crabs, raffles, and food specials (follow Charm City Seafood on social media for event dates; links below). Every Sunday there is also a limited brunch menu offering unique items such as Charm City Shrimp and Grits and the Smoked Brisket Skillet.
While the food gets people in the door, you'll want to come back because of the ambiance and the staff. The exterior of the restaurant is in the old Florida cracker style and the interior is homey yet airy (even though there's a tree right in the middle of the dining room). "Most of the staff is young and this is probably their first or second job," Nik tells me. "Younger people are more fun to work with, are easier to train, and they treat customers and one another with respect."
Supporting The Central Florida Community
Charm City Seafood's owner, Nik Minadakis, knows the importance of giving back to the community. The entire staff donates to local homeless shelters or veterans associations monthly as a team building activity. Nik wants to encourage his staff to be involved and support the community. To reinforce this he had his staff members deliver donated hand sanitizer bottles to local schools so they could see the impact that their generosity can have on people within the community.
During Thanksgiving week, Charm City Seafood supports the local community by partnering with the Salvation Army. The team prepares a non-traditional Thanksgiving meal that is served to anyone who needs it. Nik wants his children to learn the value of giving back as well, which is why the entire family volunteers their time to serve the meals which Charm City Seafood donated.
The Future Of Charm City Seafood
Just like his father, Nik Minadakis has his own version of the American dream. He envisions a future where there are a few more Charm City Seafood locations around Florida. Will the kids carry-on the Minadakis restaurateur legacy? Well, Nik doesn't want to pressure his kids into the food business, and wants them grow up to have a good homelife as adults and "do it right".
Although the restaurant may not expand outside of Florida, Nik aspires to share his authentic Maryland-style seafood with those who may not be able to visit. He hopes to offer some of his bestselling items (such as their delicious crab dip and incredible crab cakes) through a mail-order service or to be sold at local grocers. Even when this comes true, you should still do yourself a favor and check out this incredible restaurant that has exceptional food and a truly inspiring story.
Follow Charm City Seafood
To stay up to date on new menu offerings and Marylanders Unite event dates, follow Charm City Seafood on Facebook and Instagram. When you go, let them know you read their story on Pedacitos Travel & Culture Blog!
If you're a local, you can order from their website or delivery via Doordash. Want to book an event at the space or get your next event catered? You can do that online too!