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The restaurant served its last crab cakes on July 4, 2022.
Backfin Blue

The little bungalow at 2913 Beach Blvd. S. in Gulfport is no longer serving crab cakes, wine, or anything else. On the weekends, Backfin Blue Café is now quiet, instead of bustling with guests and waitlisted seafood lovers checking the time.

After a quarter of a century, Backfin Blue Café owner Harold Russell is selling the Beach Boulevard property to Casa Florida, a Miami hotel group that purchases historical buildings and revitalizes them. They’ve yet to close the deal, but it’s under contract and expected to happen within a month.

“With the combination of supply prices rising and labor, the success of the last 25 years works against us,” Russell told The Gabber, “We couldn’t provide what people expected”

The blue-and-red cottage will become part of Casa Florida’s vision of connecting the restaurant to Gulfport’s only hotel, the Historic Peninsula Inn. Casa Florida bought the inn this June for nearly $3 million. Owner Gaston Gonzalez plans to add a cocktail bar, a level of upscale flavor to the establishment, and paint it – perhaps pink. The inn will connect to Backfin Blue Café, but it’s unclear what the restaurant will become. Russell will keep the name “Backfin Blue Café” and the phone number of the restaurant.

No matter what happens to the building, nothing can change the memories of the café for the people who loved it. That includes Gulfportian Jeanette Perkins.

Perkins grew up around the crab-centric culture in Maryland and moved to Florida in the ‘80s. Backfin Blue Café was a nostalgic surprise for her in downtown Gulfport.

“We celebrated our two March birthdays there every year, although we dined there other times when we got a craving for crab cakes,” Perkins said.

Gulfport Merchants Chamber President Barbara Banno and her wife Morgan Banno had their wedding rehearsal dinner at Backfin Blue in 2019. Former Gulfport Councilmember Dawn Fisher owned the property before it was ever a locally renowned seafood joint.

“I had no idea what it would become,” Fisher said of the restaurant’s success.

A black and white photo of a man cooking “Harold’s a hardworking guy,” Fisher said. “When you meet him, you know that right away. So I decided to lease it to him.”
Harold Russell

Russell may have learned how to create an award-winning restaurant, but he says now he’ll have to learn how “not to work.”

“It’s bittersweet. I’m 66, so it’s due, but I could have gone a little longer,” Russell said.

A black and white photo of a houseThough Harold Russell took over in 1997, the lot it sits on dates back to 1920. Before it was a restaurant, the building was a duplex and a storage unit.
Gulfport History Museum

Before the Blue 

Pre-restaurant, the cottage now known as Backfin Blue Café was a rental property. According to records from the Gulfport History Museum, the earliest known date of ownership of the building was in 1926. New Yorker John Ormston bought it and used it as a rental property. His first tenant was a Gulfport artist John Storms.

Decades passed, and a face many current Gulfportians recognize, Dawn Fisher, bought the building in 1995. Fisher paid $69,000 for the property, which was then a duplex. Fisher stored furniture, including a grand piano her sister would play. Often, Fisher’s friends would sit on the porch and in the front room with a drink in hand.

“When I came to Gulfport it was a seedy little place waiting to bloom,” Fisher said. “I had some extra money, so I bought the place. Then I renovated it into a restaurant.”

In 1995, Harold Russell asked to buy it. He’d previously worked as a kitchen manager at Hurricane’s on St. Pete Beach and was ready to take a crack at ownership.

“When I said I was going to buy the house and make it a restaurant, people laughed at me,” Russell said. “I didn’t have much money at that point. But it worked.”

He signed the lease in 1996 and eventually bought the property from Fisher in the early 2000s.

A plate of food with shrimp, crab, and mash Seafood was the restaurant’s speciality.
Backfin Blue Café

A Restaurant Remembered

“When Harold opened his restaurant he got a lot of press, and people started coming to Gulfport to eat,” Fisher said. “It changed some things.”

On April 11, 1997, the St. Petersburg Times published a review of Backfin Blue.

“Even with the porch added on, this little frame house can’t hold everybody who’d get a kick out of being there,” the Tampa newspaper wrote.

In 25 years, not much changed for Backfin.

The small town restaurant was known for its Maryland-rivaling crab cakes, legs, and seafood. In later years, Russell added a gelato window, a paved courtyard, and restricted hours to only weekends.

Backfin Blue Café was the first place that Gulfportians Jonathan Micocci and Christine Crosby ate at in town after they purchased a home in the city, 1997.

“We drove into Gulfport for the first time looking for a new home and by a fluke, met a motivated seller within an hour,” By lunch time, we were celebrating our move at Backfin, over crab chowder,” Micocci said. “We have had warm feelings for the place ever since and will miss it.”

Two women smiling inside a restaurant and holding white wineCheers to a proper goodbye.
Jeanette Perkins

To Barbara Banno, Backfin Blue Café represents home.

“Backfin was one of the first restaurant’s I went to when I first came to Gulfport,” Banno said. “It has the essence of a community staple in this town.”

In 2019, Banno and her wife Morgan chose it as the location of their wedding rehearsal dinner for this reason. Morgan’s father fell in love with the crab cakes, and the couple has some corn chowder and crab stored in their freezer for when he comes to visit.

“That place is a piece of history,” Banno said. “Harold, his family, and his food will be missed.”

Maybe not missed for long. Russell told The Gabber he’d like to do pop-up crab cake sales during large-scale Gulfport events. He has yet to work out the details, but he wants to stay connected with the community that supported him.

“As hard as it was at times,” Russell said. “We had this magic moment in time for a split second.”

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By gulfportsbest

Owner of the “Best of Gulfport Fl” which was built to help people connect with all the amazing services, restaurants, salons, bars and shopping venues in our local area. Get all your questions answered and stay up to date on all the cool things happening in our little paradise.

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