Friday, December 7, 2012

Birthday Dinner in the Conch Republic

Do ya' need menus?” the rail-thin, aging waitress asked, standing impatiently at the end of our bar-top high, waterside table. She had long, stringy hair, not uncommon for her age group down here in the land of fun and sun. 

My wife says they're just hanging on to their youth as long as possible. She may have a point, but old hair styles don't age well on bodies that march tenaciously toward old age. Skin damage from too much sun doesn't help the youthful image, either, as the waitress's skin looked leathery and dry. 

Menus would be nice,” my wife answered with a smile. Plop! Two menus were unceremoniously tossed in the center of the table.

Our impatient waitress shuffled her weight to her other leg. “Can I get you anything to drink?” she said, crossing her arms.

Do you have diet Pepsi?” my wife asked.

Nope! Just Coke. Regular Coke, Diet Coke, whatever.”

How about an Amber Bock?” I asked.

She stared at me for a moment, then said, “All the beers we have are on the list,” pointing to a galvanized pail sitting on the end of the table. I leaned over and picked up the plastic-coated sheet from the pail, glanced at both sides but didn't see anything about beers. I put the sheet back. Aggravated, our brusque waitress pushed behind me and took it out again, turning it so I could read the beer list on the bottom. She didn't say a word, just shoved the list at me.

"We'll wait a few moments before we order,” my wife said as she read the expression on my face. I hadn't said a word but she knew we weren't eating at this restaurant, at least not today. All the horror stories of spiteful wait staff spitting on customer's food flooded my vision. 

Our waitress shrugged and headed off to who knows where without saying a word. We sat for a moment, then my wife said, “Ready?”

Yep, how about we eat at the camper?”

Sounds good to me.” 

Too bad, my wife and I wanted to spend my 70th birthday at the iconic, if not totally incongruously named, waterfront restaurant in Islamorada, Florida, where we have eaten many times in the past. There are no nymphs or sirens here to lure sailors onto rocks, certainly not our waitress. Come to think of it, there aren't any rocks, either. Well, not big ones that form cliffs, anyway. The restaurant's coconut shrimp with the orange dipping sauce is one of my favorites, and I couldn't think of a better locale to enjoy a great, laid back dinner. And if we stretched it out a bit, maybe another fabulous Keys sunset, as well. Sorry, but bad waitress service is a harbinger of more bad things to come, and I've had enough of that nonsense. I'll spend my money elsewhere. So, we did.

It was not a good day for restaurants in the Florida Keys. We started the day by stopping at an award-winning family restaurant we had eaten at many times before for a home-cooked breakfast. It turned out to be not so much home cooked as simply thawed and micro-waved.  We had eaten there in the past as well, and were surprised by the differences in attitudes and service from our last visit. They had just won an award for outstanding breakfast restaurant the last time we ate there back in 2005. The food and service was really good then, and we looked forward to having my special, once-a-year “cholesterol special,” sausage gravy over biscuits with two over-easy on top. I do that on my birthday as my wild-fling, reckless celebration of having made it another year. Hey, it's my birthday.

Instead, this time the hash browns came in a little rectangular pressed patty, colored the appropriate crispy brown, a la MacDonald's. What happened to the real hash browns? Will we have a generation of Americans who will grow up thinking this is how hash browns are supposed to look? The biscuits didn't taste like home-made, either, but at least the eggs came out OK. My wife picked out stalks and bitter pieces from her “special” spinach omelet that had been tossed in without regard to digestibility. We finished breakfast, at least most of it, and headed south to Robbie's to feed the Tarpon. We were beginning to wonder about the state of restaurants in the Florida keys. 

Knuckle Sandwich at Robbie's


Stopping at Robbie's has always been a thrill for me, hand feeding the huge tarpon that loll around the docks, teasing all the big-game fisherman who spend a fortune to catch this king of gamefish. There are always so many of them they are impossible to count. This time, however, they simply aren't hungry. I buy a bucket of white bait, about the size of large sardines, and can't even give them away, except to the ever present pelicans and a few swift jacks that dart in between the well-fed Tarpon and snatch the morsels before the Tarpon even bother to react to the free hand-outs. I finally get one to respond and he smacks my knuckles, missing the bait I'm holding by quite a bit. Next time we'll just watch others buy the bait. Still, it is an awesome sight, and I know Tarpon fisherman must just stand and stare wistfully. 

We head back up to Key Largo and stop by our camper at Pennekamp for a glass of wine and a reassessment of where I want to eat my birthday dinner. We eventually head out again and stop at the nearby ever-popular Pilot House. Cars are parked everywhere. There is no room to squeeze in without parking on someone's lawn. The place is packed! By this time, I'm not  keen on seafood anyway, so rather than wait, we head for another of my favorite restaurants in the keys, the Café Largo.

DiGiorgio's Café Largo is exactly as we expect, great service and great food! This is the fourth time we've eaten there, and thankfully they are as good as we remembered. No regrets here! The Penne with Vodka Sauce erases any thoughts of missed coconut shrimp. We should have started here first.

We noticed earlier in the day one of the stalwart eateries, the always busy Coral Grill on the northern end of Islamorada, is closed. The once world-famous restaurant is now just an abandoned, rundown coral-pink building. Another longtime landmark, the Green Turtle Inn, looks almost barren with the removal of the huge tree that graced its front for many years, probably a result of hurricane force winds. It is still in business, but we had decided on Café Largo. We didn't have time to try all the restaurants, such as the renowned Marker 88, or the Islamorada Fish Market. Four days isn't enough time to eat at all the restaurants in the upper keys. Something to look forward to next time we visit the Conch Republic.

: The Four Florida State Camprounds in the Keys, at:

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