Tuesday September 19, 2006

Captain's Tavern

[This post was contributed by Michael Froomkin of Discourse.net (local blogging since 2003!), as part of Miami Cross Blogination. I’ve got a post at Miami Beach 411 today.]

First thing is, the Captain’s Tavern is easy to miss. It’s been around forever—more than 25 years, and that’s more than forever in the South Florida restaurant business. Even so, plenty of people who’ve lived here for years have never noticed what may be the area’s top fish restaurant, located at 9621 S Dixie Hwy in Kendall. Here’s why: You’re driving south on US 1, it’s dark or it’s raining, and you’re concentrating on the nuts passing on the right, or swerving on the left. You pass Dadeland on the right and cross Kendall Drive, you go under the 826 entrance ramp overpass, there’s Evening’s Delight (no, not what you’re thinking—they sell fancy fancy gas grills and hoods) and—whoops!—you’ve missed the turn. The Captain’s tavern is on the left, plunked at a funny angle in the middle of a large parking lot. Here’s a map. You may need it.

That large parking lot is a good thing. By the time you get there it’s almost full. The Captain’s Tavern is bigger than it looks, and it’s probably full too. You’ll have to put your name down on the list—no phone reservations accepted unless you have a really big group—and hang around in the crowded but well-stocked bar, or the tiny overcrowded waiting area, or even outside if it’s not too wet or too hot. Get there early—before 7:00, and you’ll probably waltz in. By 7:30 on a Friday or Saturday night, it’s a 30 minute wait. Get there around 8:30, and it’s often much longer. Hang on. It’s worth it. And if it’s not too late and you have half an hour or more, tell them you’re going for a walk (if you ask nicely they’ll hold your table if you miss your turn), then pop over to the original Kendall Bookshelf, still the best used book shop south of Miami Beach and only three doors northwards, and load up on paperbacks while you wait.

Eventually, you get a table. Be sure to notice the specials board on the way in—it won’t be visible from anywhere else, and it tells you which dozen or so fish are fresh today. If you’re very lucky, you might get seated near one of the colorful fish tanks; that will keep your eyes off the pretty tacky nautical decor, which looks likes it hasn’t been changed much since they opened.

The decor doesn’t matter. It’s a full room of happy people tucking into large portions of great food. They’re not the people who make the South Beach scene. They range from UM student young to grandparent slow; many are families with two or three generations round a big table. If you have little kids, hope especially hard for a fish tank—keeps them happy all night. There are probably more Anglos than Hispanics in the mix, but who can tell for sure given the general hubub. Not a see and be seen scene, just lots of happy people.

You’ll have to ask for the wine list. You must ask for the wine list.
For despite having probably the best priced wine list in town, they won’t give you a wine list unless you ask for one. Let me say it again: this is a great wine list. The Captain’s Tavern has probably a couple of hundred wines on its list, from good to very good (and maybe better – I haven’t tried the top end) all priced at about the same as you would pay if you bought it at Crown. None of this 200%-300% markup that infects the fancy places in Coral Gables or on the Beach. The Captain’s is making a different sort of statement. There isn’t much need to get past the first couple of pages, which list the bin ends and specials. There’s always something very nice for under $20, and if you are lucky there may be some fairly exotic choices at very reasonable prices.

Starters are a problem. There are so many good ones. There’s the Lobster Bisque, which is delicious although it’s not so refined as to threaten a Michelin chef. There’s also a great, but very peppery, Conch Chowder that is more unusual, and comes with a plastic thimblefull of sherry that you pour in and cuts the pepper very effectively. Or maybe the stuffed mushrooms. Or the huge plate of spicy Thai calamari salad. Or the super-fresh and generously portioned sushi.

Every dinner gets a little salad with a choice of dressings (I like the creamy garlic, the kids divide between oil & vinegar and blue cheese).

Then the main course. So often in Miami the main course is a
disappointment after the appetizers. That’s not true here. You can get any of the fresh fish of the day (you did check the board on the way in, right?) cooked how you wish: blackened, stuffed with crab, “island style”, grilled, fried, and I’ve probably left some out. Or you could try the crab cakes. Or a selection of large and slightly pricey oysters. Or maybe, topping the regular price chart in the high twenties (market price lobster might be more), one of the house specials such as the Cataplana Seafood, a large bowl of fish and seafood swimming in a tomato-based sauce. The Admiral’s Platter is great selection of grilled fish and steamed shellfish, with a good-sized piece of lobster, plus some scallops and shrimp. A hungry person could finish the Admiral’s Platter—I’ve managed it. Sometimes. You’d have to have amazing capacity to eat a whole Cataplana; it’s suitable for splitting between two diners, which the Captain’s Tavern will do for a small extra charge.

I’m told there are great deserts—especially the brownies, available until they run out, sometimes even on days when they’re not on the menu. I wouldn’t know. By that stage I’ve always been too full to even think of desert.

The Captain’s Tavern is a great place to go with friends. The staff are friendly, helpful, but don’t hover over you or rush you, and you walk out happy. By the time you add it up, it’s not a cheap date, but it’s a nice one.

Oh yes. They serve meat too. But who would be silly enough to order it?

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  1. Gus    Tue Sep 19, 09:44 AM #  

    You just made me hungry for seafood at 9:30am. Can’t wait to try this place out.



  2. Tere    Tue Sep 19, 09:49 AM #  

    Awesome! Captain’s Tavern has always struck me as an Old Florida place, perhaps because of the decor and higher Anglo-to-Hispanic ratio (I agree with you on that), and it’s where my husband’s family gathers to celebrate birthdays and visits from relatives and friends from out of state.



  3. Tere    Tue Sep 19, 09:50 AM #  

    Also, we should totally do another blogger gathering here. Those large round tables are just begging for our drunken philosophizing.



  4. paula    Tue Sep 19, 09:56 AM #  

    Yum! That place sounds great. Can’t wait to try it.



  5. Rebecca Carter    Tue Sep 19, 10:16 AM #  

    Great job Michael! I want to go there now, too!



  6. Robert    Tue Sep 19, 01:29 PM #  

    Agreed. Captain’s Tavern is great. The higher Anglo to Hispanic ratio is mainly because of its location in Pinecrest and because it’s been around for a few generations.

    It’s amazing how easy it is to miss it though.

    One more thing, I love it that the only 2 days they close are Christmas Day and Super Bowl Sunday.



  7. Manola Blablablanik    Tue Sep 19, 01:39 PM #  

    I haven’t eaten there in a long time, but I’m glad it’s still around. It really is as wonderful as you say! Do they still have the wasabi mashed potatoes?



  8. Dayngr    Tue Sep 19, 01:59 PM #  

    Sounds delicious. Is it dinner time yet?



  9. MiamiGringo    Tue Sep 19, 02:18 PM #  

    I’m definitely going to give this place a try! Sounds great!



  10. Jimmy    Tue Sep 19, 03:49 PM #  

    hell im in Michigan and I’m leaving right now.



  11. Liz Donovan    Tue Sep 19, 04:05 PM #  

    Michael, thank you for this mention of the one place in Miami that I truly miss. This restaurant was one of the first ones I went to in the late 70s when I first started coming to Miami, was the place we took friends and celebrated our occasions for all those years we lived there, and probably was the last one we went to before leaving town, unless that week’s hurricane interfered.

    The key lime pie is worth the extra stuffing. Congrats to the Bowers family (they still own it, I assume) who have kept this place authentic all this time.

  12. Marc    Tue Sep 19, 10:13 PM #  

    Hate to disagree. Nothing is worth the aggravation of a wait of over 90 minutes, the crowded environment and the noise level. Went there, then turned right back and crossed the street to feast on ribs. Much better choice.



  13. lunch    Wed Sep 20, 10:37 AM #  

    This place is an old miami hangout. kind of like fox’s used to be before the college kids started hanging out there. They have some great lunch specials as well. 6 bucks for all kinds of seafood smothered in potatoes and chese. sounds gross but it’s not.



  14. gansibele    Wed Sep 20, 02:35 PM #  

    Hate to disagree as well. Went there some five years ago and wasn’t too happy with the service or the quality of the food. The waiter made a big deal out of not understanding my accent, which OK it’s thick, but 99.9% of waiters I encounter (and I eat out A LOT) understand it well enough not to forfeit their 20% tip like that guy did. Avoided the place like the plague until a couple months ago, because it happens to be my father-in-law’s fave. Had the “fresh” grouper, it wasn’t fresh, it was a bit overcooked and had some cheap buttery sauce added on top. My wife was disappointed as well. But you know, that’s restaurants. Sometimes you have a bad experience and it just sours you to the place, and then you find out everybody else loves it. I’m partial to Garcia’s by the Miami river for seafood and know many people that think it’s overhyped so there you go.



  15. Tere    Wed Sep 20, 03:07 PM #  

    Ooohhh, Garcia’s! Yes, good place, but for me it’s more about people-watching and the deck out back. The place next door’s – Joe’s? John’s? – was one my parents used to take us to as kids.



  16. Manola Blablablanik    Wed Sep 20, 05:10 PM #  

    Speaking of grouper, be wary

    “A St. Petersburg Times survey of 11 restaurants featuring grouper showed that six served a cheaper fish instead.”



  17. Paula    Wed Sep 20, 11:56 PM #  

    I was just reading the last issue of Food and Wine, the wine issue, and Captain’s Tavern is among America’s 50 most amazing wine experiences. One of two Florida locations on the list; the other is Tiko at Walt Disney…



  18. gansibele    Thu Sep 21, 01:30 PM #  

    I don’t know. What about Biscayne Wine Merchants in 125 st? Oggi? The Forge? Cacao? North one ten? Even the Citgo gas station at 17 and US1. And there’s a steakhouse in Tampa, Bern’s, the steaks are overhyped but the wine list is like 40 pages. It’s a book. Lots of chaff but great finds too.



  19. Jenny    Wed Sep 27, 01:53 PM #  

    Yes! Definitely one of the best restaurants in Miami (although that isn’t saying much). When you go back, you must try the Russian Oysters. And of course you can’t beat the $6 martinis.