High-Volume Eating

My favorite cameo in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap has got to be Billy Crystal's. Wearing a mime's classic face makeup, he's cheering on a group of fellow waiters who also happen to be mimes. He claps his white-gloved hands and says something like "C'mon people. Mime is money."

He could have given the same pep talk to the crew at Sloppy Joe's/Duval St. Grill on St. Andrews Boulevard in Boca Raton. Even when it's acoustic, the live music at this restaurant can get so loud that at one point during our recent visit, the server resorted to sign language. I can't imagine the sore throats these employees must have by the end of a single evening of shouting, "Can I take your order?" let alone their vocal chords after a few months' work.

But to give them credit, the wait staff is cheerfully tolerant of the din and pretty efficient in spite of it. We only had to mime drinking ice water once (raising a pretend glass and then shivering) to receive refills.

Some of the drawbacks to communicating by gesture, however, became plain when the dishes we'd ordered arrived at the table. For instance, we had no idea that an appetizer of steamed, spiced shrimp would actually be served painfully hot rather than chilled like a cocktail. I guess we'd just assumed that peel-and-eat shrimp would arrive at a temperature amenable to fingers. Either the menu or the waiter should have clarified this. Another difficulty occurred when we had to wait for our particular waitress to reappear so we could send back a main-course special of Maryland blue crabcakes, which were as cold as Chesapeake Bay, but ten minutes later, when she finally got there, she was quicker than the busboy at understanding the sign for "brrr."

The wait staff was also pretty good at breaking up fights, one of which erupted right behind us at the bar, which is three yuppies deep on weekend evenings. Duval St. Grill isn't the only restaurant and bar in Boca that receives your typical drunken asshole, though it's probably the primary one. But then that's the restaurant's legacy. While "Duval St." refers to the main drag in Key West where tourists overdose on sun 'n' fun, the grill itself descends from Sloppy Joe's, the Keys' most famous conch bar, where Hemingway indulged his addiction to alcohol. Visitors and locals alike hang out there for hours, sandaled and singed by the southernmost rays, to chug beer and sing along to live acoustic guitar music à la Jimmy Buffett. (No one appears to go there to eat, unless it's to line their stomachs with a burger or a basket of conch fritters.) Over the years the name Sloppy Joe's has become synonymous with Key West, and like the island itself, the bar can be rocking and riotous or, if the musician's on a break, just riotous. But it's never sedate.

Restaurateurs David Toole and Hal Dixon decided a couple of years ago to bring the concept of a come-as-you-are island bar north and purchased the rights to use the name Sloppy Joe's from the original Key West owner. They proceeded to open two Sloppy Joe's bars, one in Coconut Grove in Miami-Dade County, the other in Palm Beach County. But the barefoot-in-Boca thing just didn't work in a town where the right designer shoes are as important as streetlights. Plus, this cleaned-up version of Sloppy Joe's -- gleaming tile floors and a railed, double-tiered dining room that culminates in a dance floor and stage where a band called "Fantasy" plays -- doesn't really allude to Hemingway days. So last December the owners revamped the 255-seat restaurant, adding an expanded, Keys-influenced menu and, in bar manager B.T. Hawkins' words, "a real chef from Denver."

Oddly enough, the list of "Southernmost Appetizers" does not include conch fritters. We settled for a gigantic bowl of tomato-based conch chowder brimming with potatoes, onions, celery, and other vegetables, but very little conch. On the other hand, a starter of barbecued chicken in potato skins was as hearty as could be desired. The half-dozen thick skins, mounded with white-meat chicken marinated in a sweet and zesty barbecue sauce, were topped with both Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses and sprinkled with choice bits of aromatic applewood-smoked bacon.

The restaurant goes a little Hog's Breath-wild (oh, sorry -- that's the other famous Key West bar) with the admittedly scrumptious applewood-smoked bacon; it appears on the bacon cheeseburger, natch, as well as the BLT, the house salad, and the smothered-chicken main course. That real chef, Dennis Berry, does a creditable job with the last entree, a moist breast of chicken blanketed with sauteed mushrooms and Monterey Jack cheese, served with a side of sauteed red potatoes and a house salad. Berry also prepares a reasonably priced "Bourbon Street seafood fettuccine" -- Why not throw in a little New Orleans while we're at it? -- rife with mahi-mahi, salmon, tuna, and shrimp, all nicely simmered in a saute of julienne bell peppers, garlic, tomatoes, cream, and whoo-ee Cajun spices and served over only slightly soggy noodles. Not bad for a guy from Denver. In addition the kitchen sends out an authentic version of the original Sloppy Joe's sandwich, one of the only recipes bought along with the name from the Key West site. Lean ground beef is sauteed in a tomato sauce, then dumped over a hefty roll and served faceup. The stuff is chock full of tasty, meaty chunks, but here's another failure of communication: Someone should warn somebody, via the menu, sign language, or any other mode, that this sauce harbors some fairly lethal chile peppers.

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