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Boston's on the Beach and its lofty sister, Upperdeck at Boston's, are located on A1A off Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. Sure enough, patrons queue up for tables, especially the coveted ones on the outdoor patio, and have been doing so since the place opened 25 years ago. It's not that you get a good glimpse of the beach from here -- the vista is one of diagonally parked cars, a wooden fence, and a thin strip of navy-blue ocean below an expanse of paler sky. Still, afternoon breezes blowing across the shady porch carry a refreshing mist of salty Atlantic air, which is certainly one of the main draws of this sports bar/restaurant.
While some diners like to be entranced by the sunset, others grab a burger and beer and gaze toward one of 35 television sets stationed about the rooms. The dark wood interior is also adorned with photos and paraphernalia of Boston's sports past, including a replica scoreboard from Fenway Park. Decorating a restaurant with Red Sox history seems about as thematically uplifting as covering its walls with photos of passengers boarding the Titanic, but all in all, the place is warm, and patrons revel in the convivial vibe of a neighborhood joint juiced with live music, happy hour, Monday-night football specials, and $2 Sam Adams pints on Boston Bruins hockey nights.
After eating here, I can only assume that people are not clamoring to get into Boston's for the cuisine. At least, for their sake, I hope they're not. Despite the ambitiousness of the restaurant's extracurricular activities, the food exhibits a decided lack of ambition. Granted, at these modest prices (sandwiches/salads from $6.95 to $11.95, entrées $13.95 to $17.95), we weren't expecting the River Café, but even if food isn't meant to be major league, there's no reason it has to be quite this bush league. At a recent lunch, even the "Big Boston Burger," boosted as "the best," was more beefy than unbeatable. The usual trouble with hamburgers is that they are too thin or too thick. This ten-ounce version was of proper heft but too wide for the regulation bun, throwing off that precarious beef-to-bread proportion that defines true burger gratification. Another problem was one of flabbiness: The meat lacked a crisply caramelized, char-grilled crust. "Seasoned fries," which come on the side of this and most other sandwiches, are the frozen type cut into wedges with skin left on and crusted with a thin veneer of paprika-colored spices. Not bad finger food to dip into ketchup, but by the time the poor spud has gone through all the various processes that lead it to the table, it has lost all but a hint of potato flavor.
Maine is home to the classic "lobster roll," wherein delectably fresh chunks of lobster are bound with mayonnaise and tossed into a thick slice of white bread with a crusted hinge for folding into a hot dog-sized bun. The lobster roll here shares only concept with that Northeastern treat. The bread is not particularly fresh and is flattened by a mound of stringy, mayo-moistened lobster scraps, including those red, rubbery, mealy tips of the claws. The accompaniment, a bag of potato chips, attests to the informality of Boston's, as does the green plastic "basket" that our fish and chips were served in. The trio of triangular-shaped, slightly greasy, beer-battered cod was crisply fried golden brown and sided by paper cups of commendable homemade cole slaw. There was also a watery, unpleasant, mass-produced tartar sauce that left the sort of bitter taste well-known to Red Sox fans.
The "Lobster Trap," featuring a steamed one-pound Maine lobster for $13.95 or twin lobsters for $24.95, is the best catch for dinner. Dolphin, grouper, tuna, and swordfish, either broiled or blackened, likewise provide fresh and uncomplicated choices. Grouper with melted cheese, marinara, and parmesan, on the other hand, along with dolphin with bacon and parmesan, should probably be reserved for those who don't like to taste fish with their fish.
Boston's opened its Upperdeck six years ago, supposedly as a means of providing a slightly more sophisticated menu with minimally higher prices (entrées run from $16 to $30). Surprisingly, though, the food is no more top-tier than downstairs --unless you consider an appetizer of artichoke and spinach dip with tortilla chips to be more upscale than chicken wings. Some menu items are exactly alike, such as fried calamari and a generously portioned starter of Ipswich clams dusted in corn flour, cleanly fried, and accompanied by that same troubling tartar sauce. Clams also come steamed and in a thick, gloppy New England chowder that exhibits all the finesse of Bill Buckner fielding a ground ball.
Upperdeck has only a few nonshellfish seafood offerings: Ahi tuna with ginger-balsamic vinaigrette and blackened or grilled mahi-mahi topped with fruit salsa. A thin, rare slice of that tuna is likewise included as a component of the "seafood mixed grill" -- it was the best thing on that platter, which also featured, in order of descending appeal: a quintet of flavorfully spiced shrimp, a small lobster tail quartered and grilled to a dry consistency, and New Zealand mussels, which this cooking method causes to lose all moisture (if mad cow anxieties persist, Boston's might think of forging these smoky, desiccated mollusks into sticks to be sold as a seafood substitute for beef jerky). Rice pilaf and a vegetable du jour come on the side, the latter usually a broccoli/carrot/zucchini triad that is the trademark of unimaginative kitchens.
The same vegetables are matched with a pair of Maryland crab cakes the size of hockey pucks. There are more bread crumbs than lumps of crabmeat in these crusty cakes, but the seasonings exude authentic zest. That's more than you can say for the accompanying starch, a cafeteria-style scoop of "garlic mashed potatoes" with not much cream, butter, garlic, or flavor. Other main courses cover predictable terrain: strip steak, filet mignon, broiled half-chicken, the obligatory "surf and turf," and pedestrian pastas such as penne à la vodka with chicken, sausage, or lobster.
To finish up with a scrumptiously creamy rendition of key lime pie was akin to watching your team hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a blow-out loss -- too little too late, but at least something positive to talk about on the walk to the parking lot.
The food upstairs may be no better than down below, but the dining room is quite a bit uglier. The bare-knuckles space contains a long bar, nondescript wooden tables, a few incongruous prints on the wall, and two giant TV monitors -- one of which was regrettably next to my table. It was a Sunday evening, and when I first glanced up at the looming screen, I thought I was watching two squirrels on a trampoline -- I had never before seen Andy Rooney's eyebrows so magnified.
Upperdeck's saving grace is the outdoor patio, where weekend diners are privy to the beach's full panorama of ocean and sand. The restaurant is closed for lunch during the week, however, so on those evenings, you'd better arrive early or the view will be as unimpressive as the food.