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Sunset on a Wednesday at Longboards in West Palm Beach: Wicker table lamps glowed at place settings around the lacquered bar. Surfboards served as wall murals. Dick Dale's reverb piped through speakers. The dinner crowd trickled in, but the bar was packed.
A slim woman with long blond hair faced the door as customers arrived. She pulled over a solo diner who walked through the door wearing an Emmylou Harris T-shirt. "We were just talking 'bout her," she observed, pointing to the shirt, then inviting the stranger to sit with her crew. Kiki and her friends worked the bar like politicians. They weren't, though. They were a posse of lifeguards.
Longboards is the latest restaurant from Rodney Mayo, the nightlife aficionado who opened Respectable Street Café, a dance club catering to punk kids, in 1987 — when downtown West Palm was a sketchy place at night. Respecs became a beacon for angsty young people carving out their place in a landscape stacked with retirees. It's still open in its original location at 518 Clematis St., next door to Longboards. It still plays the Cure. And it still gets packed every weekend.
Mayo has a knack for developing hangouts for cool kids, and whether intentionally or just because he faced so little competition in that department, he soon became the dude laying the infrastructure for nightlife in Palm Beach County. Over the years, he's expanded his portfolio to include Howley's (a retro West Palm diner with tattooed wait staff), Lost Weekend (a dark, beercentric Ping-Pong and pool hall with locations in West Palm and Miami), Tryst (a small plates, beercentric restaurant in Delray), Dada (an eclectic restaurant in a renovated house), the Vagabond (an anything-goes Miami club), and the Dubliner (an Irish-themed bar in Boca). Altogether Mayo has a 51-percent-or-greater stake in 14 restaurants, "and he meets with each restaurant an hour or two a week," said Chris Cassarly, Longboards' manager. "He is very hands-on."
Mayo has a reputation as something of a reclusive, nocturnal animal (a colleague who recently interviewed him said, "I could not keep up with his intense late-night schedule") so a sun- and sand-themed bar might seem out of character. But those close to him say it's not: He has a boat and likes to fish.
Compared to Mayo's holdings so far, Longboards, which opened the first week of July, may have the most ambitious menu, considering that fish must be superfresh and high quality for a restaurant to succeed. But "no one is doing an upscale casual seafood place in West Palm right now, so it makes sense," said Cassarly.
Which brings us to chef Victor Malaric. The New York transplant used to cook at Brooklyn Label's daytime café and at Zoë in Soho, then moved down five months ago to take the helm at Longboards. When Malaric is on, he's on. Smaller, first-course choices are more refined — well-balanced for ingredients and flavors — while the mains are dude food: rustic presentations of fresh, well-sourced fish and meats for big eaters. "More is more" seems to be the mantra overall.
Frank the lifeguard ordered a half-dozen British Columbia bivalves (in a role reversal, he was actually wearing street clothes while the bartenders were in board shorts and T-shirts). Oysters that smelled of the sea basked in liquor elixir: tiny and briny, they're served naked with a side of lemon. Longboards offers six to eight varieties a night ($2.50 each) — among them, West Coast Kumamotos, East Coast Malpeques and Wellfleets. Sorry, Southerners, no Gulf oysters, yet anyway: The water down there is still too warm, said the bartender.
Cornmeal-dusted oysters with vinegar peppers and truffle aioli ($14) are a bestseller and come in hefty portions. Even bigger appetites can spring for the seafood tower ($45 for two, $75 for five to seven), which includes clams, shrimp, oysters, lobster, corn on the cob, potatoes, and chorizo.
Clams are "middlenecks," claims the menu (because of their above-average size, not to be confused with "littlenecks") served with chorizo, leeks, and lemongrass in a delightfully savory broth. And wow, were they fresh, almost as much as the lobster, which comes straight from the live tank in the back by the open kitchen.
A dainty option is the trio of cakes ($14): lobster tarragon, shrimp chorizo, and jumbo lump crab. Served on a square plate like a trio of mini cupcakes, each comes with its own condiment of pepper butter, Key lime aioli, and lemon caper aioli.
It's easy to get distracted by the projector-screen surf video in the back of the house or the surf documentaries on the TVs overhead. But on a recent Sunday during a Dallas 49ers game, a guy from Texas was itching to see what happened to a tied score in the fourth quarter. "Are you sure you can't turn on the game?" he asked. An out-of-towner, he didn't know the Mayo rule: no football on the tube.
Rather than pull from the choices of a lobster roll ($15), the Longboard burger ($12), or a selection of tacos (fish , brisket, or lobster, $12 to $16) — Texas opted for the catch of the day as his entrée: a big plate for the man from the big state. The mammoth slab of yellowtail, fin on, was sautéed in a pan and dressed simply with salt and pepper ($20). "It's not quite done all the way through," he said of the local fish that was caught the day before, yet he neglected to send it back.
Sides are almost as huge as the mains, and anyone ordering pigeon peas or cabbage in an attempt at healthy eating should be warned: Pigeon peas come in a trough with what appears to be a pound of maple-cured bacon. Purple cabbage arrives as a casserole, with noodles, cheese, and cabbage layered between more cheese.
The cocktail list is a draw itself. Engineered by Cassarly, a former bartender at Bizarre Cafe in Lake Worth, it includes some old-school offerings — a Lava Flow for two ($16), a Scorpion Bowl ($20), or an old-fashioned strawberry daiquiri ($10). The more-popular newfangled drinks include the Dirty Mow Mow (a porny-sounding name for an especially bad wipeout) ($10): fresh ginger, citron vodka, St. Germain, lime juice, agave, and ginger beer. An elegant option is the Chiki Ti Ta ($10) with Hendricks, St. Germain, lemon, simple syrup, and champagne, garnished with an orchid and served in a martini glass. Seems Cassarly is as smitten by the ginger of St. Germain liquor as are the rest of the country's mixologists. "Think of it like hops to beer," said Cassarly. "It adds an extra spike, floridity, if you will, that goes well with so much, especially champagne."
But at these prices, two courses and two drinks cost about $50. Maybe not outrageous but not cheap, considering half the crowd wears flip-flops and bartenders are in swim trunks. There are deals to be had, though, particularly on the nightly specials list — a daily soup, appetizer, and catch of the day. During happy hour (4 to 7 p.m.), beer, wine, and cocktails are two-for-one, and Monday through Thursday nights after 11, there are in-the-biz specials (a trademark Mayo move in all his restaurants).
It's tough to leave room for dessert — primarily a selection of pies — yet the cookies and cream elicits lust: two handmade scoops of vanilla topped with house-made cinnamon whipped cream and garnished with a card house of warm, chocolate-chip cookies. As the dish was delivered to a customer's table, staffers hovered, relaying stories of after-work binges inspired by these cookies hot from the oven.
Kiki and her companions were too disciplined for such a dessert. "We're here for the drinks," she said, waiving off the decadence. "We've gotta look good in our swimsuits."