Sunfish Grill in Fort Lauderdale: Terrific Cuisine in a Fading Icon

Past 8 p.m. on a weekday, the staff at Sunfish Grill polishes glasses and runs credit cards as customers trickle in. "You just coming off work?" says a server. The patrons nod. Curtains like sails are folded for a luff, despite that the restaurant is housed in a strip mall. Wine-label posters from the '90s serve as art. The light is warm off the marble bar.

At tables dressed in whites, couples rat-a-tat about the Republican primary. Next to them, a group of five push-pulls about local real estate. Remakes of easy listening serve as background music.

Sunfish Grill was a luminary when it debuted 16 years ago in a former luncheonette. From the charming-though-dated dining room, you'd never know it. At its peak, the restaurant garnered awards from New Times, including Best Place for an Intimate Conversation and Best Contemporary Restaurant. That was while the restaurant was under chef Tony Sindaco and his former wife, pastry chef Erika Di Battista. After a move to bigger digs in 2008, the couple split. Sindaco reemerged this past year with Sea, on Commercial Boulevard. Di Battista remains pastry chef and serves as restaurateur at Sunfish Grill, with William Bruening the executive chef.

Since she has taken the helm solo, Di Battista says she's had to work harder than ever just to maintain the quality and service. "Women definitely have to give extra to prove they are strong both mentally and physically to earn respect in this industry," she says.

Despite the antiquated association of women in the kitchen, they're markedly absent on most restaurant lines or in ownership roles. The reasons they're missing is partly due to the sexist nature of professional kitchens and the unstable culture of restaurant life. In some places, the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll kitchen lifestyle reinforces those stereotypes.

Having previously worked in many restaurants — most recently in 2011 at the highly regarded Restaurant Eve in the Washington, D.C., area, where Barack and Michelle Obama spent their anniversary this past fall — I am not surprised. The hot line is still a boy's club. Ten hours is a short day. Cooking is not only backbreaking work; it's isolating. Forget talking to the outside world or checking email during a shift. And you'd better get comfortable with shit talk and sex jokes, since that's the chatter during prep and downtime. During dinner hour, you're a soldier.

In the past, many women stuck with pastry, since the hours are often more humane and the position is out of the fray of the line. Michelle Bernstein — of Michy's Miami and SRA Martinez in Miami — is one of the few women at the helm in South Florida dining.

There are plenty of women, such as athletes, who endure grueling schedules and climb their way to success. Why not chefs? It's absurd that in 2012, gender disparity to this degree still exists, because it robs us of creativity and style. Women in the kitchen are typically not the engineers of foams and reincarnations via molecular gastronomy. They often feature soulful, accessible cuisine. "Food from the heart," said New York chef Sara Jenkins in a New York Magazine article about women's cooking.

The culture of the kitchen is changing as the profession of chef gains stature and young women make their way up. Thirty-year-old Paula DaSilva is an example of this, having served her entire career under Dean Max of 3030 Ocean until she took the helm at 1500 Degrees at Eden Roc. Here, she nailed Miami's only Best New Restaurant nod from Esquire this year — a delightful choice.

Her recognition outed Dean Max as a line cook's Dante, leading women to the helm in restaurants around South Florida. He also helped Lauren DeShields, his former chef de cuisine at 3800 Ocean, who recently became executive chef at Market 17. As is the case in any profession, a mentor needs to shepherd underlings to the top. Since so many chefs are men, it often takes a man to help women coming up the line.

And more are on the way. "Twenty years ago, 10 percent of culinary schools had women as students, and 3 percent went on to become chefs," Michelle Bernstein tells me. "Now, I'm seeing that it's more like 40 percent of culinary-school classes are made up of women. As they move up the ranks, I think you'll start seeing the numbers of women executive chefs increase."

At Sunfish Grill, Di Battista inherited her role as restaurateur by default after the divorce. Eloquent service and stunning dishes suggest she's doing fine. "We'll be back tomorrow," says the table of five on their way out. The women in the group hold roses given to them by the staff as a parting gift, a feminine touch of old-fashioned grace from one of the area's culinary grand dames.

It's easy to see why the group promised to return. A roasted corn chowder is restrained and beautiful; whole kernels mingle with potatoes and are layered with bacon. White wine and flat-leaf parsley offer acid and herbs. Tomato focaccia serves for dipping, paired with a savory eggplant purée. Sindaco at Sea does similar soup variations paired with flavored focaccia, each of which is lovely but doesn't quite work together, like a black-and-blue outfit. That the strengths of Sindaco are signatures here is no surprise, as the pair shaped each other's palates as they grew into the business.

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13 comments
Prudence
Prudence

Tadical feminist chic is such a turnoff. When people concentrate on their performance rather than whining for special treatment the world will be a better place. Who get lambasted more than Caucasian, heterosexual working men who support their families, church and community?

Jacquie
Jacquie

Thank you Sunfish Grill for providing an intimate atmosphere where my husband and I could dine at leisure and really enjoy your wonderful cuisine.

ErinHilburn
ErinHilburn

I'm disappointed the bulk of this article concentrated on the fact that DiBattista is a woman, and contained just a few short paragraphs about the actual food served at the restaurant. I think most people that are entrenched in dining culture are familiar with the fact that the restaurant industry is a boy's club. Many of the points you made concerning gender bias have been rehashed in articles time and again. I recognize the importance of highlighting the background of the establishment, but I think focusing most of the review on gender and her relationship/former business partnership does a disservice to diners that are curious about the food and the evolution of the restaurant. Just my two cents. 

Melissamccart
Melissamccart

Point taken. Thank you for saying something. 

Jamie
Jamie

In this case, you happen to be wrong, because the story of the restaurant is the story. Of course McCart's gibberish here misses the mark as usual. Why write your women get no respect article about someone that isn't even a chef? Why parrot the complaints of someone who only has a restaurant because she finagled it in a divorce? Why not save it for someone who is actually skilled, so that your point might have some foundation?

Erica has had to work harder because she has no skills and she wants to pretend she's a chef rather than hiring a real chef. A gender bias claim would imply that she's as good as some man that is getting preferential treatment; and the truth is that she's not a better anything than anyone male or female.

Indigo1950
Indigo1950

It was nice to read your review of this fine restaurant. the menu delights me, and I have never been disapointed. I'm not sure if your aware of it,  but the restaurant isn't in Wilton Manor and the decor dated? This is one of the most relaxed atmospheres you'll ever experience.My hat goes off to Erica and Bill, they perform magnificantly every night.

Mike Fruchter
Mike Fruchter

We really appreciated Sunfish Grill's attentive service and our meal was so fresh and served promptly.

Lisa Rab
Lisa Rab

It's disturbing to see so few women in charge of restaurants. Can the women at the top, like Bernstein, help change the culture on the line so it's more welcoming to newcomers? Can she be the Tina Fey of chefs?

Melissamccart
Melissamccart

Is there a Tina Fey of chefs? I must know her.

Maddie
Maddie

Dated?  I love that dining room - we are regulars at the Sunfish Grill and short of having the Chefs cook in my kitchen, there is no other place that I feel so relaxed.  Servers never rush me, food is always delicious and I will be back again this week - and they gave me a rose as I left!

Bob
Bob

Just had dinner with my wife and two dear friends at the Sunfish Grill.  I loved the atmosphere and the food.  Was my first time at this location and I thought the food was better than ever.  Chef Erika was kind enough to send out a dessert for our celebration and we look forward to going back - especially for some more Cobbler!

Robert
Robert

really...this place once was one of the best ...now just a faded memory...change your name...lamented on women's issues ...if the food was better and the place not cheap looking maybe it could hold the superior experience that it once was...

Sindyfl77
Sindyfl77

Robert u are so right. You can't replace a Michelin trained chef with a chef who claims he was head of a kitchen at 18 years old and expect things to be the same.A faded memory you got that right.The review seemed more like a plug for her ex-husband. Good for him.

 
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