Let New Orleans have its gumbo, Kansas City its barbecue, and Los Angeles and New York City their trend-setting concepts. Here in South Florida, we have our own enviable pedigree: Floribbean, best described as a fusion of island-inspired fare mixed with locally grown tropical fruits and fresh-caught fish. And at Papa's Raw Bar in Lighthouse Point, it's what's on the clipboard menu.
Last spring, Joy and Hugh Ganter and their son Troy decided to take over the newly vacated space next door to Seafood World, a business they have successfully run for the past three decades.
A Lighthouse Point institution, Seafood World stands as one of South Florida's quintessential seafood restaurants and markets, having evolved into a full-fledged brand complete with an online store and onsite retail shop selling everything from the Ganters' homemade sauces and spices to more than 85 types of seafood, from shellfish and Caribbean lobster to Florida stone crabs caught from the family's own fishing vessel.
The opening of Papa's Raw Bar in April marked a continuation of the family's love affair with seafood, which began in the late 1950s in the Bahamas, where Hugh and Joy met; both were trying to escape the doldrums of the mainland and together dreamed of opening a restaurant. They returned to Florida in the late '70s to open Seafood World, what today has expanded into a busy wholesale operation with a national delivery service. As each division grew, so did the requests from regular customers to provide catering services, and so the expansion continued with the Bimini Room, Papa's in-house catering and event room.
"We wanted something for the local crowd, so when the space next door opened up, we moved in," says Troy. "But everyone loved it so much, we decided to turn the space into its own concept."
Originally intended to be nothing more than a wine and raw bar, in the past seven months, Papa's has transformed into a sort of seafood gastropub. Through nothing more than word of mouth -- the Ganters don't believe in advertising -- Papa's rapidly became wildly popular with the Lighthouse locals.
"As soon as we opened, things went crazy," says Troy. "More than anything else, it's the energy and the ambiance that people have really come to love. Nothing in the area offers this type of getaway."
Papa's interior is like a cave of carefully chosen curiosities, from the collection of vintage license plates and nautically inspired decor, to the posters and chalkboard wall advertising local brews and area businesses. The shoutouts are a big part of Troy's mission to support the locals. Even the menu, with names like Anthony's Arugula Salad and Sonny's Beer Steamed Clams, is a nod to regular patrons.
The crowd is a mix of young and old, and the beer and wine flow freely. Depending on the evening, you can sip them to the tunes of a local reggae band, and on weekends after 8 p.m., the volume turns up with live acts until the wee hours.
"I wanted Papa's to be different from next door but still offer that same, relaxed vibe," says Troy. "More of an island theme, with a New Orleans and Asian influence."
The bar now offers about 100 beers -- by the bottle and on draft -- coupled with a menu of classic South Florida-style eats. A raw bar first, the restaurant's claim to fame is its Badger's Char Grilled Oysters, fresh-shucked and char-grilled for a smoky, intense flavor. Served at market price, they're a perfect example of why it can be difficult to find a square meal on a tight budget at Papa's.
Just like the $7 single conch taco or the $25 lobster BLT. It helps to keep in mind that the focus is on the fresh: The restaurant buys only whole fish and goes through upward of 3,000 pounds per week, says Troy. It guarantees a truly fresh catch, but you're certainly paying the price.
The menu begins with "Sum Dis, Sum Dat" -- a compilation of starters like chowders, conch fritters, peel-and-eat shrimp, and fried calamari. Kapetan's Fresh Catch is a platter delivered with peas and rice and coleslaw and a choice of sea scallops, king crab, broiled Caribbean lobster tail, or the fresh catch of the day. The soft-shell crab is a treat that can be hard to execute well, but here its crispy-fried coating is the perfect contrast to the soft, creamy crab beneath.
The "Locals Favorites" sections continues the seafood-specific parade of dishes, colorful offerings like Murillo's Ahi Pizza, grilled conch, and blackened swordfish bites. But it's the Most Interesting Tacos that catch your eye -- and by interesting, Troy will tell you he means "better than your average taco."
Choose from the fresh catch, shrimp, conch, or lobster and get it blackened, grilled, or panko-crusted; what you decide determines the toppings, either a fresh pico de gallo or ripened peach salsa slathered over a bed of raw Savoy cabbage and topped with the Ganters' chipotle mayo. The conch is the most interesting, chewy beer-battered nibs of meat tucked into a corn tortilla baked fresh from the Mexican market down the street.
Thanks to the availability of Seafood World's 85-plus selections for all manner of mollusk, snail, and fish, the sushi side of the menu delivers a staggering lineup. It starts with build-your-own ceviche and sashimi platters and continues to a list of classic and specialty rolls too long to count. The Tabo Wabo is chef Murillo's best creation, buttery wahoo rolled with cucumber, scallion, and avocado; topped with salmon; and finished with a Jackson Pollock splattering of spicy mayo and molasses-thick bomb sauce across the plate.
About the only place you won't find seafood on this menu is in the desserts. We recommend Patty's Banana Cheesecake Chonga, pliant slices of fried banana cheesecake cut in two, leaning against a giant ball of vanilla ice cream. It's a play of texture and an artery-clogging affair, but it's worth it.
If the restaurants exist on word of mouth alone, it seems to be working. On a busy Monday night, the scrum of patrons at the bar and in the main dining room rivals that of a weekend crowd, and everyone is sampling from across the menu. With a main course of fresh-from-the-boat seafood, a dash of laidback cool, and a side of island time, Papa's Raw Bar feels like the type of place that should be in every coastal Florida neighborhood. But maybe with the addition of a few more affordable dishes -- especially when your tab reaches exponential figures by the end of the night.
"It's just like our motto," says Troy. "Eat, drink, and be local."
Papa's Raw Bar is located at 4610 N. Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point. Open Monday to Friday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 2 a.m. Call 754-307-5034, or visit papasrawbar.com.
Badger's Char Grilled Oysters $14
Conch or lobster taco $7
Soft-shell crab $10
The "Shamu" Lobster BLT $25
Tabo Wabo Roll $17
Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!