If you pull up to Calypso Restaurant & Raw Bar on a Saturday evening, the parking lot will be empty. The lights will be off. And there will be no one waiting for a table.
This is not a bad sign, however. The longtime Pompano Beach restaurant hasn't held weekend hours for close to a decade. It doesn't matter if it's in or out of season. Calypso is open Monday through Friday only.
Owners Chuck and Lora Ternosky like it that way. After 25 years in business, the restaurant has garnered such a devout local following that they don't need to cash in on a weekend swell. And judging by the five-star ratings on Yelp, Trip Advisor, Google, and Urban Spoon, patrons like it that way too.
See also: Calypso Restaurant & Raw Bar (Photos)
Calypso may not look like much from the outside, and the clandestine neighborhood location may leave you scratching your head yet again, but this is all part of Calypso's mystique. Once inside, everything just feels right, from the gaudily bright parrot curtains to the tiki-style thatching hanging over the bar and the nautical bric-a-brac that brands it an official Florida hole in the wall. But it's a hole in the wall with a devoted following. Many patrons have been coming since the Ternoskys first opened the doors in 1990.
"Some people have come here when they first started dating, and now we've watched them get married, have children, and now their grandchildren are coming here," says Chuck.
The regulars form two distinct sets: the lunch crowd that frequents several times a week and a dinner crowd that has turned generation after generation into Calypso fans. During the day, they'll pack the bar for midday specials on platters of fresh-caught fish. Come night, the tables turn over at a rapid pace, emptying the kitchen of all its sea-sourced fare.
No matter when you arrive, you're bound to bump into one of the Ternoskys. They blend right in in jeans and T-shirts, usually chatting quietly with a table to two or hanging out in the kitchen, where they help plate orders. The couple lives just a few blocks away from the restaurant.
So how do two New England transplants manage to open an island-style eatery so popular, you'd swear they were birthed in the Caribbean? With the help of a Barbados native, of course. Two of the founding members, Mike and Jackie O'Neal, gave Calypso its authentic roots. With just $20,000 among them, the four joined forces, transforming a vacated pizzeria in a lifeless strip mall into a tropical oasis.
The shopping center didn't survive, but the restaurant did, later relocating a mile up the road to its current spot. Rather than look for a more prime location, the newbie restaurateurs discovered they had found the perfect niche in this quiet Pompano neighborhood.
"At a certain point, we couldn't leave the neighborhood. We had become the neighborhood," says Chuck. "It was a lot of hard work in the beginning, each of us taking turns to run the restaurant. We had handwritten menus and did the dishes ourselves. But it helped to get us to where we are today."
When the couples parted ways in 2007, the Ternoskys took over full-time. Not much has changed since then. The curtains are still there, just as bright and gawdy. The bric-a-brac hasn't moved. And the couple still works crazy 100-hour workweeks, tag-teaming staffing and management duties alongside a dedicated staff. Lora even doubles as a pastry chef.
And the food is still really, really good.
Originally meant to be more a pub-style eatery, today Calypso is as Old Florida as it gets. The seafoodcentric menu hasn't changed much either. The original version was once handwritten with colorful sketches, and though the current version may look more modern, it features the same collaborative effort -- a list of starters, cutters (island-speak for sandwich), roti, and specials created by Mike and Chuck.
A few additions have been tacked on over the years, each Chuck's take on island fusion including his own specialty creation: a hearty shrimp and scallop burger. Fat, plump, and slick with flavor, the course-chopped seafood is formed into a hefty patty, and made without any binder.
The heart of the menu remains mostly the same, however. Here, conch reigns supreme. Starters in particular rely heavily on the Caribbean delicacy. For the past two decades, it's been delivered straight from the neighboring ocean (never imported from foreign waters) and prepared in the same laborious, time-consuming manner: a rhythmic pounding by large wooden mallets rendering each pink tongue-like strip of conch meat into tender tidbits.
You can order it frittered, fried, or cooked over an open flame. Calypso is one of the few places you'll find grilled conch on the menu, served with a lime wedge and a cup of drawn butter. Thin slices of pearlescent meat are seared just long enough to form delicate char marks that lend a light, smoky flavor. Or order the fritters and you'll receive half-a-dozen, each chock-full of diced conch and a bounty of fresh herbs.
The restaurant goes through more than 20 pounds of shrimp a day -- big fat ones brought in live and cleaned in-house. They're given the restaurant's West Indies barbecue treatment, a dusting of Mike's spicy jerk seasoning. Because it's grilled to tender perfection, the first bite is like an explosion in your mouth, a pop of skin that yields a rush of juicy-soft meat fused with the rub's spicy blend of allspice, ginger, cinnamon, thyme, and nutmeg.
A specials board behind the bar is where it's at, however, changing according to what's fresh that day. Often lesser-known Bahamian catches like sheepshead and triple tail are on offer and can be prepared any way you like. The sourcing is itself a source of pride for Chuck, who'll run through 300 pounds of fish in five days. When a selection is gone, he wipes it from the chalkboard.
A meal here wouldn't be complete without a taste of Calypso's specialty -- and Barbados novelty -- the Bajan-style mahi. When the restaurant first opened, the dish was prepared with flying fish, caught and delivered directly from neighboring island waters. Dolphin replaced that several years ago when the exotic catch was no longer available, but the mahi gets the same basic preparation: fish so fresh it swells with flavor, drenched in a lime marinade overnight and coated in an herb-flecked batter before it's fried to order.
Just don't forget dessert. Though pies might not be traditional island fare, they're good enough that customers will call and reserve their share like it's the coveted corner table at the new hot-spot restaurant on a Friday night. For this reason, Lora will bake her famed double coconut cream pie daily, a dense coconut-dimpled custard jiggling atop a butter-fused chocolate and toasted coconut crust.
"If you really dive into our menu, you'll see that it's all pretty simple," says Chuck. "At the heart of it all is fresh, quality ingredients and plenty of local love."
Calypso Restaurant & Raw Bar is located at 460 S. Cypress Road, Pompano Beach. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 954-942-1633, or visit calypsorestaurant.com.
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.