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The Last Honest Joint at the Beach

Maybe you agree with famed postmodern architect Robert Venturi that this kitschy pink wave of a building on Lauderdale Beach is "an architectural masterpiece." Or, like owners Kathy and Andy Mitchell, you've got it in your head that Ireland's Inn Beach Resort has outgrown itself and suffered millions in irreparable hurricane damage. It needs a hell of a lot more than a face-lift to keep this four-generation family business in sound financial shape. You might have adopted the realist's point of view, along with FAU Professor Tony Abbate: nice old building, but not a particularly stellar example of midcentury modern architecture and certainly not worthy of preservationists' panic. It's a debate that has Fort Lauderdale developers, historic preservationists, and politicians entrenched, ever since the Mitchells and Kathy's dad, Jack Ireland, proposed tearing down the 1964 hotel and its restaurant, Windows at Ireland's, to put up a massive hotel/condo complex on their five acres of beachfront property.

The Mitchells and Ireland maintain that the trademark shape of the inn's main building — call it midcentury undulant — was just an inspired accident: "It was designed that way [by builders Ed Sarr and George Waddey] so more rooms could have a view of the ocean," Kathy says. "They got the idea because my dad was standing there with one of those wiggly rulers." And the ingenious "shark's tooth" balconies? Picked up from a friend who happened to have them lying around at his concrete and motor repair business. Listen to Kathy Mitchell and it sounds like the only antique worth saving on this oceanfront property is her grandmother Lillian, who founded the hotel with her husband, Bill, and is still "sharp as a tack;" the old lady turns 100 this year.

The city will hear the Broward Trust for Historic Preservation's case to spare the building on May 1; in the meantime, a photo show of MiMo (Miami Modern) architecture titled "Going, Going, Gone?" — clearly timed to fan the flames of controversy — is running at the Broward County Main Library through April 29 and includes glossy photos of Ireland's Inn. Whatever the outcome, you and I may want to slot in as many meals as possible in the year or so before the restaurant closes. Kathy Mitchell says that whether the building stands or falls under the wrecking ball, Windows the restaurant — the décor of which is more turn-of-the-century Irish pub than midcentury anything — is going to have to relocate from its old spot.

We may be looking at a good stretch of time with no Windows. And the thought of it makes Lauderdale beach feel like a small, hot, airless room. I like this restaurant a lot, not least because of its — now rather ironic — refusal to adopt anything that looks like change. The place is terminally unhip. The cool people are all down the road at Trina; don't say I didn't warn you. From the sweet, elderly hostess to the easy-listening stylings of pianist Leslie Butler, who plays every night but Monday; from the waiters in their starchy white shirts and tuxes to a menu of fresh calves liver, scampi, fried chicken, and hearts of palm salad; from a sedate clientele of locals and hotel guests to the vintage dinner prices (there are still many entrées well under $20) and those sweeping ocean views — Windows is a nostalgic trip. My parents hauled my siblings and me through restaurants like this one throughout the swinging '60s. While everybody else was dropping acid, we buckled up our patent leather shoes, ran a comb through our pixie haircuts, and trundled out to eat shrimp cocktail, caesar salad, and ice cream. The planet was imploding, but we were learning how to handle a fish fork. The servers (we called them waiters back then) were always really nice, as if these restaurants existed in a vacu-sealed, eerily apolitical bubble.

Same vibe at Windows, right down to the cheery, clean-cut waiters. It's been a while since I had anybody working at a restaurant regard me with such easygoing, straightforward, and apparently sincere enthusiasm — at Ireland's, apparently, the eating class is not yet at war with the serving class. Come the revolution — or the demolition — that will probably change, and the consciousness of the staff, many of whom have worked here for years, will be permanently raised. From what I understand, the Mitchells hope to have a hotel group come in to manage the place post-construction. For now, though, the waiters are still smiling. And waxing poetic, as our waiter did, about the night's specials, which he'd sampled earlier and could describe in detail. The service here is patient, thorough, unhurried, and unstuffy — just lovely. When we asked about breakfast, served daily on the outdoor decks to as many as 500 on weekends, our waiter told us which station he worked and urged us to sit in his section next time we came back.

Windows is built on two levels, expansive but intimate, and both rooms have water views. The décor tends toward dark carved woods, lots of glass, and plushy furniture. Tables are spaced at a civilized distance, draped in white linen, topped with flower vases. Upholstered chairs are made for sinking into. Sounds are muted, as if these rooms were wrapped in layers of Irish wool.

Executive Chef Dennis Barry was trained at New York's Culinary Institute of America and has hopped around restaurant and catering projects in California, reportedly getting to know Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck during his travels. The menu he's developed for Windows is faintly retro but abstains from annoying self-congratulatory gestures, still contemporary enough to incorporate trendy ingredients like panko, nut crusts, and rare tuna without the chichi (no towering infernos here). Barry's right-hand man, who modestly goes by the moniker "Chef G.," runs the kitchen at night with a sous chef and sometimes makes the rounds to chat up customers, another hopelessly old-fashioned bit of restaurant etiquette I haven't seen since my last cup of vichyssoise on ice.

Windows' dishes have a distinctively homemade flavor profile. I doubt the kitchen has entirely forgone the timesavers peddled by Cheney Brothers, but if they're using soup starters or premixed tomato sauce, those ingredients are well-disguised. A hearts of palm salad ($6.95) is inventive and satisfying. It's a huge, chunky affair. By the time I'd stopped licking my plate, I had barely a shred of appetite left. A layer of silky butter lettuce leaves was topped with piquant palm hearts, thick slices of yellow pepper, slivered tomato, mandarin orange sections, and shredded fresh basil, all of it tossed in orange/basil dressing flecked with some kind of hard white cheese, maybe a fresh ricotta or asiago. It was cold, smooth, buttery, tart, salty, laced with citrus, and absolutely delicious.

The night's special appetizer of escargots was drenched in garlic, butter, wine, and the anise-notes of fresh tarragon arranged on a chunky croute of French bread soaking up all those scrumptious juices: carte blanche to suck down all the garlic butter we could handle. Other appetizers included a Maryland style crab cake ($14.95), seared tuna ($8.95), a smoked Scottish salmon carpaccio ($10.95), and shrimp, crab meat, and vegetable spring rolls ($9.95).

We ordered the night's special halibut fillet ($26.95) and panko-crusted chicken ($16.95) from the permanent menu. Windows offers a generous handful of seafood dishes — grouper, nut-crusted snapper, grilled mahi mahi over wilted spinach, jumbo fried shrimp, and crab cakes ($21.95 to $24.95); grill entrées featuring filet mignon, Delmonico steak with crispy onions, beef tenderloin medallions, pork chops, roasted pork tenderloin ($16.95 to $28.95); and Ireland's "traditions." Among these are fried chicken served family style — with bowls of veggies and potatoes — and coconut shrimp (both recipes developed by "Captain" Jack Ireland). Our panko-coated chicken pieces were lightly crisp on the outside and carefully seasoned, with moist, luxuriant interiors, and served with crunchy, emerald-green snow-pea pods. My plate of halibut was a medium-thick fillet, perfectly seared and sauced in a silky coat of light cheese and cream studded with black beans and tomatoes. It was rich, fatty, and satisfying.

For dessert: raspberry or macadamia nut cheesecake, apple pie à la mode, or key lime pie ($4) — we went for the latter. It was properly prepared, a custard rather than a fluff or a puff, set on a sweet and buttery graham cracker crust. But we detected the faintly bitter tang of what I'm guessing is bottled lime juice — possibly one of the kitchen's few concessions to the pressures of running a restaurant kitchen.

After dinner, our servers hovered to chat a bit, friendly but not intrusive, letting us linger, filling us in on expansion and renovation gossip. One young man boasted that a "five-star restaurant" was planned for the new spa resort. How and whether Ireland's will earn those five stars remains to be seen. For the time being, though, the lights twinkling through the high windows — far out of reach — were enough for us.


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