Tropical Acres: A Steak House Time Machine
As plates were cleared from our table, sitcom-style hilarity popped up in a steak house that has long been popular among snowbirds and grandpas.
"In honor of your birthday, how's about we go home and fool around?" a man asked of a woman who announced she was celebrating her 70th.
"70? That's young," a hunched-over woman chimed in from another table.
"I've been divorced ten years and have gone on four dates," we heard from a neighboring table. "It's hard to find a gentleman."
Tropical Acres Steakhouse, now more than 60 years old, remains rooted in post-World War II America. Men still wear jackets and slacks to dinner. A tuxedoed pianist plays a jazz mix along with the occasional "Happy Birthday."
This place is not, and should never become, the kind of trendy steak house that offers Kobe-style beef, dry aged for a month, for more than $50. Instead, it offers a value — and a special experience — far beyond what you'll find at a Hillstone or an Outback. Elbows off the table. Napkin in your lap. Don't talk with your mouth full.
Nearly four generations of the Studiale family have run the restaurant since 1949 and steered it through a few disasters. A cousin, Gene Harvey, opened it. Sam and Celia Studiale took over in 1964, the year three-quarters of the place burned to the ground in a fire. Later, Jack Studiale, who became the public face of the restaurant, and his sister Carolyn Greenlaw grabbed the reins. Today the restaurant is run by Michael Greenlaw and Joe Studiale, who it seems are being groomed for ownership once Jack and Carolyn step aside.
"A lot of people that are longtime guests know my grandparents," Michael Greenlaw said. "I'm the grandson."
The much-loved restaurant caught fire in the middle of the night in August 2011, the blaze spreading from the laundry area to the kitchen. It was forced to close for six months and nearly $1.8 million of repairs.
"We're still kind of dealing with some of the insurance fallout," Greenlaw said. "A big issue with us was what's called law ordinance or code upgrade. Our kitchen, a lot of it, was built in the 1970s; the main area that was damaged was built in 1974. When [insurance] paid to replace it, it wasn't up to code."
Thankfully, no one was hurt in the incident, and in some ways, the Studiale family used the fire to its advantage, revamping the kitchen, installing a sprinkler system to douse any flames, and replacing the dining room's geriatric, floral-and-beige banquettes with more-modern, inviting, quilted red seating to match the warm room.
The stretching, single-floor, country-club-style building is built from pale-yellow bricks and accented with green shutters. The entrance is adjacent to a driveway with a valet stand that was unattended both nights we visited. A ramp and a small set of stairs led us through double wood doors into a lobby with mismatched living-room furniture from across the decades that looks like it might have come from your great-aunt's house. A white couch, the kind you were never allowed to sit on, rests against a wall that displays copies of the restaurant's menu dating back to its opening in 1949.
We found the place humming on a recent weeknight, when we arrived to a 20-minute wait. Undeterred, we walked into the bar — draped in dark wood and dimly lit by emerald-green hanging lamps — to have a drink and order a bite. What we got was a curt, short-on-manners middle-aged bartender who looked frustrated when asked to recite the beer list and wouldn't take an appetizer order because he was "making drinks for the whole restaurant."
In the early days, a T-bone steak went for $2.50 and appetizers were limited to tomato juice, a half grapefruit, and a fresh fruit cup. The menu has since expanded, but growth has been limited to steak-house classics. Fried zucchini slices, fried mushrooms, and escargots broiled in butter were among the appetizer choices. An "Italian" section with chicken parmigiana and linguine with meatballs was added to the menu, as was a seafood section with salmon, shrimp, scallops, and lobster.
One of our two meals at Tropical Acres began with the obligatory Shrimp Cocktail Supreme ($7.50). Five shelled crustaceans were served steamed and chilled in a glass cup that could have doubled as a vessel for a small ice cream sundae. The shrimp were sweet, generously sized, and a fine way to start a meal. Classics.
Yet a French onion soup ($5.95) revealed the pitfalls of churning out the same dishes night after night. A small pewter bowl arrived sealed with a cap of melted, browned cheese. Underneath lay an underseasoned, bland broth. The soup-soaked square of bread inside seemed as if it had been left sitting for too long and was almost disintegrated. The bubbling cheese, usually the highlight of the dish, was weak and lacked the salty, nutty punch that comes with the traditional melted Gruyère; it was a Parmesan/mozzarella mix.
Aside from being what the crazy kids of today would describe as "shot down" at the bar, service was attentive and formal. Waiters, in white buttoned-up shirts, black vests, and aprons that hung to their ankles, checked in multiple times during each course, and an assistant kept drinks full.
Our server warned about the fattiness, or what serious carnivores call "generous marbling," of the Cowboy Steak ($26.95) when we requested it medium rare. The 16-ounce bone-in rib eye, offered on a sizzling platter, came well-seasoned, with the fat melted into an unctuous beef butter and a perfect char. It was also topped with a few strings of fried onions served among an order of hash browns, which can also be had à la carte for $2.95.
The restaurant sources Certified Angus Beef, corn-fed from the Midwest, from two or three suppliers. Greenlaw says that the family had used small meatpacking companies for years but that recently there's been consolidation in the industry.
Now "you can get the same exact product from multiple suppliers," he says. "Unfortunately, a lot of independent meatpacking companies" have been bought and merged.
The sizzling platters are a nice touch, but unfortunately, one of them overcooked another cut — the already thin ten-ounce strip steak ($24.90). Halfway through enjoying the once-medium-rare steak, we found that the hot plate had pushed it almost to the point of well done.
Ordering a meal at Tropical Acres takes one back to an earlier age, when steak-house menus weren't à la carte. Entrées come with a choice of a salad — either a standard house salad with cherry tomatoes and julienned carrots, or a caesar salad with out-of-the-bag croutons. The croutons in particular were a letdown given the impressive breadbasket — buttery dinner rolls, onion rolls, and warm flatbread topped with melted cheese — that starts each meal. There has to be some leftover each night, and what better way to shore up the bottom line than to make good use of bread destined for the trash. Greenlaw says all the sauces, soups, and dressings are made in-house. Croutons should be added to that list.
A mahi-mahi fillet ($19.95) was a tad dry, but a rich, lemony garlicky Française sauce with capers saved it. As did the creamed spinach, which was everything you'd hope it would be: made with enough salt, butter, and cream to hide the fact that a vegetable was ever in the pot.
Servers still roll out the dessert cart at the end of each meal and twice tried to tempt us with homemade Key lime pie, brownies, and tiramisu. We opted for the cheesecake ($5.95) to wrap one meal. It was airy rather than thick but still a satisfying end to a heavy meal.
This time machine of a restaurant has weathered the ages, thanks to a loyal customer base that seeks reasonable prices and quality service. Although there's still plenty of character in the front of the house, Tropical Acres could use a few tweaks in the back, like better ingredients, but it should never change its personality from the bygone era of manners and formality. Treat Tropical Acres the same way the Studiale family has: Bring the kids in when they're young, make it special, and keep them coming back for a lifetime.
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