Restaurant Reviews

To the Lighthouse

Maybe because one side of my family is made up of scrappy small-time entrepreneurs who founded shanty towns in the central Florida scrub, named those towns after themselves, manufactured fake money called scrip to pay their laborers, and eventually ruled the surrounding palmettos with cussed determination, I have a soft spot for Cap Knight. Eugene Theodore "Cap" Knight was a rumrunner, sailor, and fisherman, one of a handful of people with the guts to settle around Hillsboro Inlet (now Lighthouse Point) in the early 1900s. I say guts, because nothing there at the time was worth a damn except the lighthouse. Cap's brother Tom was the keeper. It was the only such beacon between Jupiter and Key Biscayne, so it served a purpose: Passing boats who found that light knew they hadn't lost the coast. With the help of his second wife, Lola, a schoolteacher, Cap made a good living during Prohibition running whiskey from Grand Bahama.

When Cap arrived with a load of hooch, Tom would flash signals from the lighthouse when the coast was clear. Lola and Cap would then wrap the whiskey in burlap sacks, weight them down, and dump them in the water attached to buoys. As customers put in their orders, they'd row out to haul them up. And they never got caught.

The only reason any of this matters is what followed: Cap and his young friend Al Hasis, a 16-year-old runaway, bought a barge in 1928 and dragged it up on a spit of land at Lighthouse Point between the Intracoastal and Lake Placid. Then they outfitted the rooms with a roulette wheel, slot machines, and blackjack tables, and they hired a sharecropper named Sylvester Love to manage the kitchen. They called it Club Unique, and it's still in the same spot. Indeed, Love worked that kitchen for 55 years.

Now, the restaurant is called Cap's Place, and it's run by Al Hasis' daughter Talle and her two brothers, Ted and Tom (a Lighthouse Point city commissioner), as well as Ted's wife, Maureen. The kids, who are in their 50s, were all raised bussing tables, cleaning shrimp, and peeling potatoes; Talle used to sit outside with her pink tea service, selling tiny cups of water to customers and making five dollar tips. The floors are made from Dade County pine. Al built the bar by hand from Everglades bamboo and old ships' wood. The room where Franklin Roosevelt ate dinner with Winston Churchill, with its heavy, low ceilings hasn't changed in decades.

"People complain about those ceilings or tell me the floors are crooked, but I tell 'em, 'Just duck your head down,'" Talle says. "My father built a strong place, low on the land. I should knock on wood, but we've never had any problem with hurricanes."

Cap's Place has updated its menu maybe just a smidgen since the days when Meyer Lansky used to drop in to collect his take from Club Unique's gambling operation. They're still serving fresh fish and heart of palm salad -- if you get there early enough and they haven't run out.

"The original dinner menu was shrimp, snapper, pompano, Spanish mackerel, fried oysters, and chicken. That's it," Talle remembers. "Cap didn't even believe in dessert. 'If we haven't fed 'em enough, we're doing something wrong,' he used to say. When the waiters came by with a plate he didn't like the look of, he'd send them right back to the kitchen, even if it meant [the customer] had to wait. Cap's rule was law, I don't care if you were a king or a prince."

Talle, who was named after the state capital (Talle Hasis, get it?), stresses that the restaurant has had to adapt to changing times. By the time George Harrison brought his new wife Patti Boyd to dinner there in the late '60s, they'd updated the old menu. "Sure, we serve fish any way you want now, broiled or sautéed or blackened. And we've added [lime pie for] dessert," she says.

They also have raw oysters on the half shell, calamari, and clams linguine. In another concession to modernity, they serve appetizers too -- cut-up fruit, clam chowder, and tomato juice. The fish comes with a side of sweet potatoes.

Still, Talle says, they only order enough provisions to sell in a day. They buy their fish daily from a local fisherman, Captain Murphy, just like they've done for decades. And if he's only got 50 pounds of grouper, well, you'd better get there early if you want any, because it goes fast. The night we went, they'd served the last plate of fresh pompano before we could order, and they'd run out of heart of palm salad (fresh from the tree, not canned). This isn't a place where you show up at 10 p.m.

By that time, the ferry has probably been put to bed anyway. About that ferry. It's still the only way you can get to Cap's. The flat-bottomed motor boat picks you up at a parking lot about a mile east of Copans Road and Federal Highway for the five-minute ride over to Cap's dock. It makes 50 or 60 trips a night, the first around 5:30 p.m. and the last around 10 p.m. The restaurant is one of the few original sites left in an area that's developed past the point of no return, reason enough to make the crossing.

Talle may protest that the place has lasted 77 years because it's adapted so well to changing times, but my hunch is that it's been around so long for another reason. There's a stubbornness and inflexibility in these couple of patched-together, hulking buildings. It's as solid and immutable as your old grandpa telling the same shaggy-dog story for the 220th time. The place is well past its prime. The memorabilia crowding every wall is real, accumulated over decades. There are original menus, reviews torn from '40s magazines, faded photos of Cap and his makeshift family. And if the hostess and waiters are a little harried, a little grumpy, they're the kind of servers you used to find in diners on every blue highway in America.

Our favorite dishes from the place were the fresh raw oysters ($6.95) and what turned out to be an outrageously expensive but perfectly delicious crab cake appetizer ($14.95) -- one cake, creamy and luscious, almost pure crab meat plus a touch of binder. The clam chowder -- spicy, steaming, and satisfying -- featured chewy clams in a tomato-based broth that seemed just the right precursor to the seafood.

Our entrées were good in the way fresh fish is when you sink a line off your dock and later throw your catch on the grill, with a little salt, pepper, and lemon. The dolphin fillet ($24.95) had a subtle flavor but could have used a minute or two less under the broiler. The special seafood platter ($26.95) was all good: generous helpings of grilled shrimp, small sea scallops, and chunks of grilled dolphin.

A word about the wine: just splurge and order a bottle. We tried three different wines by the glass, and they all tasted like they'd sat open waiting for us to show up for a long, long time. And at $9.25 a glass, this was no bargain.

This food is as pricey as big city fare, but it's unadorned: Take me as I am, or don't take me at all. And those who think a big fresh piece of fish needs to be slathered in some frou-frou sauce, with a bunch of hand-carved vegetable rosettes on the side, can damn well go elsewhere.

At least, that's what I guess Cap would say, if he were still alive. "We used to sit around when we were kids and wonder -- are we really related to all these crazy people? They were a strange, interesting group, Talle says. "They were like a family."

And when Talle and her brothers want to retire? "That word's not in my vocabulary," she says. "If anything, I'll be sitting out there in Cap's rocking chair, barking orders."