The Manor in Wilton Manors is self-billed as a complex. And that rings true — mainly because it has a complex: total schizophrenia. Taking up a whopping 16,000 square feet of floor space, the Manor consists of a martini bar, restaurant, lounge, sports bar, dance club, piano bar, and (whew!) coffee bar. It's open for lunch beginning at 3 p.m., serves brunch on Sundays at 10 a.m., offers dinner between 6 and 10 p.m., and morphs into a nightclub after 10. It hosts drag shows , brunches, and cabaret nights. Take February 5 as just one example of the extreme scheduling going on here: It's advertising both a Pirates of the Caribbean theme and a victory party for Miss Noche Latina on the same night.
Walking into the Manor is like entering a cross between the set of a Twilight movie and Liberace's rumpus room. It's supposed to be a campy version of an English manor. The décor is an eclectic mix of cupids, gargoyles, pool tables, gothic candelabras on salmon-colored walls, and standard pub tables. The main dining area/martini lounge/coffee bar are all combined into one open space. It's sort of like a loft apartment, where you make imaginary "rooms" via furniture layout. The martini bar serves as a central focal point, with dining-room seating to the right of the bar and a coffee counter, lounge area, and pool tables to the left. The Manor's large two-story nightclub area is divided from the restaurant by the kind of inflatable wall you would find in a hotel ballroom.
Sitting at the nearly empty martini bar at 9:30 on a Thursday night, my friend and I were treated to music videos that mashed up soft gay porn, Lady Gaga, and Michael Bublé. If I had to guess what theme the Manor was going for, I'd have to say a gay Dave & Buster's.
The minds (and wallets) behind this behemoth of food and drink are heavy-hitters in the gay nightlife scene. Real estate developers Paul Hugo and Brett Tannenbaum are past owners of several nightclubs, including the Empire in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale clubs the Saint, 825, and the Coliseum. The Manor isn't their first foray into food either. Tannenbaum owned Healthnuts Cafe, and Hugo had Hugo's Deli. Other management team members are nightlife promoter and marketer Gary Santis, who was also behind the Coliseum and, in the '90s, the South Beach megaclub Warsaw; and general manager Jason Tamanini, who was past manager of Halo Lounge in South Beach and Washington, D.C. Executive chef Cedric Washington has been with the Manor since it opened its doors December 16, 2009.
With a team like this, it's no surprise that the Manor can get slammed during its dance parties and private events. But the venue is also trying to be a fine-dining destination. Its website advertises "five start [sic] service with gourmet cuisine." So I wanted to check out the restaurant.
Our cute bartender seemed pretty happy to see us, and I got the distinct vibe that the Manor is female-friendly. I asked for a martini menu and was presented with a spiral-bound minibook. I really just wanted one damned good martini, so I ordered the Perfect Dirty Martini ($10), which came chilled with a few ice slivers floating on top. It was "perfectly dirty," with just the right amount of olive juice and served with three olives. The 007 Martini ($10), made with Bacardi "O" rum, orange juice, and a splash of 7-Up, could have been a sugary nightmare but was made with a light touch and actually tasted like a martini rather than a tropical welcome drink.
The second we sat at our heavy wooden pub table, our server (surprise — a cute guy, wearing black pants and a tight T-shirt!) was already pushing dessert. "You have to have the fried Oreos!" he exclaimed. "It's redneck gourmet!"
Perusing the spiral-bound menu literally took about 20 minutes. The book — I mean menu — is broken into sections: tapas, salads, entrées, and desserts. Selections range from Southwestern and Asian-inspired to American comfort food. The wine list is heavy on American wines, with most bottles ranging from $25 to $40 and glasses averaging $8. I ordered the house Chardonnay.
When it came time to order, I asked our server to bring a selection of their best plates, because I'm the kind of person who can spend an hour deciding which toothpaste to buy, and this menu, with its expansive choices, was making me nervous.
He started with tapas, which ranged from $4.95 to $11.95. On a high note, the Southwestern vegetarian flatbread ($7.95) was crispy, light, and topped with fresh tomatoes, black beans, and corn. The sweet smokiness of the chipotle mayonnaise brought out the flavors in the vegetables. Coconut shrimp ($9.95) were plump and juicy, and the breading had plenty of sweet coconut. The orange dipping sauce wasn't too sweet and had a nice tanginess from horseradish.
Other tapas didn't fare so well. Applewood-bacon-wrapped chilies ($9.95) managed to be both soggy and dried out at the same time. True, the applewood bacon was crisp, but the chili seemed to have soaked up the bacon grease. The dish was accompanied by a cilantro lime crème, which sounds like it would have a nice citrus tang but actually tasted like ranch dressing.
As he came and went, our lovely server popped over to the table every few minutes to answer questions, entertain us with stories (Janice Dickinson was "a drunk, hot mess" when she hosted an event at the club), or commiserate on how much he hates Ke$ha too. So I was bummed for him that the restaurant was fairly empty, the ratio of patrons to staff approximately two to one. My pal and I were the only women among about a dozen diners. I asked our server/new best friend where everyone was, since by now it was after 10 p.m. on a Thursday — prime time to get your drink on and start the evening's festivities. "Everyone's at Georgie's Alibi," he said. "It's Long Island Iced Tea night."
Ah, Georgie's. So the eaters of Wilton Manors were mostly gathering down the street, in a nondescript shopping plaza, in a jam-packed restaurant famous for its hamburger and booze in a Mason jar. Perhaps that said something about what flies in the city, which is more small-town than South Beach.
As for the Manor's entrées, the sugarcane-roasted beef tenderloin ($11.95) arrived with lovely presentation. The beef was displayed on sugarcane skewers and garnished with Asian marinated noodles, a grilled pineapple wedge, and a side of sauce. The beef tasted both sweet and spicy, reminiscent of Korean barbecue, but the meat was tough. Unfortunately, the bed of noodles functioned only as decoration, like parsley or flowers, because they were hard and tasted like overcooked ramen. The dipping sauce tasted like Thai peanut sauce but sweeter, smokier, more... American.
I asked the waiter, "What's in this sauce?"
"It's peanut sauce," he answered.
"Yeah, but there's a hint of something else. Try it." He obliged.
His verdict? Ketchup, barbecue sauce, and peanut butter.
I ordered the meat loaf ($12.95) because, the menu promised, it was just like Mom made. It arrived with a great rich aroma that reminded me of a '50s television household. It took me a full minute (and several bites) to identify where I had tasted this before, and then... it hit me: the Salisbury Steak TV dinner from my childhood. My friend tasted a bite and agreed. Since my mother never cooked, only reheated, I can safely say that, indeed, the meat loaf at the Manor tastes exactly like what Mom "made."
Though there was no scallop entrée per se, the seared scallop tapas ($11.95) was large enough to be an entrée and was presented over a bed of fresh baby spinach, fried leeks, and fresh, light raspberry vinaigrette. The scallops had a beautiful caramel coating on the outside and were perfectly seared on the inside. They were moist and sweet and tasted faintly of anise. One more dish for the "hit" column.
When it was time for dessert, our server again tried to sell us on "trailer park heaven" — the fried Oreo. I really wanted the deconstructed S'mores, but the kitchen had run out of graham crackers, so I grudgingly accepted our server's now-third offer for deep-fried Oreos. While I secretly pondered if the Oreos were sold on a commission basis (although at $5.95, I guess he'd have to sell a lot of deep-fried treats), they arrived and I was proved wrong. These were not the fried Oreos that some carnie would make at the fair. Rolled in a panko bread crumb, they were crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside. Lest this dessert be complete heaven, it was served with a raspberry dipping sauce that was way too sweet. The vanilla crème brûlée ($5.95) was creamy and just sweet enough, but there was barely a shell to crack into, and the custard was a little runny.
The Manor has tons of potential. But instead of trying to be all things to everybody, it might want to focus on simple, flavorful tapas to accompany its well-made martinis. Keep the whimsical and sensual food like the fried Oreos and beef skewers; hell, add paninis, fondue, even cotton candy. But please lose the fine-dining pretense. Because Jack Sparrow, Miss Noche Latina, and the guys of Wilton Manors seem to have one thing in common: Sometimes boys and girls just wanna have fun — and a good hamburger.