Hotel restaurants used to exist for the sole purpose of giving guests a place to satisfy their hunger without going outside. But unless you're dining at the Four Seasons or the Taj Mahal, it's not generally where you expect to find a good meal and lively atmosphere.
The Rusty Hook Tavern at the Sands Harbor Resort and Marina in Pompano Beach is one restaurant that has flipped that script, taking the former Joe's Riverside Grill space and revamping it into a hip, waterside joint complete with a view. The idea is to offer a casual hangout -- with equally casual, affordable fare -- for locals and tourists alike.
Like the concept, the area surrounding Rusty Hook Tavern is bringing quiet change to the beachside district -- enough so that it might soon be deserving of one of those trendy neighborhood names like Victoria Park or Sailboat Bend.
Perhaps it could come to be known as "NoPo" or "PoBe." It sits at the northern end of Pompano Beach Boulevard, after all -- just a hop, skip, and jump from the recently redeveloped beach strand off the city's self-titled stretch of A1A. Maybe even BoHo, not for a nearby street but for another landmark, the steak joint Houston's, which sits across the shared expanse of Intracoastal Waterway just north of the Atlantic Boulevard bridge.
Either way, this part of Pompano Beach is certainly deserving of some attention, with a nod to the Community Redevelopment Agency's valiant efforts to revitalize everything from downtown to the oceanfront strip. At the moment, it's looking forward to the opening of 26 Degrees Brewing a few blocks west of Rusty Hook Tavern in what will stand as the city's first brewery. They're also courting a number of Broward and Palm Beach County establishments to open new locations in the newly developed spaces nearby, a well-provisioned plan to offer a variety of dining options.
Luckily, Rusty Hook Tavern already fits the bill: a classy-casual waterfront concept from a trio of industry veterans Ned Jaouhar, Kareem Lakchira, and Andy Patton.
Rusty's creators met in 2007 with the opening of the Boca Raton Resort's Cielo, an Italian-focused spot under the aegis of celebrity restaurateur Gordon Ramsay and helmed by Angela Hartnett, his Michelin-starred protégé. For three years, Jaouhar ran the kitchen, Patton tended to the front of the house, and Lakchira oversaw the mixology program.
When Ramsay packed up shop in 2010, the trio parted ways. Patton left to pursue other endeavors, while Jaouhar and Lakchira stayed on to oversee the hotel restaurant's latest incarnation. In 2013, they threw in the towel, opening their first establishment together, dubbed Dixie Tracks Cafe. The Oakland Park eatery offered the perfect balance between family and home -- a way to stay in the industry without the hassle of late nights, says Jaouhar.
Open for breakfast and lunch only, Dixie Tracks found a local following in its first year. Several wine pairing dinners later, he was already planning a new venture where dinner could be the main attraction.
The trio regrouped last summer with plans to execute a tavern-style establishment -- a place where locals and tourists could dine in a variety of settings and in a number of different ways. Doors opened in October, and the keys for Dixie Tracks were passed along to new owners in November.
Today, revelers can now get a taste of Jaouhar's whimsical creativity, dinner-style.
"We were ready for a bigger place, and we wanted to do dinner again," says Jaouhar. "The concept is still the same, however. Bold flavors, big portions, and affordable prices."
This menu made for sharing and indulging is paired with a short list of cocktails and a selection of craft brews, all equally conducive to quiet dinners for two or large festive gatherings. On a balmy winter evening, the patio deck is packed. If you can make it through the crowd and down a narrow set of steps, the hotel's pool deck offers uninterrupted views of the Intracoastal, as does the interior dining area, where you'll find a cooler, slightly less raucous reprieve. Still farther back, through a pair of glass doors leading to the hotel lobby, is the restaurant bar. There's no view, but it offers a quiet refuge for sampling Lakchira's crafty creations.
A sort of small-plates prophet, Jaouhar splits the menu into four sections, starting with "nibbles and bites" -- sharing plates for the tapas-inclined. Tidbits like deviled eggs, meatballs, and tempura shrimp get you started for a reasonable price. With an air of reverence, our server implores us to try the familiar favorite: ahi tuna poke.
"Three is the perfect number," he says. "You'll each get a taste." He is referring to our party of three but also the dish, which arrives with a trio of daintily sized portions. Each cup holds cubed tuna coated in a yuzu sesame sauce, served with a crispy bacon chutney and a spackling of spicy mayo sauce.
The starters -- larger, appetizer-styled portions -- are also shareable, although you may not want to. The blue crab cakes are already gone for the evening, so we settle for the fresh-catch ceviche. It changes with the day's bounty, tendered at market price and prepared à la minute; when we order, it's a Peruvian-style mahi that arrives later in our meal, the time allotted to allow the spicy aji amarillo marinade to do its work. The fish arrives with just a blushing opaque shimmer, flesh firm and tangy from the wash of citrus.
"We might run out of a few things by the day's end, but that's the way it should be," says Jaouhar. "I'd rather buy it fresh today, serve it tonight, and tomorrow do something else."
Like all the seafood, his crispy octopus is a standout starter, here cooked sous-vide for several hours before it's finished à la plancha, a blend of herbs and spices seared to each tender tentacle for a crispy finish. It's plated with a fresh salsa of creamy butter beans and artichoke, a welcome departure from the wonted tomato- and onion-packed pico de gallo.
For those who desire an entrée-style, sit-down meal, Jaouhar's specialty dishes deliver substantial portions. There's 12-ounce rib eyes, a five-spice salmon served with spiced beluga lentils, and a spicy pork rigatoni. The surf 'n' turf may not be quite what you expect, but it will be better than you bargain for. The combination of ruby-red porcini-crusted tuna and melty-tender braised oxtail swimming in a rich wine reduction works wonders together, hemming a tower of whipped potatoes and tempura-battered onion rings.
If ripped jeans and flip-flops are your go-to getup, then the "handheld" offerings might be the best bet. The junkyard hoagie is bar food, if that's what you're after, a stoner's Philly cheesesteak with shaved rib eye stuffed into a pillowy-soft roll with a heaping portion of bacon, mac 'n' cheese, and grilled onion and peppers. The server will dare you to finish it in one sitting, and you'll inevitably fail.
Fresh-catch tacos are equally addicting, that night Cheetos-encrusted hunks of mahi fried up fresh and topped with a zesty kimchi slaw, tangy mango salsa, and a smear of jade-green jalapeño and lime aioli. It's a pity they're served in a thick flour tortilla, each bite delivering a doughy blandness that overrides Jaouhar's intricately balanced toppings.
Come the weekend -- and should you be a Dixie Tracks fan -- the newly launched brunch menu is reminiscent of the original eatery and offers the same peculiar tweaks. So get your fix with a watermelon-and-cucumber coulis bloody mary, yuzu Hollandaise blue-crab eggs Benedict, and crispy fried-lardon melt sandwiches.
With its tapas philosophy and cool-kid casual theme, the Rusty Hook Tavern offers exactly what the name implies: a laid-back melding of good food and drink. It also presents the perfect escape from the doldrums of a long workweek or the chaos of a downtown weekend scene. The only confusion comes from the menu, with ingredients at once upmarket and fast-food casual, all in one sitting.
But you didn't come to the Sands Harbor Hotel -- or this burgeoning micro neighborhood -- to care about such things. You came because you wanted craft cocktails, the Intracoastal waterfront view, and a chance to order the crab cakes before they disappear. So the next time your friends ask you where to go for a good time, throw them for a loop and tell them Rusty Hook Tavern in "NoPo."
The Rusty Hook Tavern is located at 125 N. Riverside Drive, Pompano Beach. Call 954-941-2499, or visit the TheRustyHookTavern.com.
Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.