There's something immutably charming about South Florida's cheap seafood dives – restaurants seemingly trapped in time, where anyone with a few bucks can eat a small mountain of seafood served raw, fried, or even broiled with a little butter and paprika. At these raw bars and shuck shacks, you'll find the confluence of the sun, the ocean, and their bounty — and a roguish, freewheeling lifestyle that may well be the last semblance of Old Florida.
Humid salt air, sun-drenched laziness, and wasted days spent tucked underneath the lip of some booze-stained bar, peeling rock shrimp and humming jukebox tunes... these are things of rare beauty.
It seems improbable that in this age of celebrity chefs and clubby ultra lounges, a small cadre of these simple, unaffected seafood restaurants has managed to not only stay around but stay popular. Especially when you consider all the forces working in their opposition. There's overfishing, the ever-looming threat of mercury contamination, and the deadly bacteria vibrio vulnificus, just to name a few. And now, an oil spill working its way across the Gulf of Mexico has put a halt to fishing in waters stretching from Louisiana to Pensacola Bay – an area that supplies a huge portion of Florida's fresh shrimp and oysters. Restaurateurs are truly fearful of what the future will bring.
With that in mind, there's no time like the present to plunge back into Florida's timeless seafood joints and truly embrace the bounty we have. So without further ado, a small collection of South Florida's best cheap seafood dives:
The Whale's Rib
2031 NE Second St., Deerfield Beach; 954-421-8880
"My favorite menu item would have to be the Key West dolphin sandwich," our waitress, a fit older lady with gobs of energy to spare, told me. "That's the one Guy Fieri tried when he came in here."
Since being showcased last year on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, homey seafood shack the Whale's Rib has enjoyed a renaissance as Deerfield Beach's premier spot for ultrafresh seafood and cold brews. And for good reason. You can sit at the worn bar top and watch your oysters shucked right in front of you. From that seat, amid kitschy, vintage signs and framed photos of fishermen, you can look on as fresh mahi, soft-shell crab, scallops, and rock shrimp are prepared on the nearby chef's line. And you can enjoy it all in the company of people who feel a bit more down to Earth than the rest of us.
Our waitress, who said she'd been working at the Whale's Rib for more than ten years, directed me to get that Key West dolphin sandwich blackened, not fried, as it appeared on television. Since then, I've frequently dreamt of that sweet whole-wheat bun collapsing around waves of moist, tender mahi. It's enough to wake me up from a dead sleep: The creamy crunch of homemade purple cole slaw against the spicy, paprika-flecked rub, a mound of melting cheese on top burning the roof of my mouth. There are a good two dozen other sandwiches I've yet to try at the Rib, from simple cold cuts to a veggie sandwich with sprouts and "Whale Juice" (a kind of homespun honey mustard). Platters of broiled and fried seafood are trucked out with incredible expediency, as are fat, fleshy oysters shucked by the dozen and bowls of medium or large stone crab claws with spicy mustard sauce (season has just closed, sadly).
I spoke to Debbie Lauricella, who's managed the restaurant for more than 20 years, and she told me that, as of now, Gulf oysters and shrimp are still on the menu. "We're still getting [seafood from the Gulf], but that could change tomorrow," she said, fearing the oil spill's effects. "Eventually, it's going to be a problem."
Lauricella predicted that when the supply finally dries up, the restaurant – which shucks more than 50 dozen of the bivalves per day – will most likely move to East Coast or Blue Point oysters. "I like our Gulf oysters since they're bigger and less expensive," she says. "But we'll do what we have to in order to meet the demand."
4602 N. Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point; 954-942-0740; seafood-world.com
This restaurant and fish market looks every bit of its 1976 vintage, and that's not a bad thing. Being inside the winding corridors decked floor-to-ceiling in dark wood feels like dining in the galley of an old fishing boat. The seafood is so fresh that it only furthers the image.
A display case by the front door highlights the day's catch for those dining in or taking out. To the right, glistening fillets of local hog snapper, dolphin, and grouper are set over packed ice. To the left sit oysters, stone crab, shrimp in various sizes, and prepared seafood salads available by the pound (the market supplies seafood to many other local restaurants as well).
Deciding that the dewy, ivory-colored hog snapper looked too good to pass up, I snagged a vinyl-sized platter of fried seafood with chunks of the lightly battered fish as the main attraction. What a deal. In addition to almost a whole fish's worth of moist chunks of perfectly fried snapper, there were also three bouncy jumbo shrimp, a trio of conch fritters with big hunks of savory shellfish, and three fist-sized diver scallops so juicy that they practically burst with savory liquid when bit into. All that, plus a mound of celery- and onion-flecked Bahamian rice and peas, some sweet cole slaw, and crusty French bread cost just $20.95.
In addition to the simply prepared dishes, the restaurant stuffs fillets of dolphin and snapper with crab meat and lobster sauce, prepares pan-seared swordfish Livornese, and does huge portions of pasta with clams and white wine sauce or shrimp fra diavolo. You can eat in with the hordes of octogenarians that fill the place around 5 p.m., or take your fish dip, conch salad, or crab-meat-stuffed portobellas to-go.
1305 SW 17th St. Causeway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-760-7009; kellyslandingseafood.com
Kelly's Landing's emphasis on big piles of sea critters prepared lovingly speaks to the Floridian's soul – but with a Bostonian accent. The bar-like atmosphere shows Kelly's has embraced both New England and local cultures. Case in point: For every Narragansett beer sign hanging on those wood-paneled walls, you'll find one for Fort Lauderdale's Holy Mackerel as well. Either brew is a good choice to go with New England steamers ($10 small order, $17 large), medium-sized clams served in their steel-gray shells. Our waitress told us the best method is to pull the little buggers from their cases and give them a quick rinse in a milky-looking clam broth. Then, you can dunk the meaty jewels in a bowl of drawn butter without fear of gulping down any salty grit. You can cut out all the work by ordering the whole-belly Ipswich clams, deep-fried fat boys coated in crisp batter ($9 and up, depending on order size).
Kelly's is also known for killer burgers, lobster rolls, and clam chowder. The latter ($4 mug, $6 bowl) is some of the finest stuff in South Florida. It's thick and creamy, yes, but also loaded with the flavor of bay leaf and mirepoix and big chunks of clam meat. About the only thing I can't recommend at Kelly's is the crab cake ($7). Give me a well-seared Florida version over this grayish puck any day.
529 E. Ocean Ave., Boynton Beach; 561-364-4008; myhurricanealley.com
This dive bar with fishing snapshots and paraphernalia all over its walls looks like a typical neighborhood watering hole. But it's actually one of the best-kept secrets in Palm Beach, the kind of funky place where a dozen oysters and a cold pint of beer will run you less than $8 during happy hour. On weekends, the plastic patio tables along Old Town Boynton's sleepy Ocean Avenue usually fill up with locals who, dogs in tow, come to sit and hang for hours at a time. They'll suck down $1.75 Yuengling drafts and a tray full of those oysters — cold, fat, and full of briny liquor. Equally enticing is the Alley's smoked marlin fish dip ($8.95), made in house and served with a dangerously addictive pile of pickled jalapeños. The place also serves peel-and-eat shrimp, plates of stuffed sole, and lemon-dill salmon for less than $13 a pop and even some decent sushi at its raw bar. And if you do bring your pup, the Alley will even cook Fido some roast beef tips or a bunless burger for less than $5.
Kim Kelly, owner of Hurricane Alley for more than ten years, said that although the oil spill will eventually force them to change their prices, she plans on holding steady for the time being. "Unless it gets to the point where we're losing money, I want to keep our oyster prices the way they are now," said Kelly, who is currently sourcing the bivalves from Texas waters. "No matter what, I want this to be a working person's restaurant."
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Tark's of Dania
1317 S. Federal Highway, Dania Beach; 954-925-8275; tarks.com
This blue- and white-painted seafood counter has been shucking raw clams and oysters, frying chicken wings, and serving cold lager along Federal Highway since Lyndon Johnson was in office. The place is little more than a single bar top and a chef's line — just pull up a stool and watch the entertainment. That, of course, would be the way the staff lovingly banters back and forth with one another as they sling beer and whip up orders with dramatic flair. You can tell they're having genuine fun, that crew, and you will too once you taste their unpretentious takes on Old Florida favorites. Buffalo shrimp, grilled dolphin, and steamed crabs are simple and delicious fare, while bar food favorites like burgers and chicken wings have the locals trucking in with regularity. The daily lunch specials are legendary: Ten fresh shucked topneck clams, their blue-green shells glistening with alabaster meat, are only $6.95 on Wednesdays; whole belly clams are $8.50 on Fridays. Sadly, Tark's isn't serving raw oysters anymore — not until this whole oil-spill thing blows over, according to our waitress.
Want more? Two Georges Waterfront Grille under the Intracoastal bridge at Ocean Avenue in Boynton Beach specializes in conch fritters, dolphin served blacked or grilled, and raw clams on the half shell (728 Casa Loma Blvd., Boynton Beach; 561-736-2717). People either love or hate the long-standing Fort Lauderdale raw bar Southport. But the place does have cheap drinks, always-fresh clams, and a laid-back vibe that's unmatched (1536 Cordova Road, Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-CLAM). For a no-frills seafood feast, head to Catfish Dewey's, where the checkered tablecloths are always spotted with the remains of all-you-can-eat oysters, clams, catfish, and stone crab (4003 N. Andrews Ave., Oakland Park; 954-566-5333). If you don't mind the early-bird crowd, the platters of broiled scallops, scrod, and lobster at Old Florida Seafood House are simple seafood at its finest (1414 NE 26th St., Wilton Manors; 954-566-1044).