Of course, mimicry is the highest form of flattery, and that's what Gen-X proprietors Scott Kurland (30 years old) and Dan Kurland (26 years old) intended -- an homage to a popular sandwich shop near Rutgers University in New Jersey, where the pair grew up. The brothers, who also own a dot-com business and an advertising agency based in Boca Raton, decided to open a bar based on the Jersey Fat Cat's in Fort Lauderdale's Himmarshee Village area because, Dan notes, "that's where we hang out on weekends." Nothing like combining business with pleasure.
The big question, of course: Upon seeing the Original Fat Cat's, would the owners of the real original Fat Cat's bare or sheath their claws?
I'd have to say they'd bare 'em, at least at first, if only for the insult of having the name not just appropriated but essentially scooped. Rival restaurants have been sued for less. But if the owners of the New Brunswick place ever come down here and have the same experience I did, they'd probably act like real cats and not even waste the energy it takes to uncurl, much less pounce, on these upstarts.
I do like the idea of Original Fat Cat's. The brothers took over the former Lord Nelson's Pub, stripped it of beer signs, painted dull yellow walls red, and added lights to brighten a silver-hued ceiling. "It was a dark British pub," Dan Kurland says. "We gave it a pretty big face-lift." The pair also booked acoustic guitarists to perform on weekend nights. Now, with booths and high bar tables inside, patio tables outside on the sidewalk, and the live musician positioned on a stage directly between, the place has a Key West vibe. Add in the pun-riddled specialty drinks like "Catnip" and "Kitty Cosmo" and you'll taste a dash of New Orleans during Mardi Gras as well. All in all, Fat Cat's is a hot place to party.
But when it comes to dining, it's no cat on a hot tin roof. More like a cat asleep on a comfortably ratty sofa.
Part of the problem has to do with service, which was spotty at best. It takes a special talent to be a waitress in an informal, busy bar and grill like this one: You've gotta be quick, efficient, no-nonsense, and reliable. Chances are, you'll be slammed a lot of the time, and your customers won't feel sorry for you. If anything, they'll deliberately make your job harder. I know from experience. When I worked at a British pub in California, a table of ten customers realized that I wasn't writing anything down but instead memorizing their order -- at which point they started changing their minds three or four times, making special requests and basically doing anything they could to make me miss a step. It didn't work; I got their order down perfectly, a feat I could no doubt never repeat, especially 12 years of short-term memory loss later.
But I stray. The point is, if you can't memorize, don't. Paper and ink are marvelous inventions. Our server boasted that she'd been at this job a long time and didn't need a pad and pen, and she was right -- instead, she needed to run to the computer after taking our appetizer, return for the main course order, and sprint again to the machine before her memory failed. The result being that she wound up ordering everything so close together that we were served appetizers and entrées simultaneously. And because portions are generally large, we looked like complete gluttons. A Fat Cat's manager even remarked on how much food was on our table. We told him it was because our courses were served at the same time. "Oh, that's too bad," he said and walked away.
Nor did our server know the menu. Fat Cat's has been open only two months, so it's possible she's been there for less than that amount of time. But it's not too difficult to inform your customers that the restaurant is out of mahi-mahi before they even peruse the list. If an eatery has run out of fish at 8 p.m. on a Saturday, chances are it's been 86'ed all day. And when someone asks you what's in the "mystery" martini, an educated guess -- or even an outright lie -- would be better than this answer: "Well, it's a martini." In fact, it tastes more like a Long Island iced tea.
The rest of the difficulty here has to do with the preparation of the fare. If you're going to base a business on variations of a signature sandwich -- to the point that you display samples outside the way sushi restaurants do replicas of raw fish -- then you better make sure your hoagie rolls are fresh. I love overstuffed burgers like "The Original Fat Cat," two quarter-pound hamburgers topped with onions, peppers, lettuce, tomato, and mayo and garnished with "cheese planks" (fried mozzarella) and waffle fries. And I admire various takes on it like "The Big Dog" (you got it -- a hot dog) and "The Bird" (scrambled eggs, cheese, onions, peppers, and fries). But every single sandwich we sampled, including a rather tasty steak Reuben made with chopped Salisbury-type meat and smothered with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, was laid low by an overwhelmingly dry roll.
Indeed, the Fat Cat's salad was far better than the sandwich, if only for the fact that it was the exact same assortment of goods -- burger, fried cheese, and waffle fries -- laid upon lettuce and trimmed with bacon, egg, and ranch dressing. In short, it was a burger without the bun, what a diner might call a "diet" plate, and it was deliciously unhealthful and fattening the way all good salads should be.
Unfortunately, other menu items were simply fattening. For instance, the beer cheese soup, a thin, bland stock the hue of American cheese, was served in a bread bowl that hardened perceptibly as time went on, speaking volumes about microwave ovens. Loaded nachos, topped with chili, bacon, sour cream, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and jalapeños, apparently suffered from the same fate, becoming chewy rather than soggy as they cooled. One of the only dishes that appeared not to be microwaved was "Rachel's Sesame Noodles," a tart, vinegar-tossed sesame-noodle-shrimp dish that was brought to the table as cold as a bald cat.
Bar-food lovers don't despair, though: The waffle fries were crisp and nongreasy, and they also come with a nearly identical "loaded" option. A couple of other starters also hinted that Fat Cat's could become a favorite among those lounge lizards who adore finger food. We especially liked the chicken crunch, breaded chicken fingers served with raspberry and honey mustard sauces, and the jalapeño poppers, which weren't as spicy as they could have been but appropriately oozed a good portion of just-melted cream cheese. The cheese planks, triangles of breaded mozzarella, were reliable in every course they appeared, and breaded, deep-fried wings were tasty if somewhat Hooters-esque; fortunately, you can ask for them "naked" (as some of you would no doubt like a Hooters girl).
Dessert would have been a possibility except that our waitress seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps she was taking a cat nap. Clearly, in both the culinary and service departments, Fat Cat's falls more than a whisker short of quality casual dining.