There's nothing lavish about Calypso Restaurant & Raw Bar — this quirky neighborhood eatery in a Pompano Beach strip mall has no outdoor waterfront dining, no signature cocktails adorned with cutesy umbrellas. Still, I can't remember the last time I walked into a restaurant with such a relaxed, laid-back island vibe that it caused a visceral "Ah, that's better" reaction. Once I stepped through the front door, I felt protected. The evil stresses of the day were left out in the hot parking lot, like leering scumbags kept away from the girl at a nightclub by a bouncer dropping a velvet rope. During a weekday lunch of Caribbean cuisine — Calypso sells jerked fresh fish "cutters" (sandwiches) and West Indian curries — island culture gave all my tensions a smack in the face.
A waitress nearly put her arm around me as I walked into the crowded restaurant for a Wednesday lunch. "Is it just you, honey?" she offered in a soothing tone. "You sit right here with me so I can take care of you." And she did just that as I enjoyed a lunch special of a crusty blue crab-cake cutter ($10.95) served with a side of roasted red pepper tartar sauce and crispy steak fries. The more-crab-than-cake was fried to a deep golden brown and packed a punch with island seasonings and bits of peppers. Just a small amount of cracker bound the crab together, and although the homemade roasted pepper sauce was tasty, this sandwich didn't need it. If only I'd had a beach chair to sprawl on the blue-and-white checkered floor, I could have stayed right there all afternoon instead of returning to the office.
I'd first heard of Calypso from a foodie friend who said she loved dining there for the fresh seafood. "I come for fisherman favorites such as wahoo or hog snapper," she said. She spoke adoringly of the restaurant's old Florida charm and unpretentious décor. Daily offerings are etched on the green chalkboard in the dining room; it's typical to see upward of five different warm-water species listed, all from a local wholesaler.
On a second visit, while waiting for my very late dining companion to arrive, I dulled my frustration with a glass of wine at the bar and made small talk with a friendly employee. Venting, I explained to him that I had attempted to bring some friends for dinner the previous Saturday but was greeted with a dark restaurant and a sign that read: "Closed for private parties." The tall, middle-aged man flashed an apologetic grin and explained that he and his wife work so hard Monday through Friday that they let the other restaurants take the weekend crowds. "We are very hands-on owners. We're tired and wanted to take our weekends back."
Turns out, he was Chuck Ternosky, who with his wife, Lora, is celebrating 21 years in business this April. Chuck created the menu and serves as executive chef, while Lora crafts all desserts from scratch. Also made in-house: salad dressings, sauces, coleslaw, and potato salad.
Not much has changed over the years. A New Times review from ten years ago mentions the same wooden bar where I sat and the same island trinkets in the dining room — fishnets, surfboards, seashells. The ambiance, oddly, was romantic enough to appease a young couple on a weeknight date and utilitarian enough to satisfy a group of snowbirds hungry for Florida seafood. There's also a new crowd at Calypso that wasn't as present ten years ago — tourists. "I used to only get one or two tourists, but now I get a lot of tourist traffic," Chuck said. "I bet 20 percent of my patrons are tourists." They all come because of reviews posted on the internet, he says.
Eventually, my nonpunctual friend and I were seated in the main dining room beneath plants hanging from the ceiling. The restaurant was just as crowded as it had been for lunch, with a steady stream of mixed-age customers coming and going. "How have you been-What app should we get-You'll never guess what's been going on!" This came out in one run-on sentence when my friend Blondie sat down before seeking routine counsel for her love life. Calypso is the perfect setting for dining with a friend who needs a mental-health boost. You barely need to offer your pal a single dollop of encouragement, because the restaurant's food and its lovely staff serve as built-in mood enhancers.
I quickly ordered oysters Rockefeller ($9.95) and the shrimp bruschetta ($9.95 on special). Once the dishes arrived, Blondie no longer needed her customary therapy session. The plump, juicy shrimp were tossed with a tomato/garlic/parsley mixture with flecks of cilantro atop crusty white bread. As we crunched through the seafood starter, the dish felt like standard comfort food. The gulf oysters were so plump and fresh, they erupted into mouthfuls of briny liquor at first bite. It was a shame, though, that such incredibly succulent oysters came smothered in a processed spinach spread. Had they come layered with fresh spinach and grated Parmesan cheese, we wouldn't have needed to dig them out from their burial inside a plot of chemicals.
While waiting for our second courses of conch chowder ($3.95) and a garden salad (complimentary with an entrée), the absence of food kept Blondie rattling at 20 words per second about her love life again. But a quick delivery of greens, served in the exact same, old-fashioned etched glass bowl my mom has at home, distracted her. After tasting the fresh ginger dressing, which delivered a nice spicy bite to an otherwise boring salad, she exclaimed, "Wow, this dressing is so good!" My chowder was just as tasty. My face flushed from the spicy broth, which was chock-full of vegetable bits and large chucks of conch.
Some seafood eateries are pulling Bahamian conch from menus due to rising costs, but Calypso is known for its array of conch dishes — it comes grilled, cracked, and in chowders, salads, and fritters — and continues to offer them. Despite the challenging business market, chef Chuck said, "We've tried to hold back on price increases and bite the bullet in this tough economy." Even with just 76 seats, he sells 300 pounds of fish each week, he proudly told me.
Of our two entrées, I received the best — a pan-blackened wahoo (market price, $22.95) zesty with bold flavors of cayenne, paprika, and onion. The fish flaked effortlessly with the flick of my fork. Blondie, however, was disappointed. She had expected to cut into the tenderloin from her surf and turf (market price, $43.95) to find warm pink beef. Instead, the flesh was overcooked and faded to a muted gray. The grilled lobster tail was well-done too. Although tasty, with spicy-sweet Caribbean marinade, it was stiff, as if suffering rigor mortis after a cruel death on the char grill.
We both ordered a side of yellow squash prepared with brown sugar and sweet caramelized onions, which was a redemption for Blondie's dry entrée. Soft squash melted in my mouth, leaving the warm hint of maple, reminiscent of a Thanksgiving dessert. My second side was Caribbean-spiced cucumbers — more of a salad than a hearty side dish, yet the fiery marinated slices boasted a unique summer flavor that paired well with the wahoo.
Then came the real healing: desserts. Hankering for both sweet and tart flavors, we ordered both the cinnamon bread pudding moistened with warm rum sauce and a slice of Key lime pie (each $5.95). They were large enough to share among a table of four, but we were happy to have plenty of soul-healing sweetness for just us two.
It's easy to understand why Calypso has remained a local seafood favorite over the years. Island magic has been curing workday stress and paramour blues in this Pompano Beach strip mall for years. Thankfully, it's not going anywhere any time soon.