In a competition for the most misleading restaurant name in South Florida, the Nauti Dawg Marina Cafe in Lighthouse Point would be a serious contender.
"When people hear the name 'Nauti Dawg,' their first reaction is that it must be some hot-dog stand off Federal Highway," says Nauti Dawg General Manager Chris Frank. "And maybe that's one of the reasons why you can still consider us a hidden gem. A lot of people just don't know we're here."
In South Florida, where waterfront restaurants stand as some of the best-known eateries, it's refreshing to still be able to find one or two that haven't caught the public eye. In the case of Nauti Dawg, location might have something to do with it.
You'll first pass through Pompano Beach, where you'll exit off Federal Highway and into Lighthouse Point. From there, you'll wend your way through meandering, tree-lined roads and into a sleepy residential neighborhood. After a few befuddling turns, you'll land at the Lighthouse Point Marina, a quiet nook off a small stretch of water that leads out to Hillsboro Inlet and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
Originally named the Lighthouse Point Yacht Basin, the marina was first conceived in the early 1960s. At the time, the marina's quiet charm attracted Michigan resident Don Spieker, who purchased the entire property.
Fifty years later, the surrounding area has developed considerably, but not much has changed at Lighthouse Point Marina — including the Spieker family, who still own and operate the grounds as a family business. In 1997, Don handed the business over to his three children, Debbie Edwards, Christian Spieker, and Maureen Spieker Canada. At the time, the siblings' first order of business was to upgrade the dockside's surrounding property, adding tennis courts, a pool, and office space. The renovations included the marina restaurant, what was known for many years as the Dockside Gallery Grille.
As president of Lighthouse Point Marina Inc., Maureen reminisces about those early years, when the marina restaurant was operated by an outside firm.
"There had always been at least three restaurants here, but none of them really ever succeeded," she says. "When [my siblings and I] took over and rebuilt, the Grille had closed, and we knew no one else was going to come in and do it the way we envisioned, so we decided to do it ourselves."
With no restaurant experience among them, the trio came up with the idea for Nauti Dawg Marina Cafe, a canine-friendly establishment serving breakfast, lunch, brunch, and dinner six days a week. Within a few weeks of opening, the news began to spread — and the crowds came. It was too much too soon, says Maureen, so a few months after opening, the team hired Frank, an industry veteran with extensive experience operating waterfront restaurants in South Florida — everywhere from Shooters to Shula's on the Beach. He helped bring in the right staff, build the menu, and work out the logistics of using a small kitchen to feed patrons who arrived in droves as the weekend approached.
Today, the Nauti Dawg continues to attract a strong local following of nearby residents and marina customers. They know what to expect (a casual, laid-back atmosphere and live music) and what they like (the day's specials and Friday's conch chowder). Most bring their dogs and often order off the restaurant's "yappy hour" menu — dog-only deals, served at half-price all day Monday — dishes that include bacon, chicken, a beef burger, and even filet mignon.
Over the years, the menu, a melding of Caribbean and American staples, has evolved. Main dishes are tweaked several times a year, says Frank, and new dishes appear every few months, like the whispers of pork tenderloin overheard the last time we dined.
By 2 p.m. on a recent Sunday, the narrow dining room that resembles a boat galley is moderately full, and the string of outdoor seating is packed. Still, it's a more amiable change of pace from the height of season, when guests will pack the docks up to two hours waiting for a table, meandering the sidewalks until their buzzer rings them back to the hostess stand. The wait is a given, but so too is the experience: They come to enjoy the quiet, family-friendly waterfront scene where children toss chum to sea cows, the occasional sting ray, tarpon, and schools of jumping jack fish; to eat breakfast while boats sway peacefully nearby; and to dine with their dogs while the sun sets over the marina docks.
They also come for the food, everything from the hook-and-cook — preparing a boat's fresh catch — to the conch fritters and crab cakes or an ahi tuna burger and chicken piccata. There are several menus: a kids' menu with "pup-sized" portions; a K9 menu; a $14 prix-fixe sunset menu served Monday through Friday from 3 to 6 p.m.; and the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu.
The restaurant's signature dishes can be ordered any day after breakfast, solid selections off the appetizer and sandwich sections that match the casual dock-and-dine concept. Tuna wontons start you off easy, tender hunks of ruby red tuna served over a bed of seaweed salad atop fresh fried wonton chips and smothered in a criss-crossed splattering of avocado cream and spicy mayo sauce.
Most Floridians are familiar with all types of mahi sandwiches, but Nauti's mahi Reuben is superlative, with a thick mahi fillet (blackened or grilled) stuffed between two toasted and griddled slabs of rye bread with Swiss cheese, a crunchy-sweet coleslaw, and secret sauce — the kitchen's take on a Thousand Island dressing developed specifically for fish. Simple and straightforward, it is one of the best executions of this South Florida staple around.
The lobster roll is equally boastful. A Nantucket chef created both Nauti's conch chowder and the quintessential New England standby, which explains both items' long-term success. The tarragon-heavy recipe highlights the best of the lobster's sweet and succulent meat, five ounces' worth of claw and knuckle lightly dressed in mayo and crammed into an oversized butter-grilled roll flecked with nibs of celery and chopped herbs.
During weekend brunch, the restaurant mixes its homemade bloody mary, spiked with a premium sake or beer, and dishes straight from the breakfast menu, including shredded-coconut-covered challah bread French toast, crab eggs Benedict, or the Big Don — a Spieker family tradition, a skillet's worth of eggs, bacon, diced onions, mushrooms, and breakfast potatoes covered with melted cheddar cheese.
Don't forget dessert. Conscious of its proximity to the beach and bathing-suit-wearing patrons, Nauti Dawg offers dainty servings of tangy Key lime pie or rich cheesecake layered with crumbled graham-cracker crust in a short glass.
"There's no white tablecloths, and there's no dress code, but when you come here, you're going to have an incredible dinner," says Frank. "But you're going to eat in shorts and flip-flops and maybe with a dog at your feet."