Slap! A long, fat fish hit the cleaning station with the force of a sledgehammer.
"Now that, my friend, is a nice catch!" a tipsy bystander roared to the fisherman, who stood on the dock, cleaning and scaling his fish. The fisherman's shipmates also admired the specimen that would soon become their dinner, then stepped off their boat and began moving toward the calypso music and the party going on at waterside eatery Deck 84, the latest casual American restaurant to hit Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach.
My boyfriend and I watched with a tinge of jealousy. We'd love to have a boat — and if we'd arrived on one, we would have had an easier time finding the restaurant, which is situated on the Intracoastal Waterway in the spot formerly occupied by Busch's Seafood. If you're driving east on Atlantic Avenue, you'll see the turquoise awnings for Deck 84 underneath the bridge only as you're about to cross it. Though its address suggests otherwise, Deck 84 is not accessed by Atlantic Avenue. Instead, hang a right just before the bridge. You have to valet ($3).
Deck 84 has an indoor dining area with bamboo walls and travertine floors and a giant glass panel that the restaurant heralds as a "bubble wall," but that's just a shiny term for a window. Wide-open rooms are saturated with turquoise and dotted with oranges and brown, mimicking a Caribbean sunset. Despite the bright colors, the inside feels slightly stale, like a cross between a sailboat-themed bar you'd find on a cruise ship and, well, every other casual waterfront restaurant you've stepped foot into during the past ten years.
The deck, however, is another story.
When we arrived on a Sunday afternoon about 5 o'clock, the hostess informed us that there would be a 35-minute wait. Fine by us — time to enjoy a couple of Deck 84's signature cocktails.
The restaurant's website had beckoned us to "Discover Key West in the heart of Delray Beach. " Actually, this wasn't a bad substitute for Duval Street — and it made the painful four-hour drive unnecessary. Although the mood is more Blue Mojito at the Hyatt than Hog's Breath Saloon, most of the patrons were still in beach attire. One of them, a wide-eyed girl in her 20s with glossy lips, sashayed in wearing a bikini top and shorts (and a pair of five-inch stilettos — reminding me that we were in Delray, not Key West). She was served promptly.
You could easily fit all 35 of your closest friends at the bar, and the energy here might even inspire you to whip out your phone and invite them all for a drink on the spot. The seating was plentiful, including stools that are like miniature love seats for two, many of them covered in sandy towels. Flat-screen TVs (featuring NASCAR, oddly) blared above the working bartenders — all clad in jeans and white boatman's shirts with rolled sleeves. A one-man calypso band pounded his drums, and most people could not resist moving a body part or two to the beat.
When our buzzer sounded, we rounded up the bartender to settle up before heading to the hostess stand. By the time we made it there, she told us we'd have to wait a few more minutes because we took too long and she'd given our table to someone else. Normally, this would annoy me, but I think the calypso music had gone to my head.
Eventually we were led to a wooden picnic-style booth in the corner. Crossing from the bar area to the on-deck dining area, the music is lower, the crowd is older, the vibe less beach-party and more Grandma-friendly. I nearly tripped over a chocolate Lab (the patio is also dog-friendly).
As for the menu... Deck 84 is owned by Burt Rapoport, the man behind Boca eateries Bogart's, Henry's, and Max's Grille. His name has also rolled on the credits for roughly 20 other South Florida establishments over the years. Rapoport's not angling for any sort of creativity award. He has a successful formula, and it includes chicken lettuce wraps, baked spinach dip, Cobb salad, sirloin burgers, and maple-ginger-glazed Scottish salmon. Rapoport brought executive chef Chuck Gittleman from Bogart's to Deck 84, which Rapoport is calling his "signature achievement." He signed a 25-year lease. So far, his bet is paying off: The place was slammed.
Reasoning that a restaurant serving bar food is only as good as its sliders, I ordered Deck 84's Black Angus version ($10). The patties, draped in plenty of Deck sauce (ketchup, mustard, mayo, and relish) and topped with a blanket of gooey caramelized onions, were tender, juicy, and packed with flavor; thick-cut pickles provided a hit of contrast. We added sweet potato "tater tots" for $2, which were not as fun as their name led us to believe: They were underseasoned and undercrispy.
Our craving for deep-fried euphoria was satisfied just a few seconds later as we bit into the crispy shrimp ($12), a towering, parchment-lined cone filled with a generous portion of beer-battered tempura shrimp. They were served with two dipping sauces, a creamy classic tartar and a sweet Thai chili.
I felt obligated to sample one of the five flatbreads offered, and though the words truffle oil usually have me at hello, I passed on the wild mushroom version ($13), instead opting to try the Brie and pear ($12). Paper-thin slices of poached pear and a scant helping of Brie were topped with a sprinkling of miso bacon brittle and lots of peppery baby arugula lightly dressed in more miso dressing. The smoky/salty/sweet combination is a guaranteed win, but it needed more Brie.
The BBQ'ed St. Louis ribs ($25 full order, $16 half order) had caught my eye on another diner's plate, and I thought they appeared to be meatier than usual. They were. An inch of meat grew from the sides of each bone; the insides were succulent and juicy, with a crunchy outer layer of bark. Although I'm not usually a coleslaw person, this side won me over — it was more like a miniature salad.
Other popular menu items include the grilled Key lime mahi ($22) entrée and the wasabi-seared sashimi tuna ($15) appetizer. If these crowd favorites were to find themselves in a bar fight, the tuna would surely prevail: The bright-purple sushi-grade fish was expertly seared, and the spicy-sweet Thai chili sauce made a welcomed encore appearance. The mahi, however, arrived like a sad hockey puck, overcooked and dry. The fish was bland, and it certainly didn't flake — but it did come with a creamy Key lime sauce; we had to stop ourselves from licking it right from the plate. It reminded me of the "lazy sauce" that I love from the Keys.
One waiter, while rather blasé about everything else ( "everything" on the menu is the best, he had unenthusiastically told us), spoke about the tiramisu ice cream sandwich in particular with such gusto that we felt compelled to try it. The idea of delicate tiramisu layered with homemade coffee ice cream seemed ingenious, but unfortunately, the "tiramisu" part of the deal wasn't tiramisu at all but rather a pair of thick shortbread-like cookies that I ended up eating around. The Key lime pie, made in-house, might be a better bet on a return visit.
And if I were to return? I'd try Tuesday nights, when Deck 84 hosts "Taco and Margarita Night." Some of the wait staff told us they come in for it, even on their night off. Twelve bucks gets you two tacos and a Patrón frozen margarita. Also, a Sunday brunch menu includes everything from oatmeal ($7) to Deck Benedict ($10) — but who are we kidding: The real draw is the "make your own" bloody mary bar ($9) with more than 20 ingredients. Make it a meal with a skewer of grilled shrimp ($5) or a piece of homemade beef jerky ($4).
Does Deck 84 bring anything new to the table? No. But when a restaurant is serving bar favorites like sliders, the rules don't need to be rewritten. Tiki torches and bloody mary bars might be stereotypical by now — but at their best, they're the basis for a damned good time. One day soon, you'll want a break from gastropubs and trendy Italian joints, swanky outdoor lounges and pretentious doormen. When you're ready for a vacation from the rest of the Avenue, I'll know where to find you.