Restaurant Reviews

Lost at Sea

They called it the "storm of the century." But that was in 1993, and by now we know we were in for bigger, badder storms before the end of the millennium. Still, that unnamed freak March tempest killed as many people in Florida as Hurricane Andrew and left $500 million in damage, even dropping snow in the Panhandle, by the time it finally moved out of Florida. It took with it a 40-foot sailing ketch called Charley's Crab. No scrap, no bit of flotsam, no article of clothing was ever found from that boat, and after two desperate SOS calls, the four people who were sailing it just off the coast of Palm Beach were never seen or heard from again.

Chuck Muer was trying to get home from the Bahamas in time to make a party that night. It's a weird irony that his lost body may have been devoured by the descendants of the same fish Muer purveyed into a $65 million fortune with his chain of seafood restaurants.

I like to imagine him now in some Alfred Prufrockian incarnation as "a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Muer started out in the '60s with one restaurant in Detroit and eventually parlayed it into the C.A. Muer Corporation, with a half-dozen Charley's Crabs in Florida and 20 restaurants like The Grand Concourse and Gandy Dancer flung in a wide arc across the U.S. But since his death, Muer's family enterprise has been swallowed up by a much bigger fish. A few years ago the whole caboodle was sold to Landry's Restaurants, which owns, among other things, Rainforest Cafe. Charley's Crab is now a Jonah in the belly of one humongous whale.

So what happens to a $65-million family seafood chain when it merges with a $746-million megalo-corp of more than 300 restaurants?

There are four Muer outposts left in Florida -- one Charley's Crab each in Palm Beach, Deerfield, and Lauderdale, and Chuck and Harold's in Palm Beach (Muer opened Chuck and Harold's on Royal Poinciana Way, in partnership with Harold Kaplan). The food at Chuck and Harold's is still good enough. But judging from our last meal at Pal's Charley's Crab in Deerfield Beach, others may not be faring as well.

Muer's original idea was to create a group of upscale but comfy seafood restaurants in waterfront locations. Some were set in carefully renovated historic buildings. Steve Ellman, who once worked as a waiter at the Charley's Crab in Jupiter (Landry's closed that restaurant a couple of months after taking it over) remembers Chuck Muer as "a real glad-hander."

"The company was run on the Japanese model," he says. "We were all supposed to be part of the big happy Chuck Muer family. A lot of that 'power of positive thinking' kind of thing. The food was pretty good, not brilliant or particularly inventive, but it drew on family recipes."

Some of those recipes, like the ones for their chunky gazpacho, fish paté, cole slaw, and black bean soup, achieved a level of local notoriety. Ellman thinks that ex-Muer employees filched the gazpacho recipe, whose secret ingredient was rumored to be Seven Seas Italian salad dressing, and gave it to C.R. Chicks (whose gazpacho, incidentally, is still terrific.) Other Muer graduates went on to open their own restaurants -- like Spoto's in West Palm Beach .

Pal's Charley's Crab is looking pretty dowdy these days. The waterfront building built in the '50s for Pal's Captain's Table was turned into a Charley's Crab in 1988, and it hasn't been renovated for years (one clear sign of distress: a few of the letters on the building's big neon "Pal's" sign are burnt out). Inside, the restaurant showcases a wall of sliding-glass doors overlooking the Intracoastal, and it's a pretty view, particularly with the bridge lit up at night. The furnishings are retro-'80s-hotel-lobby, from the tropical-psychedelic carpeting to the faux-painted-bamboo chairs; you feel like you've been thrown back into some awful adolescent family vacation, when dinner meant over-baked fish fingers at the Day's Inn. On a recent Sunday night the place was two-thirds empty at 8 o'clock; the occupied tables ranged from stylish young couples to old coots; a pianoman was playing easy-listening pop. We made a dash for a small outdoor patio, which was marginally more pleasant and screened from the screaming children at the restaurant next door by a bit of tall fencing.

Things started out pretty well at Pal's with a basket of warm jalapeño biscuits and poppy seed rolls served with soft butter and crab-boursin spread. Appetizers include cold king crab legs with mustard sauce or hot ones cooked Szechwan style ($12), cherrywood smoked salmon ($12), a crab and avocado timbale ($14), baked oysters ($14 for a sampler of six), crab cakes ($11), and Mussels à la Muer ($8) in garlic, white wine, and herbs. The gazpacho is still on the menu ($5), and so is Charley's chowder ($4). Several dozen entrées include shrimp Danielle ($17) broiled with garlic butter and sliced almonds, coconut shrimp ($18) with pineapple chili dipping sauce, half a dozen species of fresh fish cooked any way you like ($22), naked or, for an extra $6, with a choice of four "signature toppings."

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd