The 450-seat Harbor Grille, overlooking the water in a pleasant boating community of Dania Beach, is a remake of the former happy-hour staple and local, decades-old landmark Tugboat Annie's. The eatery now has four bars scattered throughout the dining room and on the expansive dock, as opposed to the three that Annie's had, and the tiki-bar band shell continues to house live acts like blues and rock bands on the weekends. I happen to like what new owners Neil and Krystyna Zucker are apparently aiming to do with this prime but underused waterfront real estate: turn it from fried mozzarella sticks into triple-crème Brie. They're only halfway there, though.
The more appealing, less "let's make a beer run" name is a welcome change, and it isn't the only one. A revamped interior, with polished woods and whitewashed walls and sleeker dockside furnishings, with lazy fans turning overhead, promises there will be a lot less popcorn on the tables -- just about the only edible thing at the erstwhile Annie's, as long as it wasn't exposed to ocean air for too long -- and fewer Pop-Tarts at the bar. The raw bar, closed for the past several years under Annie's rule, has reopened and will soon also be dishing up sushi on the weekends. The bands include national acts like Starship and John Cafferty, what Neil Zucker refers to as "live legends." Executive chef Manolo Guerra's Italian contemporary menu, loaded with upper-tier seafood options like Maine lobster puffs that are both savory and far more delicate than their conch fritter cousins, is clearly meant for the yachters as opposed to the boaters. The feel of the expansive restaurant remains casual -- we've been in jeans, and servers wear shorts and Polo-type shirts -- but the upscale air of this long-running restaurant is obvious.
Until it comes to the service, that is. The Zuckers have taken the girl out of the Grille, but they haven't completely moved the tugboat out of the harbor. To wit: A waitress who brings a bottle of wine without wineglasses and admits that when it comes to uncorking the tricky stuff, she's "really sucky." Confessions of that nature usually don't bode well, so I jokingly offered to do the job for her. When she eagerly dumped the bottle in my lap and handed me her wine opener, I was nearly (surprisingly enough) at a loss for words. Still, I was game to demonstrate, if only to teach her how to do it. Unfortunately, she walked away before the lesson even commenced.
When she did return -- with wineglasses, I thankfully add -- I pointed out that her trusty little corkscrew was more like a rusty little corkscrew. "I know," she explained. "The manager gives me this one because I don't know how to use it." She leaned closer. "Really, we're supposed to buy our own."
"You're supposed to buy your own wine keys?"
"Uh-huh. And we also have to buy our uniforms. Can you believe this shirt's $32? And the shorts are $23!"
While gauche, these offerings do supply a little insight into the restaurant business, not to mention the management program at Harbor Grille. I've gigged in places where I've had to buy my gear, and I've waited tables in restaurants where I was garbed for the job at the expense of the proprietors. Unless you're talking about a tuxedo, which needs to be properly fitted, the philosophy I've seen work best is a "down payment" agreement: Employees basically rent their aprons and logo-ed T's, and if they're fired or quit and don't return the stuff, their last paycheck (which, let's be honest, usually amounts to about $20 per workweek) is withheld.
But that's Restaurant Management 102. First-time proprietor Neil Zucker could afford a look at the entry-level class, where all that business about investing in a good training program (as in paying people minimum wage to show up for a few seminars) to save money in the long run is actually worth a few notes, because the laissez-faire attitude is apparently endemic. We witnessed one waitress turning around on her way to take an order so she could answer a personal phone call from a boyfriend with whom she was fighting. (Really, diners shouldn't be privy to all this stuff.) Other servers and busboys had the turn-the-other-cheek feature permanently enabled. When we asked them a question they didn't know the answer to or requested something -- like a menu -- that they couldn't seem to find, they simply ignored us and hoped we'd just go away.
To the Zuckers' credit, however, our waitress knew the menu and the fare intimately. Well, sort of. She understood that some salad dressings, like the vinaigrette, were made on the premises, while others, like the blue cheese, had been supplied by purveyors, and that the house salads were composed of an assortment of greens. She could identify the fish in the smoked dip, a carefully boned and tastefully seasoned version, as mahi-mahi (though we did wish that the crackers with which it was served had at least been denuded of their plastic wrappers -- another example of the not-quite-completeness of the restaurant-improvement job). Just don't ask her for recommendations. "I don't eat a lot of the stuff here," she admitted. "I'm from Minnesota." I can hear one of my former New Times editors, now heading an alt-weekly in Minneapolis, grinding his teeth from here.
All these little annoyances tend to detract from a meal. But the fact of the matter is, the dockside setting, complete with 700 feet of space in which to tie up your Cigarette, and some exemplary dishes could lure folks in -- where Tugboat Annie's practically towed potential regulars off the premises.
For instance, when it comes to New England clam chowder brewed in Florida, I'm pretty skeptical. But Harbor Grille's version was a wonderfully silky broth, replete with plump clams and diced potatoes, celery, and onions that tasted as if they had been sautéed in butter first. You know that ad campaign where a guy drives to Maine from New York in his luxury car just for lunch? Ayuh, he couldn't get better than this.
We weren't quite as fond of a seafood pot pie, which seemed filled more with overcooked bay shrimp than anything else, but we were pleasantly surprised by a citrus-rum-marinated, grilled chicken entrée. More like a split rock Cornish hen, the caramelized bird featured a candied skin and slick, juicy flesh; a scoop of perfectly mashed, butter-softened potatoes were an intriguing textural counterpoint. I suppose I can't credit Chef Guerra for either the failure or success, since Zucker tells me the two sous chefs in the kitchen are respectively responsible for seafood and Continental dishes. But Guerra, who used to take toque honors at I Paparazzi in South Beach, specializes in Italian cuisine. His lasagna more than adequately demonstrates his skills: tender ribbons of pasta encrusted with nuggets of ground veal and ricotta cheese like so many mussels hugging a barnacle, bathed in just the right amount of fully flavored marinara.
The ricotta showed up again in the form of cheesecake for dessert, and it was a pleasantly firm version reminiscent of lemon rind. But the real star of the sweet course was the strawberry torte, which the waitress told us was purchased from "somewhere." Well, "somewhere" bakes a superb torte -- tiny berries gilded onto a luxuriously buttery crust. And I would return for a fine, generous meal of the rum-glazed chicken and the torte alone. But given the rust on that wine key, I just might get a tetanus shot first.