What makes a restaurant classic? What deems an establishment essential?
In recent years, South Florida's foodie landscape has changed drastically. The downtown dining scene is exploding, from West Palm Beach's Dixie Corridor to Fort Lauderdale's hip new Flagler Village enclave, a local food renaissance is brewing, from scores of new chefs and trendy food halls to breweries and a legion of hot hotel restaurants.
While new concepts are exciting and trendy spots continue to challenge our tastebuds, amidst the ebb and flow of change it's our local institutions that remain our constant comfort food companions. Over the decades, a number of these restaurants have become South Florida foodie landmarks in their own right, each notable for endurance, consistency, and adaptability. From West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, they've been serving up everything from traditional Southern barbecue and Old Florida seafood to the perfect prime rib and handmade pastas.
Here are the ten best old-school restaurants in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
1. Cap's Place. There are plenty of Old Florida seafood spots in South Florida, but none have stood the test of time quite like Cap's Place. Just getting there is part of the charm of visiting this Lighthouse Point establishment. You'll board a boat from the parking lot to reach the narrow strip of land where two buildings house a bar and main restaurant. Founded in 1928, and added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1990, this longtime eatery is among Broward County's oldest restaurants. It first opened as Club Unique, which operated as a clandestine supper club and casino through the 1940s with famous diners the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Joe DiMaggio, Winston Churchill, and Al Capone. Today, the walls of the bar are lined with newspaper clippings and photos that capture the restaurant's storied past, and dining here offers a trip back in time. True, the food is pricey, but it's a rare mix of Old Florida-meets-steakhouse from the bacon-wrapped scallops and clams casino to the Maryland-style crab cakes and linguine with clam sauce. The fish — a choice of fresh catch of the day — is what you'll want to order here, prepared a variety of ways from broiled, char-grilled and baked to pan-fried, pan-roasted, or deep-fried. You can also choose to have it smothered in a scampi-style sauce, or blackened with Cajun seasoning. But go for the Johnny-style, Cap's term for battered and fried, then coated in a buttery sauce. In Palm Beach County, head to Old Key Lime House for a similar escape; the key-lime green historical home turned eatery in Lantana pegs itself as “the oldest waterfront restaurant in Florida," originally built in the 1880's and makes a mean rum runner and crab cake sandwich. 2765 NE 28th Court, Lighthouse Point; 954-941-0418; capsplace.com.
2. Mai-Kai. Since opening in 1956, the Mai-Kai has been the type of place where you can drown in a flaming scorpion bowl, order a potent tiki drink, or watch a live Polynesian dance show all while listening to tunes from from a real ukulele. And it's not something to take for granted; today, the restaurant stands as a landmark of sorts. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mai-Kai is one of only a handful of authentic tiki establishments still in operation nationwide. Many know it as host to the annual Hukilau, a four-day celebration of tiki culture. Others frequent it for its long list of original cult cocktails, potent drinks served in a shipwreck inspired bar. Mai-Kai is now the longest continually running tiki bar in the country, and they whip up a damned fine island-inspired drink. The menu offers more than 20 original variations, a wide selection of beverages in an array of potencies from the nonalcoholic Tahitian Paradise (a blend of strawberries, pineapple, orange juice, and coconut), to the mild Hemingway-inspired daiquiri, strong-ass Mai Tais, and goblets of booze that can quench the thirst of an entire table. The 600-seat restaurant is more than just a place to scarf down some solid Sichuan, Hunan, Cantonese, and Vietnamese-inspired cuisine, however. Take a trip back in time via a walk along the moat- and waterfall-lined garden outside the dining room, adorned with large tiki statues. Then stay for the daily dinner-and-a-show featuring Polynesian drums and fire dancing. 3599 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-563-3272; maikai.com.
3. Buccan. When it comes to Palm Beach County, Palm Beach Island boasts many of the area's best longstanding gastronomical gems, from high-end eateries such as the French-focused Chez Jean-Pierre and Cafe Boulud to late-night casual dining at Cucina and prime meats served up at Flagler Steakhouse or South Beach-sourced Meat Market. Though it may not hold the same time-honored appeal as many of the restaurants on this list, the buzzy eight-year-old Buccan is this area's most iconic, and one that's made its way onto almost every Florida foodie's favorites list. If you want a restaurant that epitomizes Palm Beach, Clay Conley's dim-lit globally inspired bistro specializes in creating an environment where decadence becomes utterly approachable. House favorites include his chef's choice sashimi; a delicate, truffle-infused beef tartare topped with liquid egg yolk encased in a crispy-puff shell; a shaved Brussels sprouts take on Caesar salad; and that handmade squid ink orecchiette pasta rife with tender bits of conch and plump house-made Italian sausage. 350 S. County Rd., Palm Beach; 561-833-3450; buccanpalmbeach.com.
4. Rustic Inn Crabhouse. In Miami, Joe's Stone Crab — in business since 1913 — reigns supreme as one of the state's longest standing crab shacks. Of course, it's not always stone crab season, and you're not always in the mood for a South Beach supper bill. That's why, further north, Palm Beach County denizens have been heading to Lantana's Riggin's Crabhouse to crack open crabs on newspaper-covered tables since 1982. In Broward County, however, the Rustic Inn stands as the best crab house landmark after more than 50 years in business. The cavernous restaurant sits on a canal overlooking a busy boatyard, it's walls draped in thick, seafaring rope and Old Florida dive decor. Here, white butcher paper-covered tables offer the perfect setup for wooden mallet-wielding, bib-adorned diners looking to taking out their frustration at season traffic on the restaurant's signature garlic crabs. Sure, the Whale's Rib in Deerfield Beach is a great spot, too. But if it's crabs you want, Rustic Inn is the place to go. A choice of blue, golden, or Dungeness varieties are steamed, then sautéed in the house garlic-infused oil. Of course, all the seafood here is good: fresh, sweet, and cooked the exact same way since the Rustic Inn first opened its doors in 1955. 4331 Ravenswood Rd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-584-1637; rusticinn.com.
5. Canyon. Ask any Fort Lauderdale foodie for restaurant recommendations, and one name is sure to come up without question: Canyon. A local gourmand haven for decades in a town that has new restaurants opening and closing on a daily basis, chef-owner Chris Wilber's longstanding reputation as a romantic spot for an amazing meal is one worth noting. Inside this cavernous little restaurant, cuddly couples and lively singles will order rounds of the housemade prickly pear margaritas, the bar's signature drink since the restaurant opened in 1994. A bright pink drink served on the rocks with a salt rim, or up for a simple martini-style cocktail, they're a labor of love. Every few days the restaurant receives a wooden crate of ripe prickly pears that's mixed into small-batch containers with the house Sauza Hornitos tequila. It sits for several days, long enough for the cactus fruits to bleed their purplish-pink juice and sweet, exotic flavor. But you aren't just here for the drinks: The place is always busy, so much so that they refuse to take reservations and weekend customers will oftentimes wait hours for a table. The Southwestern-fusion menu features creative dishes with Asian, Southern, and Central American influences and longtime favorites include two appetizers you absolutely can't say "no" to: tuna tartare served with crispy yucca chips and a wasabi cream, and a cornmeal-crusted poblano pepper stuffed with an herb-flecked goat cheese served atop a Mexican chili sauce and alongside a black bean salsa. 1818 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-765-1950; canyonfl.com.
6. Tropical Acres Steakhouse. Tropical Acres Steakhouse has been a South Florida fixture since 1949 when founder Gene Harvey — a successful restaurateur from Yonkers, New York — purchased an old frame house on Griffin Road to open the restaurant named for a nearby trailer park. Despite its "out-west" location, the business became known for its char-broiled steaks cooked in an open pit. Today, the family-owned steakhouse is still going strong despite two fires (one in 1964 and a second in 2011), and the sign originally built in 1978 has never changed. But don't go for nostalgia. Go for the affordable prices: a 6-ounce early bird prime rib served for $21.95; the $8.95 shrimp cocktail; and several sizes of filet mignon for under $30. This place is not, and will never become, the kind of trendy steak house that offers Kobe-style beef or pricey, month-old, dry-aged cuts. No, it's the type of place you go to remember what it's like to get a solid steak house meal for a good price (and a complimentary house or Caesar salad with every meal). In Palm Beach County, Okeechobee Steak House — in business since 1947 — is of the same caliber. 500 Griffin Rd., Dania Beach; 954-989-2500; tropicalacres.com.
7. The Floridian Restaurant. The 1950's was a decade for diners, and South Florida boasts dozens of longstanding diner-style establishments that have been serving up 24/7 specialties over the past 60-plus years. In Broward County, the greasy spoon crown goes to The Floridian, in business since 1937. Dubbed The Flo by many, it's beloved for its kitschy South Florida decor mixed with classic Americana, including plenty of celebrity photos featuring everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Dan Marino. Really, its popularity is due to the 24-hour service and a menu that offers up a bible of American comfort food and diner classics featuring over 30 sandwiches, dozens of hamburgers and hot dogs, and even five types of meat loaf. Today, many of the best dishes are served thanks to executive chef John Jennet, a longtime Floridian who began working as a busboy before working his way to head honcho. Some of the best dishes include homemade soups, the famous crab meat omelet (featured on the Rachael Ray Show), and country ham flown in from West Virginia. In Palm Beach County, Howley's Diner is a modern take on the once-classic American diner originally founded in April 1950 by Patrick J. Howley, but still offering a touch of old-fashioned diner fare. 1410 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-463-4041; thefloridiandiner.com.
8. Georgia Pig BBQ & Restaurant. There's plenty of good 'cue in South Florida. But not all of it has roots that run as deep as the Georgia Pig — that time-honored tradition being something that sets good barbecue apart from the mediocre variety. Despite the "Georgia" in its name, this barbecue shack off State Road 7 has been a Florida favorite since opening its doors in 1953. The cinder-block joint is considered one of the city's first eateries, a laid-back spot where locals continue to belly up to the restaurant's long counter before the open brick barbecue pit where they cook everything from spare ribs and chicken to hickory-smoked ham. Still, pork is considered the ultimate barbecue meat here, and this 62-year-old restaurant hasn't changed much since founding owner Linton Anderson declared a fiddle-playing pig as his mascot. Today, after a string of owners, the Georgia Pig is operated by Robert and Luke Moorman, brothers who have been dining at the Pig since their high school days at St. Thomas Aquinas. They learned to make the restaurant's iconic 'cue from former pit master Dan Fitzgerald. Thanks to their dedication, the Pig's chopped-pork sandwich is still one of the best around: a traditional Southern-style pork shoulder barbecued on an open, live-oak-fired pit. From there, all you need is a bottle of the restaurant's signature sauce — a thin, mustard-seed flecked, red-orange concoction that doesn't have the tomatoey flavor of many barbecue sauces. And, yes, the place is still cash only. 1285 S. State Road 7, Davie; 954-587-4420; georgiapig.com.
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9. Cafe Vico. Originally no more than five tables, Cafe Vico began as one of Fort Lauderdale's best standbys for Northern Italian cuisine; a classy eatery with an extensive wine list and romantic ambiance. Like many old-school Italian joints, Cafe Vico's dinner menu has all the signposts of a traditional Italian restaurant: hot and cold appetizers, handmade pasta, meatballs, risotto, fish, and meats. If you like giant bowls of creamy risotto, hearty platters of veal francese, and spicy shrimp fra diavolo, you will find a soothing menu of Italian standards. Over the years, however, the menu has offered up a number of dishes that feature an unconventional — yet successful — departure from the norm. Among a parade of pastas (some stuffed, but all hand-made five days a week) you'll find one such creation, the chicken ravioli. Stuffed with ricotta and minced chicken breast, each ravioli is coated in a puckeringly tart blood-red black cherry and red wine sauce mellowed with a touch of cream, making them a highlight to otherwise-straightforward offerings. Be sure to try the Milanese-style veal shank, or osso buco, a recipe handed down from years past, a 24-ounce cut braised for several hours before it's laid to "rest" for one whole day, the secret to making the meat soft and tender. Before serving, it's pan-seared and served with a side of vegetables simmered in a white wine broth and over a bed of saffron risotto. Whether or not you're Italian, it will trigger memories of home-cooked meals made with love. For a similar experience further north, head to La Sirena in West Palm Beach where a 23-year-old family business offers fresh, seasonal fare alongside the founder's original, beloved classics. 1125 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-565-9681; cafevicorestaurant.com.
10. Max's Grille. This is one place snowbirds, tourists, and locals have in common when it comes to dining in Boca Raton. One of two original restaurants to open inside Mizner Park, Max's Grille has stood the test of time since launching in 1991. In its prime, the eatery was cutting-edge for its day with a menu boasting options inspired by restaurateur founder Dennis Max's newfound love for California cuisine. Designed to elevate traditional American favorites to a new level of contemporary delicacy, it was quite a departure from the red sauce Italian eateries and steak-forward establishments that dotted the Palm Beach County dining scene in the early '90s. After 20 years, the restaurant must be doing something right: there's still a wait on busy weekend nights, and the happy hour can be downright clubby with its packed bar and boisterous crowds. Classic favorites that have been around since the beginning include fried calamari and zucchini served with a lemon-caper aioli and spicy tomato sauce or Max's Radiatore, a bowl of fusilli pasta topped with roasted chicken, broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and pine nuts in a zingy balsamic broth. In Pompano Beach, Cafe Maxx is cut from the same cloth: a fine dining establishment in business for over three decades. 404 Plaza Real, Boca Raton; 561-368-0080; maxsgrille.com.