For restaurants, being an institution can get tricky. You need to attract new patrons, but changes can anger the ones who made you what you are. It’s good to update; it’s not good to lose what made you great in the first place.
Restaurateurs looking for a master class in how it’s done might want to head to A1A in what is now Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where Sea Watch on the Ocean has been doing what it does since 1974. The place has changed over the years – there was a major remodel a few years back – but it still captures something of the sea in a way that few places can.
It also offers a continuity that few restaurants can match.
“I’ve been here 31 years,” general manager Beth Tannar says, “and there’s two servers who’ve been here longer than me. The chef’s been here 26 years.”
The restaurant’s big, but it doesn’t seem that way as it’s divided up into a number of different rooms and spaces. It was built by Dan Duckham, one of Fort Lauderdale’s most prominent and stylistically important architects from the late 1950s to the early 2000s. But with its wood, its massive stone fireplace (just for show, but still impressive), its window-covered east side that includes a large covered porch and upstairs deck, and which offers views out over the dunes and to the sea – it gives the impression more of a hunting and fishing lodge, an early 20th-century industrialist’s wild Florida getaway. There won’t be another building built like this on the beach, Tannar says, simply because the land’s too valuable. If you get a piece of property like this now, you’ve got to go up to make it work.
All around the Sea Watch, others have gone up. But with trees ringing the perimeter and the gaze from the windows drawn straight to the ocean beyond the beach flora-covered dunes, you don’t really notice them. This feels like an isolated spot – like you might run into one of the 1920s rumrunners who liked to come ashore around this part of what was then called Floranada Beach.
There’s a nautical theme here, but it’s lightly worn. You see it in the ropes – sorry, lines – tied to boat cleats to keep the windows open. There’s no nautical tat thrown up on the walls.
The upstairs bar area is perhaps the biggest showstopper. “When we remodeled it, this was probably the most dramatic change,” Tannar says.
What was previously an under-utilized space now features a long bar with tables, leading out to a porch that gives you the building’s best view of the sea. A view from this height of the restaurant’s lawn area and beyond it, the dunes and sea, gives an excellent idea of why the place is so popular for weddings. The building’s a stunner.
But of course, architecture is famously inedible. People wouldn’t keep coming back if good things weren’t happening in the kitchen. Tannar believes the restaurant’s culinary success comes from understanding what’s special about the place.
There are some interesting flourishes on the menu but for the most part, their goal is to do traditional seafood, and do it to a high standard. You don’t go to a top steakhouse looking for something completely different; likewise at the Sea Watch, they want to do what they do well.
“We recognize who and what we are,” Tannar says. “People are sometimes afraid to just be what you are as well as you can.”
That means conch fritters that are more conch that fritter. A lunchtime crab melt sandwich that can forever ruin for you all other sandwiches with the word “melt” in the name. Classics such as orange roughy, seafood paella, a bouillabaisse that’s got more creatures of the deep in it than a Jacques Cousteau special and of course, the great Florida fish like swordfish and grouper. During the off-season (which started in mid-May and runs until Christmas Eve), “Dinner at Dusk” offers a 5-to-6 p.m. three-course meal where some of the choices include blackened mahi-mahi, 1 ¼ lb. broiled or steamed whole Maine lobster or the catch of the day.
When you’ve been doing it as long as the Sea Watch folks have, you know to take care of the locals when the tourists go home.
Add an impressive wine list and a fun cocktail hour (4:30 to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday in that outstanding upstairs bar) and you’ve got a recipe for an institution that’s improving without losing what’s special.
• 2 small red bell peppers
• ½ cup chicken broth • ¼ cup white wine
• ¼ teaspoon dry basil • ¼ lb whole butter
• 2 lb scallops
To make the sauce:
At the Sea Watch, they roast the peppers over an open flame. If that’s a bit much, try it this way: Bake, uncovered, at 500 degrees, turning often until skin blackens. Remove from oven and place in paper bag. Seal and let the peppers cool. Peel and discard skins along with the stems and seeds. Place roasted peppers, broth and wine in a blender until smooth. Pour mix into a pan. Add basil. Bring to a boil and reduce until about ¾ to 1 cup of liquid remains. Lower heat. Add whole butter, stirring constantly until well blended. Set aside. Keep warm but not hot, otherwise the butter will separate.
To make the scallops:
Thread scallops onto skewers. (If using wooden skewers, soak in water first so they won’t burn on the grill.) Brush generously with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh black pepper. Grill over hot coals, turning only once, until done. Total cooking time is 5 to 7 minutes.
Plate sauce and then remove scallops from skewer and place on top. Serve with garlic herb penne noodles and fresh vegetables.