By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Islamorada is accessible from inside the store or through its own entrance. The restaurant is huge. The waiting area is huge. The gazebo-like main dining room is huge, with seating for several hundred under the soaring dome over the enormous central fireplace, with a copper chimney as tall as a cutter's mainmast and support pillars made of whole tree trunks. The bathrooms -- painted with palm trees and waving ferns, so I feel like I've just stepped away from my fishing camp for a moment to piss directly on nature -- are huge. And there are huge amounts of fish everywhere: paintings of fish and pictures of fish, and actual (dead) fish mounted, hanging from a false ceiling painted to look like waves seen from below, squirming from the walls, frozen in positions of rigor, leaping and struggling and straining for a surface that they'll never see. Enormous sharks and marlin and sword and tarpon depend from cables bolted to the rafters. A creepy brass sea monster with dead eyes and big teeth is bolted to the rail that separates the bar from the dining room. And behind the bar, a massive fish tank holds actual (live) fish -- which, I can only imagine, must be fucking horrified.
According to my research (reading the little blurb on the inside fold of the menu), Islamorada began back in the 1940s as a small snack bar and fish restaurant attached to a bait store on the pier in Key West. It was popular with the locals, the kind of place where you would go to eat conch fritters while the sun went down and watch the guides come in with their wells full of gaffed tarpon and bludgeoned permit.
Now Islamorada is a chain of seafood restaurants attached like lampreys to the fat flanks of Bass Pro shops in several states (with more on the way), restaurants that all claim to be "As Fresh As You Can Get" -- a conceit so unconscionably ludicrous that I refuse to even make fun of it. At the Islamorada in this landlocked city, you can get New England clam chowder with no hint of clam flavor and Maryland crabcakes made with lump blue crab turned gray by freezing. You can order skillets full of black mussels, which are walked proudly around the dining room, sizzling on their platters and trailing a fog of steam like the contrail of a jet plane loaded with shellfish and garlic going down hard. You can bite into Reubens made with grouper, grouper portofino (blackened and topped with shrimp), elk steaks and buffalo burgers and shrimp and grits done Southern style. And all of it is awful, presented like it was die-stamped from fish-flavored cardboard, cooked for a dumb-money demographic willing to drop a hundred bucks on a dinner for two that could be better prepared from the freezer case at King Soopers.
Coconut shrimp: $7.65
Shrimp: (1 lb.) $16.65
Lobster tail: $17.95
N.Y. strip: $19.65
Pain Killer: $6.95
And yet, huge as it is and bland as it is and hokey as it is, Islamorada is also hugely busy. Look online and you will see people who plan their vacations around visits to various locations. Ask a server how business has been and she'll just laugh, gesture around at the full floor and say, "How do you think?"
On a Saturday afternoon, I have to wait for the privilege of having my worst meal -- a half-hour I spend browsing through the boats, poking at taxidermied beavers and waiting for my greasy blue Islamorada pager to go off. When I return for dinner on a Monday, I sneak a look at the hostess book and see that I'm getting one of the last three available tables. And when I call a few days later, I'm simply told not to come on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. They don't take reservations, the hostess tells me, and the wait can be an hour for a table on a Saturday night. Sometimes two.
Food aside, I'm impressed by the systems that underlie operations here, the way Islamorada can serve so many people, turn so many tables, and still keep the place from descending into utter chaos every night. In the kitchen, the menu is broken down to pictograms -- photographs of each ideal plate hung up over the line as a ready reference. There are expo lines at the pass, waitress stations set up every 25 feet or so around the periphery of the dining room so that no server ever has to wait to run a check. There are times when I count nearly twenty servers on the floor, plus floor managers who are really more like casino pit bosses, with headsets on and their eyes seeing everything. The hostess stand is double-staffed, the bar triple. And because it's so well thought out, the service is good. It's friendly. My waitresses remember my name (my assumed name, anyhow) and seem to really want me to have a good time.
It helps that on my second visit, I trade the warm root beer I'd had at that first lunch for something off the specialty drink menu called a "Pain Killer," which feels appropriate. Seven bucks brings me a weak rum-and-fruit-juice concoction sprinkled with nutmeg and garnished with fruit stuck on a tiny plastic sword. Twenty-one bucks kills most of my pain. I order all the top-end items, going for a pound of steamed shrimp not so much seasoned as buried in Old Bay, a New York strip done bloody-rare, a baked potato drooling butter and sour cream, and a lobster tail with drawn butter. The steak is choice, stringy, without the smoothness of a good marble to hold the flavor together. It tastes of grill char and water-thinned blood and salt, like the steaks I ate when I was a kid and didn't judge every bite against a thousand steaks gone before. Plain, the lobster tail -- frozen, thawed, cooked hard and served tough -- tastes like textured air, like breath. Drenched in butter, it tastes like butter -- which is the flavor most people think of when they think of lobster anyhow.
Sadly, it is not the worst meal I've ever had. It cannot top the tragedy of my lunch two days before. Which means it is just another meal, one soon to be consigned to that mental rolodex and deservedly forgotten.