As a restaurant reviewer, there’s a tightrope to walk when it comes to new restaurants. It always takes a few weeks for places to iron out the kinks in service and fine-tune a menu.
That’s why most restaurants have what is called a “soft opening.” They open without much fanfare to give the management a chance to assess what’s working and what needs altering before they start getting regular crowds. This is smart, because once a place gets poor word of mouth for either service or the quality of the food, it’s hard to get over that.
Ideally, a reviewer allows a place a few weeks before heading in for that initial review. However, in this now-now-now environment, folks don’t want to wait. They want to low-down on the latest places immediately. I try to avoid assessing a place too soon and instead give my readers a little background on new places, so they know what to expect when they arrive. I did that with The Grille on the Drive when it first opened and there have already been some changes. If the crowds dining there are any indication, they’re ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille.
The Grille on the Drive
2000 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors
Paul Hugo, who has managed some of South Florida’s most successful nightclubs and restaurants has teamed up with Danel Valero to breathe new life into the old favorite and long-shuttered Tropics. That would be a difficult feat under any circumstances, but with a landmark like Tropics, it’s even more precarious; change it too much and you lose all your old clientele, change it too little and you won’t get the new folks in. Paul and Danel had their work cut out for them.
This experienced duo realized Wilton Manors was lacking a high-standard restaurant in a steakhouse style. That was the initial spark for The Grille. Once the format was decided upon and a menu created, the long remodel began. The place needed a face-lift, it looked like the lounge in an airport Ramada Inn circa 1987. Short of tearing down walls, they gutted the place from top to bottom and created a space that is at once modern and inviting, new and original but retains the essence of the original layout.
In addition to a complete remodel of the interior, the entertainment room received an upgrade, with a small stage backed by red velvet curtains. A variety of entertainers now grace the stage; with the amazing pianist Rick Leonard working with such talented vocalists as Victor Valdez, Mailyn Soulfree and Ellen Patterson as well as special guests. Folks still pack the cabaret room, but thanks to a menu make-over they’re also ordering dinner.
In addition to steaks and chops, the new menu offers quite a variety. Appetizers include some favorites from Paul’s former business, Eat (fried calamari and Mama’s meatballs), as well as classic steak-house offerings such as shrimp cocktail, escargot, Caprese salad, crab cakes and beef or pork sliders.
Other options include spinach dip, tuna and an addictive cheesy garlic bread. The owners aren’t afraid to change things up and they’re still tinkering with their menu (they recently got rid of their small, but bountiful, salad bar). Knowing their willingness for change, I have to put this out there, my favorite dish needs to come back. The shrimp boat, which offered perfectly grilled shrimp atop friend eggplant and a small salad.
The grill portion of the menu showcases the restaurant’s star dishes; filet mignon, a 12 oz. NY strip steak, skirt steak, an 8 oz. sirloin steak, or the mixed grille (petite filet, sausage, pork ribeye and chicken breast).
Those who prefer seafood can choose from blackened mahi mahi, sesame seared tuna, grouper Francaise or sea scallops. Poultry choices include chicken (Dijon, marsala, saltimbocca, or Francaise) and duck.
Grill entrees are priced between $20 and $28 (about $5 less for poultry) and includes a choice of sides.
Homestyle dinners average $16-18 and include a variety of pasta (angel hair Bolognese, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, scampi, chicken Parmesan or
Alfredo, pasta primavera and penne in vodka sauce) as well as a hearty meatloaf. In addition to your standard burger and chicken sandwiches, check out the Grille Burger, a
10 oz. Angus patty topped with caramelized onions, bacon, pulled pork, cheddar cheese and a fried egg served on a pretzel bun. It’s almost too much, I pulled off the toppings and ate them separately and took the burger home for dinner the next day. Priced from $14-$16, the burgers are served with fries. There’s even a very good vegan burger, made with black beans, corn, brown rice, quinoa, roasted peppers and cracked wheat.
The special that’s drawing folks in is the early-bird dinner, offered Monday through Thursday. The $12.95 deal offers a choice of about a dozen entrees (angel hair Bolognese, eggplant Parmesan, roasted half chicken, meatloaf, chicken Dijon, chopped steak, lasagna or a pork ribeye steak), most served with a choice of sides.
The servers are all friendly and helpful. The Grille has just opened its garden room for lunch service, light bites and gelato. That’s where you’ll find star-server Jamie, one of the friendliest faces on Wilton Drive.
If you’re looking for some other new places to visit, check out one of these spots.
1401 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale
This two-story Mexican restaurant with a rooftop bar is from the same folks who run Tap 42 next door. The building stands out with its black and white graphics, second-floor open-air terrace and rainbow neon lights. The menu focuses on Mexican-American fare; fajitas, chimichurri lamb shank, build-your-own bodega bowls, tacos and similar favorites.
Dune in the Auberge Beach Residences & Spa
2200 N. Ocean Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Scheduled to open by the time you read this, it is the first East Coast restaurant from the outfit behind the famed Auberge du Soleil resort and its Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa Valley, Calif. The restaurant will showcase a seafood-heavy menu and a Napa Valley-inspired wine list. The restaurant will feature a glass-enclosed wine cellar showcasing more than 600 selections. Edgar Beas has been hired as executive chef. He previously worked at Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, N.M.
“We created Dune to be a casual contemporary restaurant that guests will want to return to,” said Craig Reid, CEO of Auberge Resorts Collection, in a press release. He calls the oceanfront dining room “warm and welcoming,” the menu “upscale but never fussy” and says the atmosphere will be equally comfortable for “Friday dinners under the stars and Sunday brunch.”
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