Bahama Breeze and Key West Grill are two national chains whose restaurants attract lengthy waits even on weeknights regardless of the city they are in. Both have very good, often exemplery dishes representative of Key West, the Caribbean and elsewhere in Central America. The flavors incorporate heat and spice along with a heavy emphasis on fresh seafood and island ambience for the table presentation. From conch chowder to ahi tuna to jerk shrimp these are adventurous flavors that excite diners and help to create a real spirit of island adventure with each visit.
The group that owns Sweetwater Tavern, Arnie's, Mike's American Grill and Fritzbie's three days ago opened their interpretive outpost of this enormously successful vision in Fairfax, near Fair Lakes Mall.
For several years I have eaten at one of their restaurants an average of at least once a month believing that we are fortunate to have such a successful operation introduce popular national trends
to us. "Coastal Flats" is their latest turn on these "national" trends.
At any one of the four outposts of Bahama Breeze in Orlando there is a two + hour wait on Friday and Saturday night; the Key West Grille which use to be on Gulf to Bay Boulevard in Clearwater had waits that were actually longer in its first several years of operation in the early '90's. Tonight, on the third day of operation at Coastal Flats, we were told at 5:50PM that the wait was three hours....or more.
We sat at the bar.
My wife is going to hate me for what I am about to say: the architect who designed the interior of this restaurant should be shot! Seriously. This has a very close resemblance to the interior of an army mess hall, brightly lit and totally Denny's like, if you will. EVERY single table was a booth. The 150+ seats really were all booths and the lighting was as bright as a sunny day in Baghdad! I cannot tell you how much I absolutely DETESTED the interior of this restaurant!
It reeked of a non specific, nondescript factory cafeteria like ambience that I might have expected in, say, a shoe factory in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Coastal Flats does NOT have a transporting ambience as do the chains it is modelled after. There is nothing about it to make you feel that a Mojito or Caipirinha is the drink you SHOULD be ordering. Rather, ordering these is to help you forget exactly where you are drinking them! Cheap beer, frankly, would do the job also!
The food, however, is an improvement. Single best dish in the house may be their "jumbo Lump crab cakes" at $22.00. Exemplery hand cut, skin on shoestring french fries along with what may be the best cole slaw in the entire D. C. area offset very good lump crab cakes. Not on the level of, say, the Narrows, G and M, Stoney's or others but these are legitimately good. In truth they WILL be better than what you expect. Two, maybe three notches above say, Clyde's, who are their real competitior. In combination with the fries, slaw and an excellent Outback like remoulade sauce this is a very, very good dish, worthy of going back just to have again. In fact more than worth the $22.00.
Rock Shrimp fritters looked absolutely delicious. We didn't order them but our neighbors did. They only ate half of them. If they had left their stools a bit earlier I would have stole one in the name of research and reported on it. Suffice it to say that they looked really good. Unfortunately the couple eating them both looked terribly anorexic so I'm not certain that leaving several bites is a judgment on the overall value of this dish. Still, it's a shame that the server cleared them when she did.
Corn and crab chowder was very good. In fact this restuarant group has long been known for its soups and salads, among the best of each in the D. C. area. (With a $16 ahi tuna salad it should be good!) This chowder is in that spirit. Not on the level of what you might find at, say, Kinkead's. But at $4.00 more than worthwhile. A value and quite flavorful.
Coastal Flats has one seriously good appetizer worth raving about: "Chilled Yucatan Shrimp." The comparison here is to both Guajillo and Ceiba who have similar dishes. I beleive the shrimp ceviche at Coastal Flats, served with melon, avocado and a tiny bottle of green Tabasco, is better than either of these. Worth the visit, almost worth the sunlit breakfast ambience.
Hong Kong style sea bass was good, NOT very good. "Steamed with fresh leaf spinach in a soy sherry broth with sesame ginger, scallions and sticky rice" this was a distant second to similar dishes that I have had in the national chains and a number of similar restaurants elsewhere. Not a dish to go out of your way to order.
Hazelnut crusted trout looked excellent as did an interesting main course of "sauteed shrimp and cream grit cakes with Smithfield ham, roasted corn, asparagus, peppers, sweet onion and cajun cream."
Overall the menu was MUCH shorter than what I expected and represented much less of an adventure than either of the national chains that this is drawn from. While this is a brand new restaurant and only the third day of operation we did NOT leave with the enthusiasm we felt from Outback's Bonefish Grill. There, the ambience was a darker supper club type of feeling; here, again, the aircraft hangar cafeteria. I don't mean to beat this into the ground but the theming or lack thereof of this restaurant was striking to me. What we had of the food, overall, showed promise. But if there was ever a venue where the setting enhanced that which was served this was not one.
Bahama Breeze: there is a market here just waiting for you! Three hour waits for good food with factory cafeteria ambience! How long will people wait when the restaurant really transports you to an island? Pappas Brothers, you should be taking a serious look at Fairfax County for a Pappadeux!
I should note here than I am in the themed entertainment industry. My customers are Disney, Universal, Paramount, Six Flags, Busch, etc. Creating an escape is of paramount importance to them, especially an opportunity to transport a guest to a dining experience that they otherwise could not find at home. This is part of the dining experience. This alone helps substantiate repeat visits as well as longer stays which translate into higher per caps.
Coastal Flats is not one the better efforts of this that I have seen. It will be successful but it really points up the explosive opportunity for a first class national company to come in and mine it.