Dining at the beach can be risky at best. Most seaside restaurant owners have decided it isn't worth their time and effort to cultivate a devoted local following with quality product and reliable service, but instead just simply scrape the cream off the top of the tourist trade... you can spot these places a mile away - brandishing hucksterish signs proclaiming "WORLD'S BEST FISH AND CHIPS" or "WORLD FAMOUS CHOWDER". Perhaps the worst offender would be Mo's - an establishment that seemingly spends more on advertising than ingredients. For whatever reason, these places not only stay in business, but thrive as well. Don't get me wrong - there are a few holdouts to this dastardly practice (Gracie's in Depot Bay comes to mind), but for the most part the best meals (fish or otherwise) are still served in landlocked Portland. You want chowder? Go to Jakes.
But after this rant, I'm quite happy to report that we've discovered a jewel.... and it's such a jewel, I can certify an unqualified RAVE review - and now, you are hereby under orders to revise your List Of Things To Do thusly:
1) DRIVE ALL THE WAY TO FLORENCE, OREGON AND HAVE DINNER AT THE WATERFRONT DEPOT
My wife and I have taken my aunt and uncle's advice on local Florence dining establishments before - and as such, we decided to strike out on our own to celebrate my Grandmother's 89th birthday. For no particular reason (possibly other than that my aunt and uncle didn't recommend it) we decided upon the Waterfront Depot. The Depot is located in oldtown Florence, right on the water about three spaces East of the bridge. It occupies a smallish building that once served duty as the local train station - hence the "depot" - get it?
From the outside, one would be hard pressed to even know this was a restaurant. There are no signs proclaiming "world's best" anything. No neon. No life preservers, sculptures, buoys or anything else one usually associates with the beach-side food trade. Upon entering the unassuming door, patrons walk immediately past the open kitchen to the right. The space is small, but appears to be efficient and clean. It's not meant as a presentation kitchen, but it's always a good sign to find an establishment that isn't afraid of showing what happens behind the scenes.
The restaurant itself unfolds into a single room of modest proportions. Down the length of one wall is a bar offering about eight or nine stools. There is probably seating for no more than thirty at the tables, but the spacing doesn't feel confined. The high ceilings and understated decor lend credibility to the origins of the building as a humble train station, complete with two huge sliding barn-style doors that we were told are usually open during the warmer months. The room feels warm and inviting, somewhat of a hybrid between a romantic dinner retreat and a pub, but it's the setting that really sells the space. On the far end of the room is an alcove with three tables, directly overlooking the bay and bridge. Wandering eyes really don't spend much time scrutinizing the walls when you have such a pleasant view.
Ownership appears to encourage the bartenders to get creative with their libations, as was evidenced by the drink special - a pumpkin alexander. No, we were new to this place and just sat down... only a crazy person would order a pumpkin alexander on the first date. For the less courageous (us) the full bar also offers a few of the required beers on tap (Mirror Pond, Black Butte Porter, etc.) and a decent selection of domestic wines.
The menu, occupying a large chalkboard on one of the sliding doors, changes from day to day and takes advantage of the local seafood catch. One side is filled with perhaps a dozen entrees, and the other is a tapas menu of about the same size. About half of the entrees are seafood, but the menu is rounded out with a few varied selections such as steak, lamb (the proclaimed specialty of the house), vegetarian lasagne and a burger (for you heathens). The tapas menu is also seafood heavy, but offers a glimpse into the creativity of the kitchen staff by drawing upon several varied cultural influences.
From the tapas menu, we had the Madrid style calamari, the lime pepper and garlic shrimp and the braised lamb riblets with mango chutney. The calamari was fresh and unbreaded (HOORAY!) and sauteed in a simple freshly prepared Spanish salsa. The $4 serving was generously portioned and presented in a soup bowl along with freshly baked bread (notice I keep using the word FRESH here?) The simplicity of the salsa ensured that the quality and technique of preparation allowed the calamari to shine in this dish - perfectly complimentary ingredients, expertly crafted... enough said. The lamb riblets were as advertized - three lamb riblets braised medium and served with mango chutney. The lamb was tender and moist, but perhaps I would have prefered a bit more pink in the middle (and this, while not being an actual complaint, will be as close as I get to one here). The lime pepper and garlic shrimp was outstanding - a subtle garlic sauce that made me think Mandarin, but it wasn't... I would have liked to watch them prepare this, as I have absolutely no idea how they did it.
The entree menu is designed to work hand-in-hand with the tapas menu, and most etrees are served with a caesar salad. My grandmother ordered the crab encrusted halibut with spiced cream sauce and it was fantastic. The fish was perfectly cooked and the crab crust was understated so as not to dominate the halibut. Being that she's 89 years old, grandma usually just dodders about her plate and eats maybe two or three bites and calls it a meal. Somehow she managed to eat all but two or three bites of this (again) generously portioned entree. I guess she liked it?
My wife ordered the blackened salmon, and my only complaint here is that she gave me a pretty small "taster" bite. From what I could tell, it was supurb. The blackening (that can often hide a questionable piece of fish) was complimentary instead of dominating and the fish was perfectly cooked. Nice job.
At first I was dissapointed as I consider myself to be a "steak guy" and the menu offered only one measly selection - the dubiously named pepper steak. I say dubious here because pepper steak could basically mean anything - which, to a rib eye snob such as myself, is not really good... odds are, it's not going to be a rib eye. And it wasn't. But what it was was quite acceptable. The thick steak (sirloin?) was cooked to a perfect medium rare and covered with sauteed onions and morels that were finished with balsamic vinnegar. Simple, tasty and tender - the way a steak should be. Quite satisfying.
Aside from the excellent meal, our hats are off to the wait staff. All of our servers were prompt and courteous - I dare even say friendly. As it slipped out that we were celebrating a birthday, my grandmother was presented with a piece of double layer cheesecake, complete with candle. You'd never know my wife and I aren't really desert people if you were watching us help her finish it.
NOTE TO SELF: Cheesecake.
Overall, the Waterfront Depot managed to exceed our expectations throughout the entire visit. The entrees are so reasonably priced, you'd think they couldn't possibly be good. Crab encrusted halibut for $10? Yup. In fact, the entire entree menu is in the $8-10 range. No exceptions. And the tapas are $3-4. Our bill for three people, including two draft beers, one bottled beer and a glass of the house cabernet, came to $61. I dare you to find better.
My wife and I eagerly await our return to Florence... I'm planning it in my head as I write this. First I'll order a nice bottle of pinot noir. When they come to take our order, I'll point to the tapas menu and say "Bring us one of everything, and two of those lime pepper and garlic shrimp thingies...."
We'll come back the next night for our entrees.