The simple act of properly preparing seafood is a much underrated quality in restaurant kitchens. The best formula: Get fresh ingredients and get out of the way. From 1980 through 2001, the Fish Grill in Dania Beach had it down pat. After a 17-year absence, the Fish Grill is back, revived in April by original owner Joe Maggi near its original location in all its unpretentious glory.
Those who want fancy decor or trendy ingredients and technique need not walk through the doors of the reborn Fish Grill. As you go from the parking lot past picnic tables and a rivulet of water discharged from an air-conditioning pipe, you will realize there are more glamorous South Florida spots for fish and shellfish. But diners seeking satisfying meals at reasonable prices in homey surroundings will leave happy.
Plump and clean Prince Edward Island mussels ($9.95) are sauteed in olive oil, white wine and garlic, served with toast points for dipping. Ipswich clams with briny, creamy bellies are served steamed ($9.95) or dredged in light batter and fried ($13.95). Fresh fillets of scrod, mahi, salmon or yellowtail snapper ($16.95 to $24.95) are char-grilled over lava rock or broiled, and can be blackened upon request. Meaty sea scallops ($22.95) are broiled, fried or pan-seared. Fish is properly cooked to juicy and not rubbery, and those who prefer it undercooked or rare (as I do with salmon) will receive it rare.
I believe that simpler is better when it comes to fish, with nothing more than a fresh spritz of lemon required to bring out seafood’s soul. But I even liked the two most ambitious fish preparations at the Fish Grill. Snapper souffle ($24.95), a recipe from a former chef at the old restaurant, is finished in the oven with a whipped topping of egg whites, Parmesan cheese and dried tarragon, a light and creamy melange that enhanced and did not mask the delicate flesh. Swordfish ($24.95), which has become rarer on menus amid concerns about parasites and mercury levels, is encrusted with chopped pistachios, then broiled and glazed in citrus. It was good.
Entrees, nearly all under $25 except lobster, are served with soup or salad and two sides. I’m not a fan of the pasta salad, which is sweet from craisins and vinegary, and the coleslaw could use a bit more garlic kick, but vegetables (green beans or asparagus) are prepared wonderfully — not mushy and overcooked but al dente and full of life, with sauteed strips of red pepper and onions mixed in. Drinks are eternally offered at happy hour prices, $4.48 for Tito’s vodka. The Fish Grill is priced to please.
“I’d rather people have a couple of drinks and feel at home. That way they’re more likely to order some food if they’re sitting at the bar,” Maggi explains in a followup interview after my visits.
Maggi, 71, is an old-school restaurateur, which means he’s happier working with lower margins and loyal clientele than squeezing out every last nickel from every tourist who walks through the door.
It explains why so many locals fondly remember the Fish Grill, even though it had been gone for a generation, and why so many were excited to see the name return in April on a modest corner bar and restaurant on North Federal Highway. The location started as the Land Crab Lounge a few years ago, a smoky bar that became the short-lived Runway 75 North restaurant after being bought by Dania Beach commissioner Marco Salvino. Salvino, who own’s Lee’s Bicycles and Locksmith in Hollywood, sold to Maggi late in 2017. The strip that has long housed Dania’s dying Antique Row is coming back to life with numerous new hotels to accommodate growth at the airport and seaport, and Maggi sensed opportunity.
The restaurant is a work in progress, with fake brick walls and cozy booths in a small dining room that seats 42 and a large bar area with many televisions and high-top tables that seat another 66. Maggi hopes to take over an adjacent antique store and revamp the layout.
The original Fish Grill, a standalone building on East Dania Beach Boulevard, was razed after Maggi sold it to developers in 2001. He took a year off and realized retirement was not in his blood, so he opened Joseph’s on the Water at the Hemispheres condominium in Hallandale Beach in 2003, which he ran for 10 years. (It’s now known as Juniper on the Water.) He also operates restaurants at the Red Carpet Inn in Fort Lauderdale and the 595 Truck Stop in Davie.
Maggi grew up around restaurants. His family owned an Italian restaurant in Connecticut, and he recalls making pizzas when he was 11. He almost became a dentist, and spent time as a commodities broker before finding his true calling at the first Fish Grill nearly 40 years ago. He moved to Florida and started the restaurant after seeing a restaurant in California grill seafood with mesquite wood in the late 1970s.
He tried mesquite-wood grilling indoors in the original Fish Grill’s early years, but local fire marshals put a stop to that. He then turned to char-grilling, now over lava rocks, which he says imparts flavor as oil drips from fish and burns off.
At the relaunched Fish Grill, Maggi gets daily small-batch deliveries of Florida, Gulf and Central American products from Two Bills Seafood of Dania Beach and gets two shipments a week from New England of lobster, scallops, scrod and Ipswich clams. The kitchen is helmed by Donna Gibson, who has worked with Maggi for a decade. Other servers and bartenders are friendly and efficient.
Calamari is one of the few seafood items that is not fresh, and the rubbery rings and tentacles were a disappointment. Also disappointing was a batch of clam chowder that was thick and overly floury and didn’t have enough clams or clam flavor. The kitchen does well with nonseafood items, particularly a juicy and well-prepared cheesesteak sub (which has become very popular) and chicken Francaise ($16.95), thick breasts coated with egg and a sauce with proper lemony zing. When at the Fish Grill, it’s hard not to go with fish. I’m glad it is back where it belongs.
The Fish Grill
75 N. Federal Highway, Dania Beach
954-251-2361 or DaniaFishGrill.com
Cost: Moderate. Appetizers, soups and salads cost $5-$14, sandwiches and wraps $9-$15, entrees (served with soup or salad and two sides) $16-$25, kids’ menu $8, desserts $6
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily (noon opening Sunday)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted
Bar: Full liquor with reasonably priced beer, wine and cocktails
Noise level: Conversational and occasionally loud with jukebox in bar
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot