My dining group caught a glimpse of frolicking mermaids performing their 6:30 p.m. underwater show at the Wreck Bar on a recent Saturday night at the B Ocean Resort in Fort Lauderdale, and our mood was buoyant. But as soon as we walked down the hallway — or was that a gangplank? — into a dark, forlorn and nearly empty Naked Crab, we got the sense that something was wrong. The menu seemed shrunken and dull, devoid of items promoted when the restaurant opened in early 2017. Our server seemed sullen. Little things were off in the opening course: A dozen oysters ($24) arrived with cocktail sauce and horseradish but no mignonette. A chopped salad ($15) with shrimp, green beans and hearts of palm was studded with what seemed like jarred bacon bits.
Then things got worse. A whole snapper ($29) was fried to mummification, its teeth and eyes pointed menacingly at me on the plate before I cracked through brittle skin that nearly disintegrated to dust to excavate overcooked and mushy meat. A 1-pound platter of Alaskan king crab legs ($54) was likewise boiled and steamed to oblivion, devoid of any discernible texture or flavor. “I hate to say this, but the crab legs at Red Lobster are better,” my dining mate noted. The menu said the crab legs would be served with garlic butter, but the liquid in the stainless-steel gravy boat on the platter had an oddly bright color. I dunked a piece of crab into the liquid and could not believe my taste buds. It seemed like cooking oil. My tablemate, who typically eats seafood without butter, took a bite and agreed. We did not bother summoning our server, but a woman who ordered crab legs at the next table did. “Excuse me,” she said, “but this is cooking oil.” After registering her complaint, she looked at us and said, “I’m not crazy, right? I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Then came my trip to the restroom. Warning: If you are eating, this would be a good time to stop. While I stood at a urinal, a central drain in the middle of the floor started percolating after someone else flushed a commode. Water with detritus began flooding the bathroom. A menacing and widening puddle approached. I took evasive maneuvers and performed my best Bob Beamon long jump to avoid it. I hurriedly washed my hands and saw the other patron traipse straight through the sewage and proceed across the lobby.
I returned to the table ashen-faced and said we would have to skip dessert. Our server, who by that point had been disappearing for long stretches, brought the check. I got one final jolt. A rack of lamb special cost an astounding $65. I’ve paid $92 for a pork chop and $129 for a Florentine steak at other restaurants recently, but those were family-style entrees and the prices were listed on the menu. “Guess how much?” I asked my dining partners. One burst into laughter when she saw the bill. Granted, it was the best item of the night, an ample portion of seven rib chops that were cooked perfectly to the ordered medium-rare plus, but 65 bucks? Shame on me for not asking.
Score Naked Crab the most traumatizing experience in my two years of restaurant critiquing. As it turns out, there is much percolating beneath the surface at this historic location, including a breakup between celebrity chef Ralph Pagano and B Ocean Resort management, and a whistleblower lawsuit filed this month (January 2018) by four former senior hotel managers who claim they were fired on the same day in October 2017 after complaining about major issues, including sewage backups and plumbing problems, that went unaddressed by executives.
According to the civil suit filed Jan. 2 in Broward Circuit Court, former resort general manager Kevin Kruse says he repeatedly alerted Richard Cotter, chief operating officer of Performance Hospitality Management (which runs the hotel and restaurant) to “sewage backup issues” at the hotel. Former food and beverage director Julien Labays says he complained about “faulty kitchen equipment” and “sewage backup into the kitchen area.” The hotel has not yet formally responded to the complaint in court.
A statement released Jan. 31 by Performance Hospitality Management reads, “After Hurricane Irma, the hotel experienced some water damage, which was immediately remediated. Some storm drainage issues remain due to infrastructure and sea level rise. We are working diligently [to] correct these isolated problems. In regard to the lawsuit by former employees, we intend to defend these meritless allegations and set the record straight in court.”
Pagano, who runs Naked Taco and Naked Lunch in Miami-Dade, says he has not been to Naked Crab or the Wreck Bar (whose menus he developed as part of a licensing deal) since November and that his input was limited after he was severely burned in a kitchen gas explosion in the Bahamas in June 2017. Pagano was hospitalized in Miami from June through August, and he says Performance Hospitality Management operates Naked Crab, not his Yes Hospitality Group.
“We’ve decided to go our separate ways, and I wish them nothing but the best,” Pagano told me this week. He says “all things Naked and Pagano” will be removed from the property, but as of Jan. 31, the restaurant was still operating under the Naked Crab name and Pagano’s bio and image were still on the restaurant’s website and Facebook page.
“I just wasn’t around and involved as much as I could have been because of the circumstances,” says Pagano, who has been rehabilitating from his burns and still wears compression gloves and stockings around his fragile skin. “Everything that has happened has been unfortunate. The food-service issues are unfortunate. The sewage and plumbing issues are unfortunate. … They have hired a new chef and hopefully the new management team will be able to address the facility issues. It’s a legendary property. They should be able to fix the issues and succeed.”
A hotel public-relations representative told me that a new executive chef was “onboarding” at the time of my visit and asked if I could return in six weeks when a new menu had been unveiled. The day before I got in touch, the resort sent me a press release promoting its Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day restaurant offerings.
Fort Lauderdale hotelier George “Bob” Gill opened the property as the Clipper resort in 1956. The hotel was renamed the Yankee Clipper after it became a base for the New York Yankees when the baseball team staged its spring training in Fort Lauderdale. The Wreck Bar, with picture windows built into the swimming pool, has been around since the beginning and was featured in the 1999 Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal movie “Analyze This.” The Wreck Bar has regained fame and crowds of tourists and locals with its mermaid shows, including a 21-and-over burlesque version at 9:30 p.m. on weekends.
The six-decade-old hotel, now known as the B Ocean Resort after several corporate gyrations and renovations since the Gill family sold controlling interest in 2005, was originally built to resemble a cruise ship. Feel free to insert your own Titanic-taking-on-fetid-water jokes here. After one night at Naked Crab, my main thought was, “Abandon ship.”
1140 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale (in B Ocean Resort)
954-524-5551 or NakedCrabFl.com
Cost: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers cost $10 to $24 (raw seafood platters higher), sandwiches $14-$16, entrees $19-$65, sides $8, desserts $10.
Hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with craft beers, $12 specialty cocktails and compact, routine wine list
Noise level: Conversational inside, outside tables contend with streaming traffic from A1A
Wheelchair access: Ground floor
Parking: $5 valet with validation