It has location. It has reputation. But I'm saddened to report 15th Street Fisheries needs rehabilitation.
After 38 years, this unsinkable Fort Lauderdale institution on the Intracoastal has had its ups and downs, veering from tightly run ship to tourist trap. Over the past decade, since changes in ownership and management, I'd heard things had been looking up. It reels in accolades annually in our Best of South Florida readers' poll (with posters around the premises trumpeting its latest haul, 10 categories in 2015, including Best Seafood Restaurant and Best Place To Impress Guests). It has built up a store of goodwill and good memories with locals and tourists alike. I fondly remember my first visit in 1989, when I was wined and dined by a Sun Sentinel sports editor before my hiring.
Back then, there were fair bread maidens (as I called them) in lovely sundresses dispensing warm, fresh-baked goodies from oversize wicker baskets with silver tongs.
Now, that bread gets prepped in the galley and slapped on a table by a harried server. The jalapeno biscuits were warm and soft, but the sunflower bread was cold and stale.
The jarring inconsistency found in the latest bread basket summed up my two recent visits, a Sunday dinner in the 305-seat upstairs formal dining area and a weekday lunch in the 225-seat casual downstairs Dockside Cafe. The two floors have separate menus and separate kitchens, but the results were dispiritingly similar, with flashes of adequacy overshadowed by too many miscues to excuse.
If you're coming for the view, you might leave happy. If you're coming for a good meal with service and hospitality to match, you might feel a bit fleeced. The problems appear to extend from the kitchen to the front office, which in the past year have both seen changes in management.
"Best Place To Take Your Parents" is another category the Fisheries perennially snags, so I brought my folks. Dinner began promisingly enough. We checked in for our reservation on time, and our table upstairs was ready.
"Do you have a window table?" I asked.
"Sorry, we don't," the receptionist said.
We took the elevator upstairs, and a hostess sat us in the upper deck, a perch near the kitchen and servers' stations. My mother uses a cane, but nobody asked if she could navigate the steps. There were empty window tables all around below.
The room began filling up. The décor — nautical knickknacks to give an old boathouse feel — hasn't changed through the years. The menu has been updated a bit, with some newfangled dishes such as shrimp 'n grits joining the mainstays.
A waitress took our drink and appetizer order, then another appeared and asked if we wanted to order.
"I'm confused," I said. "We already have a server."
"We work as a team," server No. 2 explained.
We gave her our main course order, but never saw her again.
The team abandoned ship for extended stretches, with empty plates sitting in front of us for too long (busboys whizzed past below) and nobody checking up or making eye contact when we had issues.
And there were issues. Besides being flavorless, too thick and nearly clam-less, my father's New England clam chowder ($8) was chilly as the summer ocean in Maine. He had to raise his hand to get someone's attention. When the chowder came back, it was perhaps three degrees warmer.
Conch chowder ($8) was decent, spicy and chunky. Crab cakes ($16) had a little too much filler for my liking, but the tropical slaw gave a sweet contrast, although it was a bit soggy. The shrimp 'n grits ($14) were served partly in the shell with heads on, which some may find off-putting. More off-putting to me: a syrupy "maple gastrique" that tasted like someone poured Mrs. Butterworth's on the dish. Peeling the shrimp was sticky and messy.
Main courses were just as uneven. Once again, my father had to send his plate back. The Provencal diver scallops ($35) were OK (covered with a tomato and scallion sauce), but his mashed potatoes were ice-cold. Pan-roasted black grouper ($35) looked a busy mess, heaped atop quinoa, sliced clams and mushrooms, but tasted fine, thanks to my mom's wise decision to keep the cloying lobster sherry cream sauce on the side. My daughter went landlubber with prime rib ($36), but it was the weirdest cut of prime rib we'd ever seen, seared on both sides and bisected with hunks of fat (typically, prime rib has a ribbon of fat around the edges). "Looks like a steak," my daughter said. It was tasty and cooked to order (medium-rare), but half was too salty, overly seasoned.
My striped bass special ($35) was inedible. The fish tasted old and was mushy, its skin hard and overcooked, topped by mixed greens and surrounded by an indecipherable sauce that glowed an incandescent, Trumpian orange. By the time I could hail the waitress again, there was no point ordering another entrée. She removed it from the table and the tab.
Desserts were gussied up and overly sweet, a dense Key lime bar ($10) topped with a meringue and served with a scoop of raspberry sorbet, and a chocolate marbled cheesecake ($10).
I returned downstairs to see if simpler might be better. I'd been dockside a few years ago for cocktails and oysters, and the room (with a cool, blue, backlit glass slab along the bar) is bright and comfortable. Unfortunately, lunch was just as uneven. And pricey. A tab for four, with a couple of appetizers and desserts but no drinks, ran $136 (without tip).
For some reason, a mahi sandwich ($21) is more expensive than just a grilled piece of mahi ($17). I didn't know a bun could cost $4. At least the sandwich fish was cooked properly. The mahi tacos ($17) were overcooked to rubbery annoyance. So were the steamed Cedar Key clams ($18). Grilled salmon ($17) was competent.
The clam chowder here ($6) was hotter and better, but tasted more like bacon than bivalve. Conch salad ($11) was more like conch ceviche, spicy lime juice marinating bits of conch that my tablemate (who has a home in the Bahamas) said wasn't especially fresh. Fried gator bites ($13) were good, with a nice batter and sweet meat, but the dish was dusted, weirdly, with grated Parmesan.
If you want a decent seafood meal, I could rattle off five places within five miles where you'll do better (Southport Raw Bar, Kelly's Landing, Dockers, the Quarterdeck on Dania pier, Red Lobster).
But if you want an expensive slice of South Florida tradition, and a room with a view, then head for the 15th Street Fisheries.
15th Street Fisheries
1900 SE 15th Street, Fort Lauderdale
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Hours: Dockside (downstairs) 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (until midnight Friday-Saturday); Upstairs dinner 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. (until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 9 p.m. Sunday)
Reservations: Suggested upstairs, not accepted downstairs
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: Limited, on one deck
For kids: Kids' menu, highchairs, boosters
Wheelchair accessible: Yes, elevator to upstairs
Parking: Free valet