I understand Don Shula can do no wrong among longtime Miami Dolphins fans. And at age 84, the South Florida treasure deserves every bit of adoration he receives. The rest of us, however, probably know him best from the always crowded expressway that bears his name and those commercials he did for Nutrisystem.
Still, the last thing I expected from Shula's on the Beach was a memorable steakhouse experience, especially given its tourist-heavy location inside the Westin Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale.
The Shula restaurant empire got its start in Miami Lakes 25 years ago, when Shula was still the Dolphins' head coach. Plenty of jocks lend their names to restaurants, but Shula's son Dave oversees 35 restaurants as president of Shula's Steak Houses. Shula's wife, Mary Anne, is CEO. Her daughter consults on marketing and owns a Shula Burger franchise.
So while this is very much a restaurant chain, with headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Shula's on the Beach is the best kind of corporate operation. It's a local institution.
The 256-dining room could use a bit of freshening up, but it's a comfortable space where you can hear dinnertime conversation. There's room for almost 100 more people on the terrace that overlooks the ocean. Opened in 1996, it's very much a classic steakhouse, with a menu that features a little more seafood than some of the other steakhouses in the chain.
The signature dish remains Shula Cut Angus Beef. It's center-cut choice beef from the upper two-thirds of the animal. It's wet-aged at each restaurant. After our steaks were delivered, our server made a point of asking us to cut into our steaks to assure they were cooked to our liking. That's a very nice detail.
We ordered a 16-ounce cowboy rib-eye ($43), a 24-ounce porterhouse ($47) and something called Steak Mary Anne ($45), two 5-ounce filets served with a wonderful cognac-peppercorn sauce. Each steak was a perfectly tender example of the cut, from the lean and beefy filet to the fattier rib-eye. Be sure to order sauces ($2), which include a very good red wine demi-glace, béarnaise and red-pepper chimichurri. That demi-glace had an Old World, homemade quality that you don't taste in steakhouses much anymore.
Over healthy cocktails, we started our meal with barbecue shrimp ($16), stuffed with basil, wrapped in bacon and serve with a tangy sauce. The shrimp were just a little overdone. A jumbo lump crab cake ($17) was virtually free of any fillers and came with remoulade and lemon. Order this crab cake so you'll know how they're supposed to taste. Blackened tenderloin tips ($15) are seared with Cajun spices and served with two sauces: béarnaise and barbecue. The tenderness of those tips foreshadowed the quality of the steaks that followed.
Salads ($10) include a Caesar, a tomato and mozzarella chop and one of the best wedge salads around. Since we were splitting the salad, our server offered to have it chopped in the kitchen. It tasted like one of those layered salads of brunches gone by, with iceberg, tomatoes, bacon, red onion, green onions and a simple blue-cheese dressing.
Every day, the menu features a different fish that can be pan-seared, grilled or blackened, and served with sweet-and-sour Asian sauce, beurre blanc, pineapple-mango salsa or red-pepper chimichurri. Scallops, grouper and crab cakes round out the seafood entrée offerings.
Crab mac and cheese ($15) is another example of steak house excellence, with loads of crab mixed with gemelli, Boursin-sherry cream, fresh herbs, Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs. It's neither overly cheesy or overly crabby. Caramelized mushrooms ($9) — crimini, button and portobello with shallots, white wine and garlic — add a nice earthiness to steaks. Creamed spinach ($9) was also very good.
Sweets were a weak spot, but we had no room to complain since our friendly server comped dessert. Both Key lime pie ($10) and chocolate seven-layer cake ($9) tasted as though they'd seen better days. Perhaps it was that time of the night.
Next year, Shula's Steak and Seafood will open on the bay in Coconut Grove. The newest concept, Shula Burger, now has six locations across the state. Like the man himself, Shula's is a force to be reckoned with.
321 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Westin Beach Resort, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Dinner, lunch and breakfast daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Wonderfully conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free valet