First impressions are everything.
While I'd never been to Tropical Acres Steakhouse, I did get a less-than-warm welcome from a hostess the other night. We sat down to a waitress who insisted on telling us about the nightly specials before bothering to ask if we wanted something to drink.
After 63 years, Tropical Acres is indeed a Broward Country institution. It's now overseen by the third generation of the same family. But management seemed to be missing on the night we dined.
Maybe none of this matters to folks who love Tropical Acres, which reopened in March after a fire forced it to close for six months.
"For the first two months, we had as long as a two-hour wait," says Michael Greenlaw, a member of that third generation. "A lot of people that hadn't dined here in 10 or 20 years, they heard about us again. The media coverage we got from the fire, you could not have bought that advertising."
Like them, I love Tropical Acre's retro charms, from the typeface on the sign out front to the wood paneling throughout. Off the lobby, there's a cozy inviting bar. Oversize rattan fans hang from the gorgeous vaulted wooden ceiling in the 225-seat main dining room.
But the booths are small and set close, so you sit shoulder-to-shoulder to the party behind you. Food is served on metal plates that might have once been uniquely Old English but now feel "Game of Thrones" creepy.
Likewise, while Tropical Acres is a (relative) bargain next to many newer steakhouse — entrees include salad, choice of baked potato, sweet potato, fries, rice or vegetable — the menu needs updating. Start with the a la carte sides. Offer potato pancakes or mac and cheese or at least one distinct vegetable preparation. The current choices include sauteed mushrooms ($5.95), sauteed onions ($4.95), fried onion rings ($4.95) and hash-brown potatoes ($2.95). Those hash browns were greasy. The baked potatoes weren't hot.
Dinner began with a basket of fresh onion rolls and onion flatbread. We ordered a two-crab cake appetizer ($15.90), which had the texture of a puree instead of lump crab. Fried zucchini slices ($5.95) needed more seasoning in its breading.
I had no quibble, however, with the quality of the meat, which, according to the menu is "choice corn-fed Western steer." There are also some certified Angus cuts.
A tender, 10-ounce cut of prime rib ($21.95) was cooked perfectly with just the right amount of fat. A 10-ounce filet mignon ($27.95) had the melt-in-your mouth tenderness of the cut. For $7.50, we added broiled scallops to the filet that were cooked just as well as the steak. The house specialty is an exquisite, 14-ounce Angus New York strip ($27.95). But we had to return the 4-ounce lobster tail. It was tough and rust-colored, which I'm hoping came from too much paprika.
The menu also features Italian specialties, where you'll find chicken parmigiana ($16.95) and linguine with meatballs ($15.50); "Fine seafoods" such as surf and turf ($32.95), grilled salmon ($21.75) and old-fashioned baked shrimp with seafood stuffing ($20.95); and "Tropical Acres Specialties," with sauteed frog legs ($17.50), steak au poivre ($21.95) and seafood penne a la vodka ($18.95), among other dishes.
Dessert is wheeled by on a tiered Plexiglas cart, where you'll always find three staples: Key lime pie, cheesecake and tiramisu. The made in-house Key lime pie ($5.95) was much better than the chocolate layer cake ($5.95), which is brought in from a local bakery but had the odd texture of a shelf stable pastry.
While not everything was to my liking, I have the feeling that becoming a regular is not only how you discover the gems on the menu, but also learn how to build relationships with the staff.
Three times, my tablemate asked, "May I have a glass of water?
Finally, he was told in a scolding tone by our waitress' assistant: "We'll get that for you as soon as we serve your dinner."
Tropical Acres is back. And if this year is like any other, they'll seat 120,000 people before it's over.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SunSentinel.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.
Tropical Acres Steakhouse
2500 Griffin Road, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Dinner daily, closed Sundays July-September
Credit cards: AC
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Complimentary valet or self parking