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A bigger, better Yard House?

This past August, restaurant juggernaut Darden — which owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster, the Capital Grille and Seasons 52 — acquired the popular Yard House chain for $585 million. With Yard House's focus on being a serious destination for beer aficionados, the venue fills a gap at Darden, where drinks have been an afterthought and not the main attraction. After giving the chain several months to adapt to Darden's stewardship, we decided to see how one of our favorite food-friendly watering holes is fairing.

The Yard House in Hallandale Beach is responsible for much of the ambiance at the relatively new Village at Gulfstream Park. The wide-ranging and crowd-pleasing menu means it's the place to go at the Village when you have a large group of picky eaters. Meanwhile, the focus on drinks brings in a lively, social clientele on most nights. Mix in some tourists and families, and you have a hodgepodge where anyone can feel comfortable. When you arrive, the place to sit is the large outdoor area, which overlooks the central plaza of the Village. It's a great place to people-watch without being too exposed to the elements. Inside, you'll find a place that treads the line between restaurant and bar, veering a bit toward the latter in ambiance.

The room is dim — beer goggles can lead to danger here — but the tables are strategically lit, so you won't have to squint. An enormous bar in the center of the dining room contains at least 140 beer taps. The beer is the selling point, but a glance around the room showed that all sorts of drinks were being ordered: wines, martinis and straight liquors. The music is cranked up with plenty of rock and pop. It's a loud place as far as restaurants go, but typical for a busy bar. Big-screen TVs are scattered throughout the place.

The Yard House offers two sets of flights: a slate of Belgian beers, and an ever-changing set that targets hardcore beer drinkers who enjoy strong, fragrant brews that would turn off people who favor Bud Light. On a great list of martinis is the "black orchid," a blackish-blue cocktail topped with globules that brings to mind the backwash of a boat at a marina. Nonetheless, it's a delicious mix of raspberry SKYY vodka, DeKuyper blue curacao and watermelon pucker.

We ordered three different soups on a recent night. A bright-tasting French onion soup ($4.65 cup, $6.95 bowl) was served in a deep bowl but lacked consistency. The clam chowder ($4.65 cup, $6.95 bowl) was the opposite: doubly thick and mild-tasting. Chicken-tortilla soup ($5.65 cup, $8.95 bowl) was delicious if unusual: creamy, not tomatoey, and featuring heavy white cheddar and an artfully stacked pile of cilantro and tortilla-chip strips.

If you try nothing else for appetizers, go for the Baja fish tacos ($3.85 for two), with just the right amounts of avocado and mild fish. We also ordered the carnitas ($4.15 for two) and Korean short-rib tacos ($4.95). They were solid, but upstaged by the fish. A tower of onion rings ($8.85) was another sure-fire choice, with a tall stack of small, smoothly textured rings. Kung pao calamari ($10.95) was also solid, with spicy, semi-sweet coating that's a fun departure from typical calamari appetizers. Skip the flatbreads. A smoked Gouda and chicken flatbread ($7.25) was bland, despite the tomatoes, chicken and other ingredients. A pear and Gorgonzola flatbread ($6.85) is only for those people you really like pears.

For dinner, go straight for the St. Louis BBQ ribs ($17.95 for a half rack, $23.85 for a full one). It's unusual that such a large, bar-oriented menu offers only one set of ribs, but these were outstanding. The ribs were buttery tender and not oversauced, letting the meat shine. But if strong flavors are what you like, you'll find them with strong, tomatoey baked beans, sweet corn in cream and an extra helping of the tangy, peppered barbecue sauce on the side.

Mac and cheese ($11.45 for a small order, $16.85 for the large) boasted a thick cheese sauce and large strips of crunchy bacon. While I prefer my bacon diced and scattered, I didn't complain, given how much the dish provided.

A slice of miso-glazed sea bass ($26.65) was impressive-looking, perched atop giant pieces of bok choy. But this was one fishy tasting piece of sea bass, reminiscent of end-of-the-day supermarket tilapia. The surrounding medley of Asian flavors was nice, but didn't redeem the fish. The Caribbean chicken pasta ($14.65), a Darden addition, is adequate for a low-calorie dish, though the asparagus tasted a bit strong. The tuna burger got things going for the table with a flavorful, thick patty that gave a strong showing against my beloved beef burgers.

You'll definitely want to give dessert a chance here. The salted-caramel-butterscotch pudding ($5.65) was a delight, with an intriguing blend of flavors punctuated by the butterscotch. Make sure to mix your spoonfuls thoroughly so you don't bite into an unsweetened chunk of salt. A brownie with ice cream ($7.95) was a thin, flat cake served in a shallow pan, dusted with powdered sugar and topped with a ball of ice cream. Served hot, it lacked the mouth-soaking richness one expects from a brownie. Also, a different serving dish would be welcome, as the pan fumbled around as we tried to scoop pieces of cake off the shallow pan. Most impressive in appearance was a macadamia-nut cheesecake ($6.95), sitting in a pool of caramel with streaks of berry sauce mixed in and topped with a blob of nut-coated whipped cream.

The service at the Yard House is professional and accommodating, as is the norm at a Darden restaurant. We experienced a couple of ordering mishaps, though our server was quick to amend them, even offering to leave an incorrect appetizer at the table. It just would have been tossed, anyway.

601 Silks Run, Hallandale Beach


Cuisine: American, pub

Cost: Moderate

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight (drinks until 12:30 a.m.) Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. (drinks until 1:30 a.m) Friday and Saturday

Reservations: Recommended

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Moderate

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Highchairs, kids menu

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

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