People who want a flashy scene or the latest hot spot — a restaurant with Scandinavian furniture, Italian marble, glowing jellyfish tanks or fire pits overlooking the beach — probably should not venture into Tropical Acres Steakhouse. But those who want comforting basics such as plump shrimp cocktail with horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce that will snap sinuses to attention or tender filet mignon served on a sizzling hot plate that diners can slice and sear to a bit more doneness than ordered should hightail it to this South Florida institution.
Did I mention the shrimp cocktail costs $8.95? And the filet mignon comes in sizes up to 10 ounces, each under $30? And that the restaurant seasonally offers twin Maine lobsters for $26.95 every night except Saturday, when the dish costs $32.95? And that entrees include a salad and potato or vegetable, and if customers get there before 5:30 p.m. (5 p.m. on Sunday), the house will throw in soup, dessert and coffee? And that the restaurant offers discounted wines on Mondays and Tuesdays, enabling diners to buy some good bottles cheaper than they can be found at many stores?
Who cares if the carpeting is faded, the banquettes are a bit cramped and visitors might feel as though they have stepped into the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas circa 1974 or into their grandmother’s house, dust and stray crumbs sometimes lingering along the ledges with frosted glass that separate tables? Who cares if some plates are garnished with single and laughable curls of kale? Tropical Acres is not hip. It is not trendy. It is simply one of my favorite restaurants, a cavernous dining room and banquet hall that opened in 1949 and has rebounded after two fires, most recently in 2012. It is easy to see why the family-run restaurant serves nearly 120,000 people annually. The food is tasty, with nothing particularly creative or innovative, the service is efficient and friendly and the value is unbeatable.
When my predecessor made his first-ever visit to Tropical Acres after the 2012 reopening, he received a tepid greeting and brusque service, and he wasn’t impressed with the staid menu or stuck-in-time atmospherics, calling the metal plates “ ‘Game of Thrones’ creepy.” I don’t remember the first time I dined at Tropical Acres — it was at least 25 years ago — but the experience was pleasant enough to keep me returning through the years. I actually love those metal plates, which look like discuses that might have been used in an ancient Olympics, because they keep salads crisp and cold and steaks hot.
I distinctly remember my last three visits, all within the past six weeks and only one on my company’s dime. Tropical Acres is the type of place where I don’t mind reaching into my own pocket because I don’t have to reach very far. In July, I brought a Tropical Acres newbie and we sat at the bar in the dark, wood-paneled lounge for a quick Monday dinner. My friend was down because he had just lost his job. He cheered up quickly when we had half-price happy-hour martinis and chatted with Tommy, the longtime bartender whom I know from local poker tables and who once worked at Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein’s now-shuttered restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard, Bova Prime.
We split the twin-lobster special and the special-cut filet mignon ($29.95), a 10-ounce tenderloin from the eye of a T-bone. We also had an excellent bottle of Seghesio Zinfandel from Sonoma for $20, half off the usual $40. That wine goes for $17.99 at BJ’s wholesale club and for more than $20 at Publix. Our tab was $77, not including tax and tip. I’ve had mediocre steak entrees in South Beach that cost more. The lobsters, a pair of 1-pound chicks, were sweet. The filet, ordered medium rare, came out overcooked. I showed it to Tommy, and without saying a word he whisked it away and ordered a replacement. The second one was perfect, a thick puck of charred meat that was pink and juicy inside. Tommy brought an order of hash browns as a makeup.
My next two visits were clandestine, seated in the main dining room with reservations under others’ names. At prime time on a Saturday night, our group had to wait a few minutes past our reservation time before being shown to a table.
There are two areas of the dining room, a section to the left with a low ceiling that seems to be the place for younger people and families with children, and one to the right with a vaulted roof, exposed wooden beams and rattan fans. A piano player sits on a raised stage. Along the right side is an open kitchen with a charbroiled grill and the words “Steak Bar” in neon above.
Tropical Acres butchers their meat on the premises, and the filet meat is choice, not prime. Some cuts, such as the bone-in rib-eye cowboy steak ($31.95) and porterhouse ($33.95) are certified Angus beef. I had the cowboy steak on my second visit. The steak was more flavorful than the filet, but also chewier. Are there better steakhouse steaks around? Yes. Is there a more reasonable steakhouse steak around? I doubt it.
I’ve grown tired of seeing mediocre $65 steaks on menus at beachfront resorts and $50 steaks at chains such as Houston’s. (It’s true — Houston’s in North Miami Beach offers filet mignon for $50, and a New York strip steak for $52 at dinner.) “The price of beef must really be going up,” I remarked to a restaurateur recently. “No, the price of rent is really going up,” he countered. It helps enormously when a restaurant owns its land and building, which is the case at Tropical Acres. When the restaurant began, it was located in unincorporated Fort Lauderdale. Its stretch of Griffin Road west of I-95 is now officially part of Dania Beach.
“We’re not here to gouge anyone,” says Michael Greenlaw, a manager and member of the Studiale family that has owned the restaurant since the 1960s. “We want people to enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner. We want people to have a great experience.”
Customers aren’t the only ones treated well. The restaurant is closed on Sundays during off-season months to give employees time with their families. The restaurant doesn’t cut staff hours during slow months, either, but instead keeps the number of diners high by partaking in discount programs such as Groupon. That keeps longtime staff happy and brings new diners in the door, and Greenlaw says the newcomers often become regulars. As for worker satisfaction, Greenlaw proudly points to this: 63 of 65 employees returned after the 2012 fire, and many helped the restaurant rebuild. There is a true team mentality, with nobody named as executive chef and Greenlaw’s uncle, Jack Studiale, overseeing the kitchen, recipes and dining room.
Most meat and seafood dishes are solid, including prime rib ($26.95 for a 10-ounce cut), plump broiled sea scallops ( $24.95), and a well-seasoned crab-cake appetizer ($8.75) that is 70 percent lump crab meat and served with spicy remoulade. Not everything is up to par: The shrimp and turf Marsala ($24.95) had decent shrimp and mushroom sauce, but overcooked strips of tenderloin and starchy linguine, a miss and a mess of an Italian dish because the pasta is parboiled. Desserts ($6.50) are mostly satisfying, including brownie a la mode, apple blossom and housemade Key lime pie.
The price for premium wine is remarkable and laudable, with a 2014 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon offered at $98 ($78 on Mondays and Tuesdays). It was served in Riedel stemware. Caymus can be found for roughly $70 at the cheapest retail stores, such as Total Wine, and typically costs $150 to $200 at restaurants. The luscious liquid, purple and supple and silken, elevated my final recent meal, with perfectly cooked medium-rare New Zealand rack of lamb ($28.95) to a level much higher than the humble decor.
Greenlaw says interior upgrades are ongoing and the carpeting will soon be replaced, perhaps with wood-grained tile. “Much of who we are is Old Florida … but I don’t ever want someone to walk in and think the place is old,” Greenlaw says.
Not to worry. A steak, lobster and wine feast for under a hundred bucks will never get old.
Tropical Acres Steakhouse
2500 Griffin Road, Dania Beach
Cuisine: Steaks and seafood
Cost: Moderate to expensive. Appetizers cost $4 to $12, main courses $16 to $35, sides $4 to $6, desserts $4 to $7. Children’s menu (12 and under) $6.95 to $8.50
Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sundays through November.
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with side lounge and reasonable wine list with daily happy hour and half-priced wine bottles on Monday and Tuesday.
Sound level: Conversational, can get loud with live piano music
Wheelchair access: Ramps to bypass front steps at entrance
Parking: Free valet or lot