After the thousands of years that I've been dining in restaurants, I think I've arrived at one truth: A dinner can be a success even if the food is just average if two other elements are stellar service and aesthetics. A friendly waitperson who actually knows what the specials are, checks in with appropriate frequency and promptly remedies any need makes all the difference. A great atmosphere adds to the package, making it the kind of place you want to be.
I learned this lesson at Surfish Station, a young restaurant located in an old gas station on Patterson Avenue just west of the Boulevard. We visited twice and had two different experiences. On the first try, we had a waitress who didn't know a clam from a codfish, food that was either under- or over-cooked, and we were seated in the new, nondescript addition attached to the old filling station. On the second visit, we had a knowledgeable, attentive waiter and were seated in the main part, which unfortunately is designated as the smoking section but offers a fun, lively dining environment with oldies music, comfortable banquette seating, neon fish dangling above and garage doors pushed up when weather permits. Even though we were not overly impressed with what we ate, we enjoyed our visit, thanks to service and aesthetics.
On our second visit, we arrived at Surfish Station at 7 p.m. on a Friday and were seated promptly by a personable maitre d'.
For starters, I ordered a half-pound of mussels ($4.95) and Bottomless Pitt ordered a half-dozen oysters ($5.95). My mussels, about 15 of them, were nicely steamed, generous in size and served with melted butter. B.P.'s oysters were so-so, a bit mealy and boasting no saltwater taste. On our previous visit I'd had a cup of crab and lobster chowder, and it was incredibly creamy and delicious. Our salads, included with dinner, arrived soon after and they were fine just your basic iceberg lettuce, chopped red onion and cuke slices.
Entrees on the menu include seafood platters, crab cakes, fish and the requisite prime rib, chicken and surf 'n' turf, all priced under $20. Specials were chicken Alfredo, frog legs, soft-shell crabs and a tuna steak sandwich. I decided on the pasta du jour ($15.95) penne with plentiful shrimp and scallops in a creamy, pink marinara sauce that was tasty and complementary of the seafood. It didn't knock my socks off, but it was satisfactory. B.P. chose the soft-shell crab special, billed as three pan-fried specimens served on toast with french fries and slaw ($26.95). The crabs arrived still sporting a good deal of flour, and B.P. reported that they were rather mushy and underdone.
Not wanting to be a complainer, he hemmed and hawed but ultimately returned them to be further fried. The manager took care of the return and was extremely cordial about it all, and our waiter apologized as well.
The dinner ended with a slice of key lime pie, served with a large dollop of whipped cream, and paid for by the manager who was still feeling badly about the soft-shells unnecessary but a nice gesture nevertheless.
After two visits, I can say that what Surfish Station offers is an informal setting for a wide range of patrons bikers, grannies, babies and yupsters. The food is reasonably priced if not impeccably prepared, the service has potential to be wonderful, depending on who you get, and the setting is innovative, depending on where you sit. Time will tell which experience dominates and determines the fate of this newbie.
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