The new Bass Pro Shop perched at water’s edge on the Garland side of Lake Ray Hubbard is a wonder to behold. It’s easily the most impressive store I’ve ever seen.
It’s a PETA person’s nightmare, for sure — there are stuffed deer, bears, armadilloes, squirrels, ‘coons, and other wildlife all over the place, skillfully arranged to look as if they’re alive and kicking and cavorting amongst the merchandise. There are large man-made streams and ponds both inside and out, with thundering waterfalls right there in the middle of the store. The back wall is glass and looks out across the lake.
Tucked into a back corner is the Islamorado Fish Company Restaurant, and its architecture and attention to detail in design are just as spectacular as the rest of the store. Soaring rough-hewn beam ceilings give it the look of a huge ski lodge. There’s a big fireplace at one end, and comfy leather sofas and chairs to sit in when you’re waiting for a table (and take it from me, you will have to wait). Behind the bar is an enormous salt water aquarium. The east wall of windows looks out to the lake, over a man-made white sandy beach festooned with gas tiki torches. Tables and chairs are thick wooden western style with padded seats. It’s a truly lovely place, a place you wouldn’t mind spending the entire afternoon.
The first time I went there, for lunch with my son, service was great and the food was delicious. The waiter rushed out with a slab of hot, oddly sweet just-baked bread that blew my diet before I ever even ordered. Throwing caution to the wind, I shared a generous calamari appetizer with him and then had the grilled sea scallops platter with a baked potato. The seafood was all tender and cooked to perfection and the potato was done and nicely loaded with fluffy whipped cream and grated cheese. Water glasses were refilled promptly.
Yesterday, my husband and I went there and I was eager to share my great experience with him. Unfortunately, things change – and not always for the better. First, we were told it would be a ten to fifteen minute wait even though it was 3:00 in the afternoon. No problem with that — but forty minutes later when we were still sitting, and observing numerous empty tables (none of which had been bussed), we were getting a bit irritable. Hunger will do that to you.
Finally a busboy started working on one of the larger tables. Watching him "work" was amazing. He’d put a plate in his bin, then stop and stare off into space for a while. Then he’d take a swipe at the table with his rag, then look all around the restaurant for a while. Then he’d rake some food onto the floor, then step on it, grinding it into the carpet, then (I’m not kidding here) stop to pick his nose for a while. It took him over fifteen minutes to clear one table. Of course, since this was a table for eight, a large party that had arrived after we did got it. There were half a dozen parties sitting in the waiting area, watching this busboy in amazement and commenting on his extraordinary incompetence. At least we had free entertainment – and a bonding experience with other customers.
As our wait approached an hour, completely exasperated, I went back up to the desk and asked when we might expect to be seated, given we’d already waited over half an hour longer than we’d been led to expect. By this time, another busboy had joined the first and there were several smaller tables clean and sitting there empty. The guy with the waiting list mumbled something about the manager telling him not to seat anyone until 4:00. It was about three minutes ’til 4:00 at this point. The hostess swooped in and shushed him, and immediately took us to a table.
I thought the bad part was over at that point, but I thought too soon. I ordered a Caesar salad to start, and my husband ordered stuffed mushrooms and a bowl of New England clam chowder. The salad was good, and he liked the mushrooms, but the chowder was watery and disappointing. For the main course, I ordered the scallops again, as they’d been so great before. And a baked potato with NO bacon — something I repeated twice. I don’t eat pork. Tom ordered the spareribs, which according to the menu were "so tender they fall off the bone."
When the large rack of ribs arrived, the size was impressive but the quality wasn’t. Far from falling off the bone, he had to fight and pull to get any off the bone at all. It was tough and hard to even pierce with a fork.
My scallops were a little dry but otherwise okay. My baked potato, on the other hand, had a huge glob of bacon on top. I pointed out that I’d said "no bacon." Twice. The waiter stared at it, stared at me, and said "Oh … sorry." I stared back, until finally he said, "Um, I guess I could get you another one without the bacon." YES! Right answer, if a little slow coming to it.
I had finished all the rest of my food by the time the new potato arrived. No bacon, but the sour cream was thin and watery and there was only a tiny bit of congealed cheese on top – a far cry from the great baked potato I’d had before. To add insult to injury, when we got the check later, I found that I had been charged extra for the new potato, even though the potato was supposed to come with the seafood platter.
I noticed that some of the tables around us had gotten that yummy bread that had been served to my son and me the first time I was there. I asked the waiter why we didn’t get any. His answer: "Oh — I just forgot." To his credit, he did immediately bring us a slab of bread, which due to its sweetness actually makes a good dessert, and he brought two extra loaves in a take-home container that we didn’t even ask for. At that point, I suppose it might have gotten through to him that his tip was in grave danger.
Throughout the meal, as we sat there with empty water glasses and coffee cups, there was another young man who walked up and down between the tables carrying a small round tray (there was nothing on the tray). He didn’t serve anyone, he didn’t speak to anyone that I noticed, he just walked up and down, looking everyone over as if to make sure we didn’t steal the salt shakers or something. My husband dubbed him "the pit boss."
All in all, it was a disappointing experience for me and more so for my husband. At least my scallops tasted good, if not as wonderful as the first time. After eating about one fourth of the ribs, he gave up on that and filled up on the bread after it belatedly arrived.
I really, really want to love Islamorada. The atmosphere is so cozy and comforting, and the hostess at the front is fantastically friendly. The food can be wonderful; maybe it’s the difference between the weekend cooks and the weekday cooks, or just a matter of the food sitting too long and getting too cold before the waiters get to them.
I found myself wishing they’d put me in charge for a day. I’d fire a few people and invest heavily in training for whomever was left. Open only a few weeks, in a location that’s been needing a good seafood restaurant for years, the place is set up to be a huge success. But I’m afraid that won’t happen if they don’t improve the consistency and quality of their service.
Meanwhile, I think next time we’ll go to Gloria’s across the lake. Each time we’ve been there, we’ve received the same not outstanding but perfectly decent service, excellent hot, filling Salvadoran food and dinner for two costs less than half what it does at Islamorada.
In fact, next time we go I’ll do another review, and hopefully this will be a rave one.