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Salt Rock and its Progeny: Is thisTrifecta of Star Gulf Beach Restaurants Slipping??

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Since moving to the area last year, I was pleased to have discovered the star restaurants of the beaches: Salt Rock Grill, Island Way Grill, and more recently, Marlin Darlin. I also enjoyed their little cousin in Clearwater, Hogfish Grill. However, since the first of this year we have detected a notable slip in quality at all four venues. I have gritched about the spotty transformation of Hogfish into Rumba on this board before, so I won't repeat myself here. In the past couple weeks, with a string of guests in town, we've been to Island Way, Salt Rock, and Marlin Darlin on at least one occasion each. Unfortunately, none of them met the high standards of which we had become accustomed.

Island Way Grill: We went there at 8:00 on a Monday, and they were sold out of their specials of the day (on a Monday?!) as well as a standard menu item, DH's wok yellowtail snapper was awful--overcooked and slathered with a burnt hoisin sauce. The calamari was overly oily and lacked flavor, and my crab ceviche was ho-hum. Our server was great, I must say.

Marlin Darlin: The food is still great, especially their very tasty calamari and onion soup dumplings. It definitely has the most innovative menu of the three restaurants. The service on our last two visits there, however, has been off. The server we had this past time seemed pretty green, with limited knowledge of the menu and poor timing for serving our food and keeping our water glasses filled. He actually served both our guest and me entirely wrong glasses of wine (as in, white instead of red) from what we had ordered, but corrected the mistake when we pointed out his error.

Salt Rock Grill: I went with a group this evening, and the service was very spotty. Our food was served lukewarm on overly-hot plates after a long hiatus after finishing our salads, always a sign our entrees had been sitting under the hot lights for awhile. One fellow diner had to send her steak back--it was actually burnt, with a thick crust of inadible charcoal on one side (she'd ordered it medium).

I was told by a local insider in the restaurant industry that Frank Chivas and his partners have made their bucks and have lost interest in maintaining the level of quality that had earned these restaurants their stellar reputations. He told me that at Island Way Grill, for example, they used to only hire culinary school-trained folks for the kitchen, but are now employing untrained part-time college kids.

Fact or fiction? Has anyone else out there noticed these local culinary mega-stars ain't what they used to be? Any insight into why?

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  1. I hope you are wrong but if you're right it would not surprise me. Seems when people go the way of more money and start spreading things thin the cuisine and service start to suffer.
    I am stealing the word gritch from you! ; )

    1. salt rock is a fun restaurant that rest on their laurels without creativity. I ate there last week , they sent the wrong fish, had to send another dish back becasue it was cold. No mangement on the floor. Poorly run. The menu has not changed in 5 years.They have a gold mine but they are not interesting in putting a good product forward.

      1. Salt Rock has slipped since last year, no doubt. Through late '05 it was great; then it seemed more uneven (and slower) but still very good in several visits in '06. The last time there (this past winter) I felt it was no longer worth the $. As a relatively recent emigree to FL, I've been to Island Way twice and wondered what all the fuss was about - uneven/OK food quality each time. Perhaps it was the first to start slipping. Marlin Darlin is still new; haven't been there in a month or so but have enjoyed all my meals there so far.

        1. Experienced the EXACT same thing you described at the Salt Rock Grill last time we were there. I hope the rumor is untrue, but sadly, it seems that it may not be the case. Thank you for the heads up. Next time we are out that way, we will be cautious!

          2 Replies
          1. re: HeatherFL

            We can only hope that management reads this forum, because the restaurant has so many positive. It can be a great and memorable restaurant if they want

            1. re: rothdan

              I agree, and hope for the same thing. There's a strong market for high-quality dining on the beaches, and the restaurants in question earned their reputation in the past, but they can't just rest on their laurels and let their quality slip. They will lose their business, and we, in turn, will lose a couple of great chowing venues.

          2. Laurie, loved your review of Hapa and we'll be going there. We went to Marlin Darlin w/another couple about a month ago, and share your feeling that it's not quite up to our experiences at Island Way and Salt Rock, and those experiences weren't recent, so they've probably slipped also. Had the feeling that Marlin Darlin was a clone/wannabe of Bonefish Grill - not really much different and MUCH louder. We were there on a busy nite so maybe a little louder than usual, but when you design a restaurant, acoustics are something you design, and you want a certain amount of buzz/energy but they've overdone it.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jerryk

              Thanks for the kind words, Jerry. I will be back at Hapa in a couple weeks with a group, and hope we have as amazing an experience as we did in January.

              Sorry to hear you're feeling the same way about Marlin Darlin. We really enjoyed our early experiences there soon after it opened, and it's still our favorite of the three sibling venues. Perhaps our experiences were part and parcel with the pressures of the tourist season; maybe now that the season is winding down, us locals (which I think I get to call myself now, having been a Floridian for over a year!) will have better luck.