We've all heard the expression "don't judge a book by its cover," and that also holds true for restaurants.
I'm down here in Key Largo where everything is casual and I mean casual. I even went to a local clothing store to buy a Hawaiian style floral shirt so I felt comfortable in some of the places we dined.
Last night we dined at Rib Daddy's Steak and Seafood at Mile Marker 102. The locals use mile markers as a reference the same way people in New Jersey where I grew up use the Garden State Parkway exits to describe where something is located.
From the outside and the inside, Rib Daddy's looks like one of those Ponderosa Steak Houses. Lots of wood paneling and large wooden tables and booths spread out with the addition of a couple of large saltwater fish tanks, one of which we were able to sit next to. We arrived late for this family style restaurant so we had the place to ourselves and were able to enjoy the nightly ritual of feeding the fish.
Rib Daddy's had received lots of good reviews online but as soon as I walked into the place I was suspect. Didn't look right to me. Didn't feel right either but we have been eating at local seafood restaurants for the past couple of days so we were all craving MEAT.
I ordered bottle of wine from a very limited wine list and they came back and said they were out of it but how about this other one that I'd never head of. Suspicion radar rising. I ordered something else that I've had before, and after several minutes of backroom searching by the waiter, it arrived at the table.
We all ordered some version of steak and/or ribs that came with soup or salad and garlic bread. My youngest and I always split a steak so I ordered both the salad and a cup of their conch chowder. I'm trying to order it wherever we go so I can compare. When the salad came out I could see it was pre-made, right out of the refrigerator. The dressing came in a little plastic container and was so cold I had to spoon it out.
After the salad plates were cleared and we enjoyed watching the tropical fish in the tank, I started wondering what happened to my cup of conch soup. I reminded the waiter and it arrived at the table in a matter of seconds.
I'm thinking to myself "this was a mistake" and that I should have trusted my instincts before we set foot in the place but we were all hungry, it was late, and the kids were getting cranky. For everyone's sake, I kept my mouth shut so we could get through this meal and leave. I was really dreading what their steaks would be like.
My first spoonful of the conch soup started me thinking I may have overreacted to the surroundings. It was very tasty with lots of pieces of conch in a savory tomato base. Actually a lot more conch than one of the "better" restaurants we dined in. Hmmm. This is looking better.
When the steaks arrived (I know this sounds crazy), I could smell they were going to taste good. They had a charbroil scent that was very appealing. My first cut into the medium-done filet mignon further illustrated how good the steak was going to be. It was tender, not overcooked like so many steakhouses do to a steak when ordered medium-done.
One bite made me realize I was totally wrong judging Rib Daddy's by its appearance rather than the food itself. Saying that, I do believe atmosphere has a lot to do with the total dining experience. I forgot this is a vacation destination favored by fishermen, scuba divers and tourists like us who want to eat local fish under thatched roofs while listening to Jimmy Buffet music.
There are also a lot of families camping or staying in one of the dozens of quaint motels on the water with limited budgets. Rib Daddy's is the perfect atmosphere for us. Big family-style dining, no tablecloth, plenty of really good food, for a reasonable price.
What I realized this night out, I was not only judging the décor, but I didn't have my expectations in check. I was thinking Ruth's Chris steakhouse but instead I found Key Largo atmosphere, incredible steaks at a good price.
And we all agreed the garlic bread was the best we've ever had, not to mention how tasty Meg's barbecue ribs were.
Don't judge a restaurant by its cover; it just may surprise you in a good way.