The main dining room erupts with the sound of wooden mallets pounding tables in unison (sort of) as diners celebrate a birthday or anniversary. For the most part, these folks have no idea whose birthday they are celebrating, but this cacophony is such a tradition at the Rustic Inn, you gleefully go along with the mayhem.
The mallets, of course, are for cracking crabs, another tradition at the Rustic Inn that dates back to the 1950s, when this was a little crab shack on a canal at the outskirts of a fledgling Fort Lauderdale.
The Rustic Inn retains much of its original charm while expanding over the years to a porch and then dockside dining. They have a barge with a bar anchored at the dock for private parties.
Back in the day, newspapers covered the tables, but now the tablecloth is a sheet sturdy coated paper to catch your crab droppings. Don’t know if that has anything to do with the decline of newspapers or the increased recycling of newsprint, but I suspect it’s a combination of the two.
A bowl of the restaurant’s “World Famous Garlic Crabs” — $37 on our visit — is still the most popular item on the menu. And that brings us back to the mallets.
These wooden weapons of destruction are used to crack open crab shells, one by one, so you can dig out the meat. The result is fragments of shells flying from table to table, but nobody seems to mind because you have no idea if the shells came from your table or the one next door!
The “World Famous Garlic Crabs” are blue crabs most often found eastern coastal bays, the kind that made Maryland famous. The inn also serve garlic Golden Crabs, caught off Florida’s east coast, and Dungeness garlic crabs from the Pacific.
The portions are generous and the garlic is not spared, roasted whole and tenderly emerging, peel-by-peel from the secret recipe that sets these crabs apart, bringing patrons back week after week, year after year.
Stone crabs are served here in season (Oct. 15-May 15). A friend who dined with us ordered three jumbos as an appetizer for $19.99. A full dinner is also available, including five claws and parsley buttered potatoes. He said five claws would have been plenty for dinner, and he’s a big guy.
I’m not one to find a lot of reward picking through crabs for tiny morsels, so I considered ordering either filet of mahi-mahi ($21) or filet of grouper ($21) before choosing the “Both feet in the water” House specialty of a half-split cold-water lobster (Maine or Canada) with clam stuffing with two clusters of garlic Goldens for $27. You can alternatively choose Alaskan queens, Dungeness or blues. For $36, you can order “one foot in – one foot out” that includes a New York strip steak.
I really enjoyed the clam stuffing, flavored slightly with bacon, and though it a perfect complement to the sweetness of the lobster, which included half the tail and half the claw, making the meat easy to peel out.
For an appetizer, I loved the spicy Islamorada conch chowder ($2.50 per cup with an entrée), and my wife enjoyed the New England clam chowder, although she dipped into my thick-with-conch soup to spice up her own.
Linguini is the pasta of choice here, and it is served with red crab sauce (of course), white clam sauce or a mixed sauce as an entree for $14 (or $8 as a side dish).
Like most classic fish houses in Florida, there is a selection of fried entrees, including fried clam strips ($16), fried fish of the day ($19), fried scallops ($21), fried oysters ($23), Maryland crab cakes ($21) and fried soft-shell crabs ($27).
And nobody leaves the Rustic Inn without capping off dinner with a slice of their homemade Key Lime Pie ($4.50).
If you find the prices a bit lofty, I felt the same way. But the tab, including drinks, came to $100 per couple, which is what you would really end up paying at any fish house in South Florida if you nickel-and-dimed your way through appetizers, as we usually do. And this place is special.
So if you are looking for a traditional crab house with traditional fixin’s and the traditional fun of getting messy with crabs, you’d be hard-pressed to be disappointed at the Rustic Inn.
Reservations not required (or accepted)
Get there early (before 6) and you can usually be seated in the indoors dining rooms right away, although there may be a slight wait for a dockside table on weekends. Keep in mind that the later you arrive, the longer you’ll wait for a table. It will also be more difficult after 6 to find a decent parking place in their sandy parking lot.
If you are meeting friends here, don’t bother asking to be seated until your entire party has arrived. But the first group to get there should put their names in with the hostess (located on the back porch), and they will seat you as soon as you’re ready. They turn tables over quickly. There’s a bar inside where you can enjoy a beer, a glass of wine or a cocktail while you wait.
It seems like a maze when you’re inside, but don’t despair. There are signs everywhere telling you where to go, and the busy wait staff will pause to give you directions.
- Rustic Inn, 4331 Ravenswood Road (Anglers Avenue), Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312. (954) 584-1637
- Web site: http://www.rusticinn.com/
- Menus: http://www.rusticinn.com/menus_deals.html
Things To Do Nearby: Sportsman’s Park
International Game Fish Assocation Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s here where they keep track of record catches worldwide with a treasure trove of fishing memorabilia and historical exhibits, including the largest fishing library in the world. 300 Gulf Stream Way Dania Beach, FL 33004. (954) 927-2618. Web site: http://www.igfa.org/
Bass Pro Shops. My friends call it the “temple of fishing” because it has such a huge selection of fresh and saltwater fishing gear, outdoor gear and outdoor wear. Outside, they sell Mako fishing boats and Bass Pro’s full line of freshwater Tracker bass boats. There’s also a dive shop next door. 200 Gulf Stream Way, Dania Beach, FL 33304. (954) 929-7710 Web site: https://www.basspro.com
Islamorada Fish Company. Another great restaurant that gets its fish fresh from its own fleet in the Florida Keys. This is the same outfit that has a tiki bar at the Wide World of Fishing in Islamorada (also owned by Bass Pro). 220 Gulf Stream Way, Dania Beach, FL 33304. (954) 927-7737. Web site: www.fishcompany.com
TY Park. Although you really don’t get a sense of being in the woods at this Broward County park, it is a really nice little campground designed for RVs with all the amenities, including full hookups, and close to the popular resort areas of Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale. There are 61 paved RV sites, a restroom with hot showers and a laundry. Campsites are $40 for non-residents and $30 for residents of South Florida’s tri-counties. There’s a two-mile paved, multi-use trail for biking, hiking and skating, and the campground is across the lake from a waterpark that is popular with kids. Pets are allowed, but you’ll need to pay a $1 fee per pet (max. 2).
- T.Y. Park, 3300 N. Park Road, Hollywood, FL, 954-357-8811 for campground reservations and park information. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Web site: Topeekeegee Yugnee Park
How to get there:
The Rustic Inn and Sportsman’s Park are located on the west side of Fort Lauderdale Airport. Exit Interstate 95 at Griffin Road and go west to the first intersection, which is Angler’s Avenue (historically known as Ravenswood Road).
Turn right and go about a half-mile to the Rustic Inn.
Turn left and go about a quarter-mile to Sportsman’s Park. A mile or so past Sportsman’s Park is TY Park.