When Deb's brother and his wife came for a visit on their way down to Key West, we wanted to take them to the local eatery called 'The Watering Hole'. Just a word of info here : this official site for the restaurant wasn't designed with Firefox in mind so it's really only accessible using Internet Explorer.
It's as far removed from being a chain restaurant as you could possibly get and the word 'unique' hardly does it justice.
But it was closed. Sunday you know.
So we went to R.J.Gators instead and I posted a blog about that experience at the time.
Last Saturday we again decided to go to TWH as Deb and Den really wanted me to see it. As it has a sign out by the roadside advertising a live 14' gator on the premises, I REALLY wanted to go there too. I mean that's not something you often see on a restaurant sign in North Leeds after all.
As with a lot of the eating establishments in Florida, the outside of TWH gives little or no insight into the glories to be found within. I'm not sure why this is, but it is. We've been to many places up and down this state (especially in the Keys) and had wonderful food served to us inside a restaurant that, from the outside, looked like it would collapse at any moment or be declared a health risk even by the dubious standards of a 3rd world country.
I vividly remember eating at a place in Key West that had chickens running around that would sometimes jump up on our table to get at our food.
Anyway this is the outside of The Watering Hole.
Not the most welcoming place you've ever seen. In fact I'd go so far as to say it positively screams "keep on going, nothing good happening in here"
It reminded me a bit of the bar in 'From Dusk Till Dawn' even though that was in Mexico and was a huge imposing building.....and full of vampires.
But apart from that............
Anyway the solitary bike and the bars all around the place and the lack of windows - all made it hard to know if it was closed again or if we should even venture in if it WAS open. If I'd been a passing tourist, I know I'd have kept on going - but like a lot of places here, they rely more on word of mouth to get the customers in than how appealing the actual building looks.
It's the old 'don't judge a book by it's cover' thing.
Over to the right of where I'd been standing for the above photo, was THE sign that tends to grap your attention from the road.
Sadly 'Bully' the questionable live gator, moved about as much as this sign. If he was alive, then he had long since lost any interest in entertaining the customers.
Bully was in a huge cage with a mesh so fine you couldn't get a finger through. I couldn't even get a photo as the area was so dark that the camera needed flash and that just lit up the bars of the cage.
I just saw a gator shape and yes, it WAS large. But as a live attraction, he was worthy of being in Madame Tussauds or playing the lead in CSI Miami.
But back to the actual restaurant. You park around the back and first come to a raised wooden seating area which although covered, was still outside. It had a kind of thatched roof and yet was full of large ultra modern tv screens showing the usual mix of NASCAR and US football.
You walk on and go through large doors and arrive at another seating area and yet it's also the corridor into the main part of the restaurant. At the end of this corridor, just as it opens out into the large seating area, they have set up 2 examples of their signature meal which is based around Alaskan King Crab legs.
The platter on the left had one crab leg and a filet mignon along with potatoes, fruit bowl and so on. This full meal was about $46.
The other had 2 crab legs and was $50.
I put a 25c coin (a quarter) on the price tag of the meal on the right to try and give some scale. Those legs were HUGE and to get that meal for the equivalent of £22 (the one with the steak) sure seemed a deal to me.
But we were having something less grand and definitely less expensive. After we'd ordered and were waiting for the food to arrive, I went off to see the gator and take pics of the whole place.
This photo is a view into the body of the restaurant from our table. It was 'relaxed' to say the least but the atmosphere was enlivened by a whole load of golfers who must've been in a tournament nearby. The talk was all about the missed holes in one or the par that could and should have been a birdie.
The usual lies about lies (little golf joke there).
It was VERY dark in the restaurant and the flash on my camera could barely pierce the gloom.
I've had to alter the brightness in Photoshop just to see the people at the back and to remind myself of the layout of the place.
This was more important that a technically perfect image and it's one of those times when a photo will simply be a memory jogger in years to come.
I've already said that the layout of the place was bizarre but some of the wall 'art' was equally bizarre.
Here is a gator skull but it appears to have been some sort of devil gator as it has horns. I assume it's a made up skull but who knows. It was certainly a talking point and beat the hell out of the usual sporting posters or pretentious artworks you often find in restaurants. It also added to my earlier idea that we'd stumbled into the Florida version of 'The Titty Twister' .
At least the horned gator was happy and laughing when it died.
I continued my walk through this large and 'different' restaurant. The gator skull was guarding yet another room which was both a seating area and gave visual access to the kitchen.
At one point, when we were actually eating, a light mist appeared from this kitchen area and then it became quite thick smoke.
A lot of the kitchen staff came out and I asked a server if someone was grilling Bully back there.
She laughed in that sort of "what a dick" way and carried on. It seems something had briefly caught fire but it never got beyond creating a bit of smoke which soon dissipated.
As these photos show, wood featured heavily in the construction of The Watering Hole.
Add subdued lighting and you were left with an overwhelmingly dark and fairly unwelcoming atmosphere.
I've found that a lot in America actually. I think it's a nationwide idea that no one really needs to be able to read the menu or even see clearly what they're eating.
Personally, unless I'm wanting a romantic atmosphere, I don't appreciate needing to have the menu 6 inches from my face to be able to read it and then to be stabbing blindly at my plate, never quite knowing what my fork is going to have on it.
I'm exaggerating of course but replacing the 40 watt light bulbs with a few of 100 watts would be first on my list of improvements...........unless the cook has something to hide !!
Still on my travels around this cavernous restaurant, once I'd poked the 'almost' live gator in the eye with a tooth pick and got no reaction, I moved across this latest room and came upon an expanse of grass with artwork along the back wall to add to the idea that we were now deep in the Florida everglades - having a meal with a gator 25 feet away.
Like you do.
So in this photo we see more diners on the right, then the mini everglades to their left and just out of shot on the extreme left, 14' of the most tranquil caged gator you'd ever wish to meet.
All this wandering had given me an appetite and I headed back to my table where my meal was just being served. I'd ordered the Norwegian salmon and got a slab of fish that could have fed a family of 4. I placed my fork on top of it for scale. I know it came with it's own scales but that's another story and a joke I'll maybe use another time.
I wasn't that taken with the fries (overcooked and much too salty) and the other menu items were odd to say the least.
I mean why have a garnish including banana and a strawberry with salmon ? It was all too Gordon Ramsey for me but the salmon was delicious and I took half of it back home to have the following day.
I can't remember what Debby and Dennis had but they weren't overly impressed either. It was a real experience eating there but we'll not be rushing back anytime soon.
As we left, we passed by the outside/inside area just before the car park. Having gone to the official site and read about the place, I now know this was a Seminole Chickee Hut that was added in 20o3.
A what ? Oh you know, a Chickee Hut. It's a large Tiki Hut for chickens. Oh behave.
Go Google it if you're that bothered.
Here is a corner of the hut with Dennis sniggering at the antics of a local hobo who had just said something much too rude (but very amusing) to be repeated in a family blog.
So that was The Watering Hole.
Bizarre. Different. Unique.
I'd hate to condemn it based on one meal and, after all, we didn't try any of the steaks for which they are famous.
So this jury member is still out but if I had to recommend a local restaurant that will live long in the memory and has a live 14' alligator on the premises, I'd have to say, give this place a try !
It ticks all the boxes.