Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

True story: nothing says special occasion like a good dive.

Knowing we had reason to celebrate, Mr. Wright had suggested the Shrimp Shack after we'd stopped in one night to score a pound of steamed shrimp to eat on the deck. Waiting for them to pack up our crustaceans, we'd snuck a peak into the bar and been immediately seduced.

Wood paneled walls and a low ceiling worthy of a '70s rec room. Bar stools that have seen a lot of big butts. Colorful signs all over the mirror behind the bar. Silverware wrapped in paper napkins.

And, yes, a signed poster of Guy Fieri from that time in 2015 when he stopped by to sample the shrimp fritters and the Senator-style (that's almond-crusted) catch of the day and gone on to feature the Shrimp Shack on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives."

And while we're no Guy Fieri fans, we knew a good dive when we see one.

Although the Shack had been practically empty the night we'd stopped by, when we got there last night, it was bustling, as evidenced by the smiling hostess who greeted us by saying, "Would you mind a 20-25 minute wait?"

Honey, we've got nothing but time. And if you want to talk about a couple of patient people, let us tell you about the wait we had to meet each other.

Besides, barely twenty minutes later, people began exiting the bar like rats from a sinking ship and she led us in, menus in hand and apology for the wait on her lips, to the prime real estate of two center stools.

Turns out the reason for the mass exodus was that the Tuesday evening happy hour club had just left for the Moose Lodge, where it was Queen of Hearts night. The bartender, who was also a co-owner, explained that the group of four couples comes in every Tuesday and the men sit at one table and the women at another, all gabbing and drinking.

Promptly just before 7:00, the slightly loopy posse pays up and moves on.

And, yes, she knows every one of their drink orders by heart, despite the fact that half the couples are snow birds who are only down here half the year. When she goes on vacation, she notifies the group in advance so they won't be disappointed when they arrive to a new face.

Once they leave, she knows the rest of the night is smooth sailing.

Our sojourn at the bar began when Mr. Wright explained that we needed bubbles. Although they were recently out of splits of the Coppola "Sofia" Brut Rose, my first choice, we had no complaints with her suggestion of the JP Chenet Blanc de Blanc Brut splits - truth is, French bubbles do trump California bubbles - which were nowhere to be found on the menu.

Because of course the Shrimp Shack would have a secret stash of bubbly with subtle notes of lime.

We were noshing hard on smoked fish dip - a staple of our diet down here - although I couldn't help asking for Saltines instead of the Ritz crackers they typically serve theirs with, when we asked our girl to take a picture of us and the reason for the celebration slipped out.

"That's why you needed bubbles!" she grinned, snapping away.

It wasn't the moment to share that we can drink bubbly for no reason at all, but sure, we could let her think that as long as she kept bringing the splits.

Meanwhile, regulars came and went around us, each of them greeted by our knowing bartender with a killer smile and a memory that catalogued each of their preferences.

"Miller Lite, Danny?" she asked the sunburnt guy who sat down next to me wearing a tank top and sunglasses on the back of his head. "The usual cheeseburger or are you in the mood for something else?" she inquired of a blond at the end of the bar. Sometimes, she had the drink poured or beer open before they even sat down.

That's some good service right there.

Mr. Wright took her recommendation on the special of yellowtail snapper, while this beach chick went with a traditional shrimp basket (albeit served on a plate) because what's a true beach meal without cole slaw and hushpuppies?

We were sitting back stuffed and still sipping bubbles when our girl arrived with a slice of Key lime pie and two spoons, her gift to us in honor of our celebration. It's the third time we've had the local dessert since we got here and each version is different than the last. The Shack's was the least creamy and most dense, its graham cracker crust nowhere near as thick as the one we'd had at Islamorada Fish Company a few nights before.

Hell, we even saw a menu with a chocolate ganache-covered Key lime pie, a combination that even this chocoholic has trouble getting her head around.

Our charming bartender had been right about the trajectory of the evening and the longer we lingered, the clearer it became that the tourist trade arrived and left early while the locals rolled up once the amateurs had gone back to their temporary digs.

We may not be locals, but we'd timed our visit perfectly, made an ally of the bartender/owner, documented the occasion and had a ball doing it.

And frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if the next time we hit the Shrimp Shack, a couple of JP Chenet splits are waiting on the bar for us before our butts hit the stools.

Seems that's just how Islamorada dive bars do.


    Is there a particular reason you are celebrating or just life and love in general I need to know

  2. That is the sweetest thing and, now that you mention it, I do remember reading about your previous monthly celebrations.

    But what can I say? You are on vacation AND celebrating and maybe I got a little too excited.

    Extremely envious of the cute clothes weather you are enjoying right now!