Like a retired schooner that’s outlived her glory days upon the open sea, Backwaters’s On Sand Key rests at the scenic edge of Clearwater Beach dishing out galley grub to serve a variety of ocean-front appetites. Deep navy blue walls and linens meld with dark wooden paneling and furniture to create a casually ship-shape atmosphere catering to both visitors hunting an authentically seaside scene and patrons seeking relaxation at their usual table.
With a rather pedestrian menu featuring nothing beyond the innovations of any given steak and seafood house, the restaurant appeals to a tourist’s appetite for a “Floridian” eating experience. My unanticipated landing in a scenic tourist trap became overwhelmingly apparent within moments of being seated at Backwaters as I was soon surrounded by families of beached-out vacationers. Being a visitor to the area myself, I hold no prejudice against a fellow foreigner, but numerous feisty lads battling to the death of my patience in silverware swordfights significantly detracts from the otherwise placid atmosphere available amidst the outdoor porch seating. However, the inside tables are more prone to host loyal locals coming in for their favorite bites and banter at the bar.
Run by a courteous crew, my initial impressions of the restaurant were slightly tainted by my distracted waitress who appeared more concerned with guests she was apparently closely related to, than the fact that she had her own section needing service. While I awaited my appetizer, I listened in exasperation to a neighboring waitress offer the daily specials which my server neglected to mention. Nevertheless, nearly every ounce of irritation drained from mind with my first dip into Backwater’s legendary lobster-seafood bisque ($6.50). Topped with thinly sliced green onion, this velvety soup lavishly entreats all of the senses. A most lovely warm coloration gives way to rich creamy bliss cradling tinges of the delicate seafood within. Its popularity justified, the bisque could possibly entice you to lick a bowl in public.
In general, the restaurant’s fare itself was nothing short of… pretty good. I utilize such a mundane adjectival phrase in the sense of those occasions from youth when your parents attempted to host “fancy” cook-outs to impress a new neighbor, and you were prompted to stroke their gastronomic ego in offering a “Wow, that was pretty good” during the post-dinner clean-up shuffle. And in the same spirit as I might deliver the remark to my mother, I want to make clear that I did genuinely enjoy my food at Backwater’s…but I would equally enjoy the same meal prepared in a home kitchen without paying 30 bucks for it. There is nothing explicitly bad about the cuisine; most items merely lack the touch of culinary mastery that one would expect from a professional chef.
In fact, as I began eating my borderline tough beef filet, I half expected to hear my mother chime in with a complaint against my father for overcooking the steak. The petite 5 ounce cut is accompanied by a minute taste of the seas with two grilled shrimp and a designated side item as part of the seasonal special Surf and Turf plate ($15.95). For an additional one dollar charge, I opted to experience the chef’s signature butter blackening technique upon my steak. A cooking process typically reserved for seafood and poultry, the blackening adds a charismatic distinction to the beef with a spiced coat encrusting the fillet. Unique though this toasted marshmallow of meat may be, I would have preferred a straightforward succulent cut of strikingly quality steak sans the burnt butter adornment. I must however offer compliments to the concept of plating the meat upon a halved English muffin, which serves to absorb any remaining pan juices as a most flavorful sponge and soft textural contrast. A more prominent cushion on the plate, Backwater’s garlic mashed potatoes are a commendable starch that can certainly hold their own next to a bold beef slab. Creamy and luscious, yet retaining occasional lumps signify a comfortably homey mashed potato dish. And though smoothly laced with buttery garlic undertones, the side maintains a pleasant earthy flavor which confirms that you are indeed consuming a natural tuber from the ground as opposed to hydrogenated flakes from a box. The additional shrimp duo was of a most shrimp-like nature (aka tiny), but arrived with each dawning a notably attractive char. That said, I suspect that those good-looking grill marks were imprinted quite some time before the shellfish reached my table being that they were cold and rubbery by the time I received them. Had my server not been quite so occupied with socializing and taking boardwalk photos with visiting acquaintances, perhaps my meal would have traveled with greater velocity.
To my initial despair, but ultimate pleasure, I found myself seated with the same server on a separate occasion. Refreshingly upbeat and attentive throughout the evening, the young waitress epitomized quality customer service. Not only did she present the evening’s specials this go around, but earnestly aided me in settling upon a final dinner consensus.
Each entrée order commences with bread and diner’s choice of a house or Caesar salad. I’m normally a pathetic sucker for warm bread, but the blandly dry loaf of whole wheat laid before me cried so desperately for the whipped butter at its side I found myself rather turned off after but a few nibbles. Turning instead to my house salad— consisting simply of mixed greens, sunflower seeds, and the house pomegranate vinaigrette—I found relative pre-meal satisfaction. The greens were freshly crisp, though slightly heavily dressed. Even if a bit more than necessary, the vinaigrette possesses enjoyable tang and compliments the toss of nutty seeds quite nicely. Never the most attractive fish in my book, the blackened grouper special of the night reeled me in with a tempting offer of crab-mango salsa ($22). Expectations upheld, the grouper was less than sumptuous… The salsa rang with fresh oceanic flavors in lumps of supple crab flesh and chunky sweet mango; truly, the sole saving grace for the fish resting below. Though the restaurant appears to be a large proponent for blackened protein, their seasoning blend is not quite on par. A heavy hit of spice finds no balance with any relieving salt or savor; though not unequivocally poor by any standard, the rub is simply not a pinnacle of flavor excellence.
The sensation began arising in sync with my fork bearing a bite of grouper, and one taste into the green beans slapped me right back at the family dinner party. While the chef’s fresh veggie selection of the day was obviously fresh, the green beans were overcooked and direly under-seasoned. The plate’s final member, a baked potato was… a baked potato: decent sized russet, well-crisped skin, crumbling dry before an addition of more butter and a dollop of sour cream. What more can be said?
Although dinner at Backwaters is not a formal affair, lunchtime on the waterfront owns a distinctively tranquil ambiance. Whether resting under fans on the porch or in the cool darkness of the restaurant’s interior, a glorious bay view is yours for the taking. By the same token, the open airway between the two seating areas through the conjoined bar allows unwelcomed dining guests to take residence on your plate. Not once did I dine free from at least one insect making its way into my food, but then, I also witnessed a manatee and two dolphins over a bowl of chowder… it’s just a give and take situation. Relaxed though the lunch hour may be, a single server to cover every section is absolutely inadequate, even if she is receiving cheerleading support from an enthusiastic bartender from behind her safe counter. All the same, a slightly frazzled waitress maintained respectable promptness in providing for each table, an utterly commendable feat.
Well aware that ordering the establishment’s specially designed 10th Anniversary Burger ($9.95) was a risk, I could not resist. Consisting of a half-pound patty bearing Swiss cheese, blue cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and a “mound” of skinny fried onions, such a burger is destined to either arrive as an artfully constructed sandwich success or a haphazard sloppy wreck… this beast landed at a happy medium. There being no practical manner to tackle the pile, one’s best bet is to crush down the overkill of beautifully crisp fried onion strings and dive in like a (wo)man. Aside from a few chomps into displeasing gristle, the actual beef patty was well-executed, highlighting a juicy core bound within a well-charred exterior. Yet beyond that, the plate was much like a slightly evolved drive-through meal. Considering this dish is dedicated to the restaurant’s monumental first decade in existence, you would think Backwater’s might spring for a slightly higher quality cut of bacon. Grease streaming from two types of cheese, deep-fried onions, bacon and half a pound of ground beef is too much for the given Kaiser roll to handle. Thus, in addition to your complimentary sides of cole slaw and chips, I suggest you ask for a hefty serving of extra napkins.
Reminiscent of common potluck slaw, that at Backwaters is tasty but lacking depth beyond sweet… very sweet. A touch of acidity or even black pepper could work miracles for the sugary, dressing-laden side dish. If you hope to sidestep bagged potato chips by shelling out the extra dollar in exchange for steak fries, get psyched for only the best thick-cut fries from a bag that the frozen food aisle has to offer. Void of any character whatsoever, the palely golden and unseasoned spud sticks yet again invoke childhood flashbacks of my mother dumping Ore Ida frozen fries onto a cookie sheet.
Backwater’s offers a respectable appeal to customers’ sweet teeth with run-of-the-mill desserts such as molten chocolate cake ($6) and key lime cheesecake pie ($5); however, their simple dip of vanilla bean ice cream ($4) is surprisingly decadent coated in its generous fudgy lava blanket, specked with pecans, embellished with whipped cream and polished off with a maraschino cherry on top. Even if a stretch from gourmet scooping, the sundae is a classic frozen dairy delight.
If for nothing else, a bowl of seafood bisque and the picturesque view make a trip to Backwater’s well worth your while. Beyond their seasoned classics such as the grouper sandwich and butter blackened New York strip, the eatery offers daily rotating lunch, dinner and drink specials. With fair prices, comfortably familiar flavors and a genial staff, Backwater’s On Sand Key may just be the type of joint that floats your boat.
Backwater’s On Sand Key is located at 1261 Gulf Blvd. Clearwater, FL 33767. Open from 11:30 AM to 11 Daily, 11:30 to Midnight, Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations are available at (727) 517-7383.