Phillips Seafood (Flagship) – Washington, DC


Phillips Seafood (Flagship)
900 Water Street SW
Washington, DC
(202) 488-8515
Monday–Thursday & Sunday, 11am–9pm
Friday & Saturday, 11am – 10pm
Weekend Brunch, 11am – 2:30pm

Overlooking the Washington Channel on the Southwest Waterfront, Phillips Seafood (Flagship) is reputed to be the only all-you-can-eat seafood buffet in Washington DC.  A large buffet of fresh seafood selections, as well other cooked and dessert specialties, make up an glutton friendly display.  A traditional a la carte menu is also available.  For those coming by car, you can swing below to an underground parking garage (complete with a man standing by the payment machine to help speed up the process at dinner time when the line can get long).  Its a pure tourist destination however, so be warned…

The choice for this massive group dinner was left to someone who’s been here before and thought the simple venue and dining style would be conducive to our party – filled with a bunch of big strapping fellows associated with a certain active military outfit and accustomed to big eating of the seafood variety (as they are based on the west coast).  I wasn’t particularly thrilled but decided to chalk it up to one of those unfortunate outings when one’s interest in eating well (and perhaps in more moderate quantities) was thrown to the wayside in the greater interests of group harmony and wasting time arguing about where to eat.  I guess I can be accommodating to a fault.

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Sandbar – Vancouver, BC


Sandbar Seafood Restaurant
1535 Johnston Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 669-9030

Much like an undercover agent infiltrating a tightly closed society, there are times when I deliberately jump right into the most touristy spots I can think of to try and get a sense of what drives non-locals to visit such eating establishments.  More often than not, these kind of places are always touted and raved about by the native city’s mainstream media and publications, that surprisingly have far reaching audiences.  Chalk it up to the incredibly connected and digital world we live in.  In the past twelve years,  I’ve had the pleasure of setting up a home base in four major cities now and in each one, I’ve conducted a similar exercise just for fun.  Here in Vancouver, The Sandbar rated high on my list of tourist traps.

However this time, I had some out of town visitors in tow with me as I guided them around the markets at Granville Island and rather than bother with making a long stroll back to the vehicle we came in, I popped inside up and up the stairs to see if we could get a table on short notice.  Being that it was a beautiful summer day, I had my doubts we could get one on the outdoor patio and that ended up being the case.  Instead we were seated just inside, but the view of the water below was pretty much obscured.  For visitors, provided you get a good stroll around the Island ahead of dinner, I think you can pretty much picture the view you could have if seated on the rail on the patio.

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Cioppino’s – San Francisco, CA


Cioppino’s
400 Jefferson Street
San Francisco, CA
(415) 773-9311

Big groups require big spaces to eat.  Case in point, our party of eight needed ample space to stretch out as well as to be grouped together for a final farewell dinner in San Fran.  With many of us wanting to do some walking around just to see more than the downtown core where we’d spent most of our week, we ended up trekking along the water front and ended up at Cioppino’s for our evening meal.  This place fit the bill as we could see other large parties inside and even got a space up on the top level tired ares that seemed more suited to diners in tables of five or more.  It had a kind of mess hall feel to it, but we were not that close to the other rambunctious gatherings taking place but not too isolated so that we felt neglected, it was a perfect balance.

Apparently, this establishment has a decent history serving up hearty Italian and seafood cuisine.  I’m sure it falls into the realm of the tourist lot, given its location.  But turns out, it didn’t feel that kitschy at all and could have been even better if on a smaller scale with more focused service and attention.  There are times when ambiance and scale really do make a difference in the whole dining experience – and this was one of them.  Perhaps they were smaller when they started, but now are a full fledged, large scale operation.  A decent choice of draft beers (including the local Anchor Steam, and Big Daddy IPA) and red wines (Sonoma, Napa Valley) gave us a good way to get our appetites going further.

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Rainforest Cafe – Orlando, FL


Rainforest Cafe
Disney Animal Kingdom
505 N Rainforest Road
Lake Buena Vista, FL
(407) 938-9100

Downtown Disney.  A destination location without a doubt.  Flooded with families and young children on a hot day in Florida, the scene is a quintessential vacation scene.  Sun, fun and shopping.  What’s not to like.  Especially for the kids.  But there is a dark side.  When it comes to eating, things can become a) quite pricey as they have you a virtual hostage and b) choices are limited.  With only two hours to kill and figuring we should at least check things out (no kids in tow of course) on a business trip, a colleague and I tried to squeeze in both some gift shopping and a late lunch.  Seeking shelter from the bright sun, our reprieve from the unwavering heat ended up being the Rainforest Cafe.  Not the only choice nor a preferred one, just the closest one…

In hindsight, I’ve learned this is a big chain in the States with roots in thirteen states.  As well, they have some international representation in places such as Tokyo, London, Paris, Mexico City and Dubai!  I suppose this theme-style restaurant that stretches the ideal through its menu and motif remains a popular one, despite the downturn of other such adventurous chains like Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe.  Inside and once seated, we got that “have you been here before?” query, no doubt something each server is required to ask patrons.  The reason?  Well, if it were not for the “warning” regarding the every-thirty-minutes sudden explosion of sights and sounds that occurs throughout the entire restaurant – attributed to the animal-themed decorations and props – I’m sure there would be quite the number of shocked customers.  Heart attack-inducing loudness I might add.  Complete with a thunderous roar of artificial sounding thunderstorms and lightning.  Yes, we are after all, in a rain forest people.

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Fog Harbor Fish House – San Francisco, CA


Fog Harbor Fish House
Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39
San Francisco, CA
(415) 421-2442

Not exactly high on my personal “bucket list” but I nonchalantly accepted the invitation from two of my fellow travelers – both first timers to Fog City – to go check out the Golden Gate Bridge after a long day and make the trek over it by foot.  I had no problem with the physical act of crossing, that perhaps took us 30-40 minutes, give or take some for various stops along the way to take photos.  Though we’d only intended to do this one-way, but without any taxi options on the other side, we reluctantly made a U-turn and made the same walk over back to where we came from.  By the end of it all, we pretty hungry and luckily flagged down a ride to take us to Pier 39.

As the fall chill at night on the waterfront is none too pleasant, we quickly scurried to the nearest spot we could find that looked remotely decent.  Our choice was made simply by scanning the signage in our line of sight.  Fog Harbor Fish House, situated on the second deck of the structure not far from where our taxi dropped us off it was.  No wait to be had, good.  Inside was bustling however, and seemingly with people mainly much older than us.  Especially in the back of the house near the restrooms, there were packs of people with white colored hair and fitting the retired tourist demographic.  What made this very interesting was the fact that our server was also in that plus-sixty age zone.  One of my dining partners remarked, “guess we’re getting served by grandma”.  It was cute watching her waddle down the row to bring us our drinks and warm, fresh serving of sourdough bread, it made us feel like we were in grandma’s house. 🙂

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Fore Street – Portland, ME


Fore Street
288 Fore St
Portland, ME 04101-4109
(207) 775-2717

The wave of public opinion is an interesting thing. You see it all the time, especially on public forums and boards like chowhound or egullet. Someone posts about a new restaurant – usually it’s very positive, and people get excited. They want to go and experience it for themselves. They all go in a flood, and validate what the original poster stated. “Nice service, great command of ingredients and technique, wonderful meal”. More people visit, and more people enjoy.

After some time, a few negative reviews come up. Natural, since it is hard for any restaurant to maintain their game day in and day out. But with the really popular restaurants, you start to get this negative backlash. A push. The term “overrated” is thrown around a lot. People go in with very high expectations, and come out disappointed. More pushback. More negative reviews.

Has the quality at the restaurant changed that much? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. I’ve been to some universally lauded restaurants that I didn’t like for one reason or another. I’ve been to some restaurants that have been criticized heavily, and found it to be very enjoyable. It’s why I always reiterate to people to “taste what’s in front of you.” Think about what you’re having, and actually taste it. Don’t assume that what I had tastes the same when you have it. Don’t automatically assume something will be good, or bad. Having an open mind is the most important thing when trying to qualify a dining experience.

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Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar – Vancouver, BC


Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar
1095 Hamilton St (Yaletown)
Vancouver, BC V6B 5T4
(604) 688-8078

I wanted to like Blue Water. I really did. The Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar, from all appearances, was everything i wanted to like. They are in a nice space that isnt too pretentious and has a lot of energy. They serve environmentally sustainable seafood. The service was immaculate. Decent wine program. They even recognize the Japanese approach to seafood, and brought in Itamae Yoshihiro formerly of Yoshi’s on Denman to serve two very different styles of West Coast seafood. I really wanted to love it, and yet, i didnt.

Upon walking into Blue Water, we were immediately greeted by a friendly hostess. We had showed up early so we could have a seat at the bar, and take it all in.  Our bartender was busy – prepping drinks for tables, and other bar patrons, but took the time to let us know he’d be right with us. Through the course of our time there, he was friendly, efficient, helpful, and engaging.

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Besides the really tasty (and free) bread sticks that are available at the bar, we wanted to sample some oysters. While we were handed an oyster menu with 12 or 14 choices, listed, they typically only bring in 6 to ensure maximum freshness. We sampled these extensively, and while not all were to our tastes, they were all very fresh. We did find a couple that we loved, and ordered several more of those!

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