Step inside the Boathouse and you'd think that CEO Steve Schussler (Rainforest Café, T-Rex, Yak & Yeti) was out to build the theme restaurant to end all theme restaurants. Even amid the teeming throngs of tourists and the constant construction in Disney Springs, the Boathouse (styled here in bombastic all-caps: BOATHOUSE) is hard to miss. A soaring phallus masquerading as a lighthouse tower pointedly marks the entry into Schussler's monstrous house of boating paraphernalia and seaside eats. The place is enormous – three distinct dining rooms, a centerpiece bar area, outside seating, a stage for live music, and a gift shop the size of which befits a shopping mall more than a restaurant. The only thing missing, I remarked to my dining comrade, was a full-fledged ride, but that certainly didn't stop us from taking in the ridiculous spectacle. The metaphoric splash Schussler undoubtedly wanted to make? Consider it achieved. Diners are submerged in a world of nautical porn – dream boats, outboard motors, fish trophies, vintage ship throttles – and just when you think it's all a little too overwhelming, the unmistakable sounds of Christopher Cross crooning "Sailing" drowns your ears.
Beneath the blast of an AC vent, we were seated in close proximity to the stage, where a couple of musicians were readying their set. The only thing more chilled than we were was the lobster cocktail ($18), served on ice. The pound-and-a-quarter cucaracha del mar gave us cause to crack and slurp, which ultimately helped to refocus our attentions onto the food. In addition to feeling good about eating local and sustainable middleneck clams ($15) from Cedar Key, Florida, we thoroughly enjoyed their subtly sweet flavor. Also subtly sweet were the soft Parker House rolls that admirably filled the gap between starters and mains. I was really looking forward to the yellowedge grouper ($33) as my entree, but it was only after the impeccably broiled spice-rubbed fish was devoured that I learned it was on Seafood Watch's "Avoid" list. Had I known beforehand, I wouldn't have ordered it. I guess the label on the top of the menu reading "thoughtfully sourced products" is just that – a label. Nevertheless, the buttery succotash of roasted corn, avocado, blistered tomatoes and jalapeños on which the grouper lay was stellar. Was it worth the regret we felt afterwards? Nope.
Given the Boathouse is managed by Gibsons Restaurant Group out of Chicago, it's no surprise they carry a superior line of USDA Prime steaks. Gibsons, in fact, is the only restaurant group to have their own USDA certification, and the 14-ounce New York strip ($48) easily lived up to expectations. (One gripe: no ribeyes on the menu.) Now, for $48, I would've expected an accompaniment or two, but not so. Steaks are served a la carte here, so we ordered a side of roasted new potatoes ($8) though, in actuality, the steak stood on its own.
Neither the Key lime pie in a Mason jar ($9) nor the double chocolate bundt cake ($10) impressed us; the former lacked bite and the latter was overly saturated with berry coulis. Service for the most part is polished and professional, though some of the busboys need a rudimentary course on how to clear tables in a less disruptive way.
On our way out, a man donned in captain's garb standing at the entrance to a boat ramp caught my eye, and that's when I saw it – the full-fledged ride I jokingly said the restaurant needed. Seems guests of the Boathouse can take a ride in amphibious cars called Amphicars for a mere $125. The lyrics I heard Christopher Cross warble just an hour before rang true: Fantasy – it gets the best of me.
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