By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
With an abbreviated schedule tailored to the weekend sailing crowd, Dinghy Bar & Grill doesn't have much trouble maintaining the lively Parrothead vibe that's critical to the success of a restaurant most patrons reach by boat. The deck bar's crowded with fanny-packed sailors fleeing midlife crises and old salt-ettes, droopy in their ill-advised bikini tops, drinking rums and Cokes, even when so few tables in the casual dining room are taken that the hostess' only line is "Wherever you like!" On three out of four nights, there's a cover band, wringing untold decibels from Motown anthems.
But Dinghy's festive feel was especially pronounced the first night I visited, when my meal coincided with a wedding. The couple was readying to take their vows in a sunset ceremony on a charter moored at the end of the dock, so the bridal party was stuck milling around the bar, drinking Bud Light with Lime—the most exotic beer on Dinghy's all-domestic list—and posing for photos.
The bridesmaids wore black, a color that's popular for weddings because it flatters even the fattest future sister-in-law and because cash-strapped bridesmaids can wear whatever's in their closets and still sort of match when they tie on their identical $15 silk sashes. If I learned anything during my year spent selling wedding dresses, it's that a bride who chooses a sash rather than a dress for her girls is not a well-heeled bride.
So I'm guessing that a beach wedding in Cozumel or St. Bart's wasn't going to happen for this particular bride. She wasn't going to jet off to St. Tropez and stand with her beloved in the sand. Heck, her father—who sat at the bar until another guest came by to corral him—may have refused to spring for a shindig in Galveston.
What's so brilliant about Dinghy Bar & Grill is it gave our middle-class bride the chance to go barefoot at her wedding and at least pretend she was somewhere more tropical than Lake Lewisville. Even guests who aren't minutes away from matrimony are likely to find that fantasy's the best thing on offer at Dinghy, the high-profile endeavor from Del Frisco's founder Dee Lincoln and her brother Ricky Comardelle, a houseboat builder who previously ran a dinner cruise in Destin, Florida.
The food's mostly passable at Dinghy—with a few alarming exceptions—but there's almost nothing on the menu you couldn't find 10 minutes from your house. Dinghy's big draw is its exacting rendition of beachcomber culture, an import as incongruous and appreciated as an ice skating rink in Dubai.
The restaurant has a few ritzy items on its Cajun-inflected menu, presumably so yachtsmen can flex their overstuffed wallets, but otherwise keeps its pretensions in check. Rib-eyes and filets aside, Dinghy is a standard-issue fried-fish joint with lovely scenery. A hungry customer who approaches the place expecting culinary grandeur is bound to be disappointed.
Indeed, anyone who wanders—or floats—into Dinghy might consider shifting the latitude of their expectations. The restaurant's been assailed by online commentators for adopting a stricter dress code than its predecessor in the same space, where men could apparently dine in swim trunks; charging more than nearby fueling stations for drinks; and serving lesser steaks than Del Frisco's. True, true and true, but I'd advise ordering a cold beer and thinking about more important things, like what you'd name your boat.
In defense of those disillusioned guests, Dinghy doesn't always make it easy to ignore its missteps. Its menu is fraught with premade items, defrosted with varying degrees of aptitude. My French fries were correctly cooked once, but over-crisped and painfully over-salted on another visit. Slender sweet potato fries were a debacle: The fries, dredged in tempura batter and sugar crystals, had icy cold centers. Usually a can't-miss side, these sweet taters were knitting needles of disappointment.
A few dishes that probably weren't ordered from a catalog were similarly cursed with industrial and unimaginative flavoring. Perhaps the single worst thing I sampled was a plate of tuna nachos, which presented my first lesson in eschewing expectations at Dinghy. I'd imagined a heap of nachos with slivers of tuna laid atop it, but was instead served a pathetic-looking plate of hors d'oeuvres that a struggling home ec student might submit as a final project. The nachos, intended to be a Southwestern riff on sushi, featured mushy bits of dry-rubbed tuna and avocado paste painted on unappetizingly damp blue corn chips. It's a dish I certainly wouldn't wish on anybody wobbling off a boat, drunk and seasick.
Nor can I endorse the crawfish boudin, which had no discernible spice and appeared to have been plumped with cornmeal. Rice had a far better showing in the gumbo I tried, although I suspect few native Louisianans would classify the nearly translucent soup as such. I know some cooks refuse to mix roux and seafood, using filé to thicken their shrimp stews, but Dinghy's menu trumpets its "hearty, roux-based stock." That's a descriptor that leads me to expect—always a mistake at Dinghy—a maroon-hued gumbo.