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.
Dinghy's gumbo was so clear I bet I could have spilled it on my shirt without leaving a stain, but it tasted awfully good. The success of the pseudo-gumbo hinged on the sweet Gulf shrimp that suffused the dish with a rich, oceanic flavor. I had shrimp in three guises at Dinghy and liked them all. But I'm not sure I liked any dish better than the unadorned peel-and-eat shrimp, an eloquent—if inconsistently deveined—testament to the stubborn goodness of Gulf seafood. A pound of peel-and-eat shrimp is a losing proposition if the starring ingredient isn't smartly sourced; the shrimp at Dinghy are sensational.
So's the catfish, although perhaps the restaurant's cooks shouldn't be trusted with it. According to the menu, Dinghy gets its catfish from Des Allemands, the owners' bayou hometown that proudly calls itself the "catfish capital of the universe." The catfish tastes buttery, creamy and clean, which seem like three good reasons not to drown the grilled fish in butter and blackening spice.
The kitchen's apparently more comfortable with less-nuanced dishes: A burger was serviceable, and saucy hunks of slow-cooked pork shanks were extraordinarily tender. The pork's sold as "pork wings," a novelty item that food service companies have lately been pushing as a pricier alternative to chicken. I don't know who first came up with the cut, but can picture pork industry leaders sitting around a table, brainstorming a porcine response to ye olde turkey legs served at Renaissance fairs.
Service at Dinghy is friendly, competent and honest. When I asked a server to tell me about dessert options, he sighed and said, "We're still getting dessert sorted out." For now, all that's on the dessert menu is a mound of undistinguished chocolate lava cake.
"This is the kind of dessert people like," my dinner date decreed.
Indeed, the four ladies at the table adjoining ours seemed to have judged the cake a fitting riposte to their vodka martinis. With its pedigree, Dinghy could have set its ambitions higher, but settled on delivering what people like. Defying expectations, the restaurant's created a speck of beach in North Texas, taking the passport and airfare hassles out of the beer, seafood and sunset equation. And who doesn't like that?
Dinghy Bar & Grill
1481 E. Hillpark Road, Lewisville, 972-625-4461, www.pier121marina.com. Open 5-10 p.m. Thursday and noon-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday. $$