Who names these places? On some level, I can grant that "Backwater's" is meant to play off the fact that this restaurant faces backward, away from the Gulf of Mexico and toward the quieter Clearwater Bay. Still, it's impossible to dismiss the other connotations of the word: backwoods, the sticks, the boondocks, the back of beyond.
If Backwater's was selling itself as some sort of down-home, swamp-cabbage-serving, banjo-playing Florida cracker joint, then I'd be all for it (haven't had nearly enough swamp cabbage fritters of late). But instead, the menu features black angus steaks, seared sushi-grade tuna, and designer cocktails, like most other beach bistros within 100 miles. Naturally, the seafood is fresh, the view is pretty and the drinks hit the spot - but is that enough to distinguish this waterfront eatery from the dozen others that follow the formula?
The view of the Bay and the mainland lights beyond give Backwater's a picturesque leg up on more land-locked competitors (say, Frenchy's Saltwater Café), though the slightly stagnant bay doesn't compare to the white sand beaches and blue waves located a few feet from the tables of, say, Palm Pavilion. The inside of the restaurant boasts a wood-paneled maritime theme, but as at most restaurants of its ilk, dinner is best enjoyed alfresco.
Strings of fairy lights set the mood and the kids can be as boisterous as they'd like along the spacious docks. Backwater's even provides space heaters for those evenings that are a bit on the nippy side. However, if you dine at Backwater's after sunset, don't expect to see your food, since the tiny tea lights on the tables don't provide much illumination.
After much squinting, my friends and I were able to pick out a few appetizers. The hot crab dip ($8) had been recommended to me in advance, and I did enjoy its mix of three cheeses and lump seafood. Unfortunately, the homemade potato "frips" served alongside the dish were indistinguishable from the average store-bought chip and didn't do the dip justice at all. Such a meaty, thick spread overwhelmed the flimsy chip, and the salty remnants masked some of the dip's more subtle flavors.
Backwater's serves a dark, hearty molasses bread with its entrées, and it proved such a perfect match with the crab that my entire table wondered why the powers that be hadn't ditched the potato chips a long time ago. If you do choose to try the spread, ask for a loaf on the side.
I was intrigued by the description of homemade lobster eggrolls ($9), but when the appetizer arrived, I almost didn't recognize it. The enormous eggrolls were sliced in half, vertically, leaving the resulting half-pipe of deep-fried wrap sagging beneath the weight of its stuffing. Said stuffing consisted (from what I could see in the darkness) of a mix of veggies (including corn!) dotted with shreds of lobster.
The accompanying tart mango sauce provided an extra bite, but I couldn't help but feel that the finished product did not live up to the potential of its ingredients. The lobster eggrolls were an intriguing idea, but the odd presentation (part of the fun of eggrolls is that they're, you know, rolls) and lack of a clear flavor foundation kept the dish moored to the docks.
Our other appetizers were much more successful. The lobster-seafood bisque ($6), with potato and seafood chunks, featured a delicate cream sauce and all of the sweet, mild lobster flavor that the eggrolls lacked. A dozen oysters deep-fried in beer batter ($9) were a simple yet tasty choice.
Buoyed by the oysters, one of my friends ordered the beer-battered fisherman's platter ($16) for his entrée. The platter included shrimp scallops and mahi-mahi fried in the same manner as the oysters, and was every bit as good.
Another entrée, crab-stuffed snapper in a creamy blush sauce ($18), presented an agreeable, if utterly average, take on an area standard. The seafood was fresh, the blush sauce agreeable, but we've seen it all before. Diners who don't like surprises will be comforted by this dish, and it's mild enough to please even the seafood-averse.
I also tried one of Backwater's sandwich platters, which come with a choice of crispy, thick-cut steak fries, passable coleslaw, or more of those potato "frips." (By the way, if it walks like a chip and talks like a chip, a restaurant can give it whatever fancy, Costa-Rican-inspired name that it chooses, and that won't make them any better than Lays.) ordered the Sloppy Shrimp Sandwich ($9), mistakenly believing the "sloppy" suggested a po'boy barbecue or sloppy Joe.
But the only thing that made this particular sandwich even remotely sloppy was the addition of a scoop of coleslaw on top of the deep-fried, butterfly shrimp and provolone cheese. Though decent enough, I had expected something with a spicier sauce or another original touch.
Chef Mark Carey seems to funnel his creative energies toward his daily seafood pasta specials. I enjoyed this night's selection - linguine with shellfish in a white wine sauce with cracked red pepper - more than any other entrée that I sampled.
Backwater's has a killer bar, with a great martini list and a selection of beach drinks like coladas, daiquiris and mai tais that can turn a simple dinner among friends into a veritable party. The restaurant's out-of-the-way location makes it a good spot to enjoy all the trappings of a beach bar without the crowd one might find on Clearwater Beach. You get the view, the drinks, and the grouper sandwiches - all without paying for parking or fighting with frat boys on Spring Break.
There is very little to complain about at Backwater's, but almost nothing that took me by surprise either. If the lines are too long at Frenchy's, or Sand Key condo-dwellers don't feel like crossing into the madness just across the bridge, I imagine that Backwater's would make a handy substitute. It is in every way a standard Florida waterfront bistro - and that's not a bad thing.
Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.