This grand old hotel wins me over for several reasons, from ceviche to cartoons.
The latter is a natural prejudice that newspaper folks might have for any place with Ding Darling cartoons from the 1930s hung in a clubby paneled bar.
If you know the name only from the wildlife sanctuary on Sanibel Island, you may recognize the Depression era editorial cartoons. That's when John Q. Public was a beleaguered fellow with big spectacles and a few sprouts of hair, threatened by thuggish Hunger, Corruption or Special Interests who cared nothing about fairness, conservation or the special natural beauty of Florida.
Many of the sentiments could appear today. Yet, the drawings seem as quaint as a club sandwich or duck liver pate with cornichons. The Clearwater Beach Hotel is the perfect place for them. The Hunter family, which has owned the hotel since the 1950s, is from Iowa, where J.N. "Ding" Darling drew for the Des Moines Register (except for Florida winters) and 150 other papers for almost half a century.
So the hotel, which dates to 1915, remains a last repose of gentility on Clearwater Beach and perhaps the gulf. The five-story building was built in 1987 of modern material, yet its graceful proportions successfully reprised the comforting charm of a Victorian beach cottage, not a pink wedding cake. The exterior white walls, red roof and lush foliage are echoed inside by cool wintergreen, crisp whites, polished brass and shuttered glass that make a shady repose from the pool, beach and gulf beyond. It feels as protective as the parasol and bathing costumes of the Gibson girls in the seaside engraving hung inside.
Sure, it's white tablecloth dining, expensive and a bit fussy, but it's done just right. The entrees are familiar and unintimidating, but all are prepared with a modern eye for quality ingredients and a subtle use of world flavors.
Chef Daniel Fuchs, a Frenchman with a stint at Tavern on the Green years ago, can make delicate cubes of consomme gelee, smooth Hollandaise and endless beurre blanc, or slip poblano pepper in mashed potatoes, fennel in grouper relish and country ham in onion relish. He seeks out flageolet, designer beef and peppers from chipotle to srichacha.
The result is food that looks traditional, yet delivers more.
Pine nuts, mushrooms and caramelized onions make roast duckling rich and woodsy. Fried shrimp have perfect texture, an herbal tang in the crust, spicy fresh tomato sauce and basil-infused risotto. The familiar sea bass is dolled up with lobster sauce and crisp grilled asparagus.
Nothing is flashy; the kitchen has updated almost everything smartly and slyly. Bread is acceptable, soup and salad forgettable, but the wine list is nicely chosen.
Occasional dishes do fall short. Poached eggs with spinach and smoked salmon is a lovely, almost garden-party lunch, but it'd be better with lox. Scallop ceviche with avocado is fine stuff, but I wanted more than a few spoonfuls. Service at dinner had Continental polish, from food knowledge to proper silver service, but it was a little slow. At lunch the pace came to a halt, as if the kitchen were relaxing instead of the diners. We had to pass on dessert.
However, there is little hurry in such an old and intimate hotel. And that is surely part of the appeal that brings a steady stream of European visitors in season and a local following for holiday dinners and special occasions.
Dining like this is getting rare, and hotels like the Clearwater Beach more scarce, endangered by pink and tan malaise of encroaching condomania. The Clearwater Beach Hotel may give way, too: New developers in partnership with the Hunters could begin redevelopment late next year, but plans are not final.
So let's make the most of it. What better time to languish in the genteel life than in Florida's never-ending summer (and hurricane season)? At least lift a glass to Ding.
CLEARWATER BEACH HOTEL DINING ROOM
500 Mandalay Ave.
PHONE: toll-free 1-800-292-2295
HOURS: Open daily
DETAILS: Full bar, no smoking
PRICES: Lunch $7.95 to $19.50; dinner $13.95 to $27.95.