This chain had it right when they launched. Now they suck.
Picture this with me. You have reached the end of a long week. The people you work for just don’t appreciate your brilliance and you feel like you are doing your work and theirs too. You begin to de-stress as you sit down for dinner and drinks across from your sweet someone. You begin to consider your choice of cocktails and food. Of course you are island bum at heart and have come to this Caribbean restaurant for rum inspired drinks and island flavors. Except nothing you see on the menu is authentically island. Then you listen for the island music setting the mood. Except it’s a techno remix of Coldplay. Then you ask your server about the fresh fish selection. Except there is none. WTF?
You have just made the same mistake countless other people have made over the past few years and come to a Bahama Breeze. This restaurant is a chain owned by Darden Restaurants. The same people who own Red Lobster and The Olive Garden among others. With twenty six locations strewn from Florida to as far west as Seattle they have been giving Caribbean cuisine a bad rap.
I’m not a negative guy and rarely embrace the idea of publicly redressing others but I feel in this case I must. You might say to me, “Carl, you should know better. Relax.” You are wrong. Bahama Breeze used to be a really good restaurant, which is why I care so much. I knew the original guys at Darden who came up with the concept and built the first one in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. At the time I was with Disney, responsible for building restaurants and hotels so I was keenly aware of what the industry was doing. When the first Bahama Breeze concept restaurant opened it was really good.
The architecture was, and still is, spot on. That is the only thing they have not screwed up since. The original menu had nice fish on it and well flavored Caribbean inspired dishes. The drink menu wasn’t loaded with frozen drinks full of sugar and uninspiring rum. There was actually a separate rum menu! They had a couple pages of sipping rums. One of the best presentations I ever seen in a main stream restaurant. There were even tasting notes. Brilliant. There was always a line outside being entertained my an acoustic singer carrying everyone away to a salty paradise. It was well done.
Fast forward to the other day when I happened to stop at a Bahama Breeze just outside of Atlanta. I don’t normally get that far inland so I was getting the jitters. When I found out there was a Bahama Breeze nearby I had pictures of top shelf rum, good fish and island tunes. I could bring the island life alive in my mind just for an hour or so and get my fix. Just like many of you who don’t live on the coast have become adept at doing. Alas, it was not meant to be.
When my server asked what I wanted to drink, I asked for the rum menu. She looked at me with a blank stare. No rum menu, evidently bad for the bottom line. There was a drink menu however. Great, I asked to see that. Not so great. Frozen sugar drink after frozen sugar drink. Read high margin, low alcohol drinks with no connection to any island cocktail I had ever seen. And I’ve been around some island bars. Hugely disappointed, I stuck to beer. How about food?
The best way I can describe the current Bahama Breeze menu is take the most common American cuisine restaurant foods, sprinkle it with coconut, place a slice of pineapple on the side, add some black beans or glaze it with sweet mango and call it Caribbean. Who of you have ever had Tilapia in the islands? Seriously? Bankrupt is the only word I can think of when it comes to Caribbean food on the Bahama Breeze menu. Figuratively and morally. How can they use the tagline, “Feed your island spirit?”.
Two disappointments behind me, I settled in and moved on. Except then I heard the music. Some guy was set up in the middle of the restaurant singing pop songs set to a an electro beat. No Jimmy, no Kenny, no Marley. Bankie Banx? Forget about it. Now I was seriously bummed out.
How was the food that I did order? I couldn’t finish it.
The rich history of Caribbean food and cultural melting pot of the people who brought it about deserve better representation. Darden, shame on you for not respecting that. If you do have an authentic place in your town, make sure you support them and tell your friends. If you have a Bahama Breeze in your town run away fast and tell your friends. Let’s not all be suckers to slick marketing that just doesn’t deliver.
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