Unlike its owner, Tiger Woods’ new restaurant has been killing it on weekends. So the hostess tells me, and I don’t doubt it. Even early on this Thursday evening, the crowd around the bar is as thick as a Tiger gallery.
It’s 5 p.m. — discounted calamari! — but to call it “happy hour” is an understatement. The vibe at The Woods Jupiter: Sports and Dining Club (catchy, right?) verges on euphoric. A pop soundtrack pounds from unseen speakers. Cocktails clink. Flatware clatters. Conversations swirl around a single subject, which is not the blue cheese crumble on the deep-fried squid.
I squeeze my way up front, through a scrum of silver foxes and platinum blonds. The scene is moneyed Florida in microcosm, as if a nightclub mated with a country club. Many of the men look like Ted Bishop. Many of the women have that new-wife smell.
“Think he’ll be here tonight?” I ask the bartender, a comely twenty-something who, like all the staffers, wears sports attire adorned with swooshes. Hers: a Nike golf skirt and black Nike top. Natalie Gulbis would play her in the movie.
She cups an ear. I repeat the query.
“Who’s he?” she answers coyly, and hands me a margarita that’s only a shade smaller than the Claret Jug.
Last year, when news broke that the world’s most famous golfer was getting into the restaurant business, it sounded like a setup awaiting a Perkins punch line.
Woods released a statement that made clear he wasn’t kidding: “I envision a place where people can meet friends, watch sports on TV and enjoy a great meal.” He even put his money where his prepared words were, pumping a reported $8 million into the build-out in a swank new Jupiter development called Harbourside Place.
It didn’t take a cynic to cast a jaundiced eye upon the project, to interpret it as an easy grab at brand expansion, driven not by Tiger Woods but by Tiger WoodsTM. Surely, one suspected, the venture wasn’t borne of any lifelong passion. Those posters on Tiger’s childhood bedroom wall were of Jack Nicklaus, not Jacques Pepin.
The hoary tradition of famous athletes slapping their names on restaurants dates at least as far back as 1935, when Jack Dempsey cut the ribbon on his eponymous Manhattan chophouse. The champ was a fixture at his Midtown haunt, appearing nearly nightly to shake hands and grin for photos. The big difference today is that stars, for all their sparkle, have drifted into a distant orbit, increasingly removed from their adoring public, to say nothing of the restaurants they purport to represent.
There was no way Tiger was going to delight his clientele with tales from the Tour. So it seemed only fair to ask what was in it for us, other than to bask in his reflected glow. Athlete restaurants, after all, are reliably middling. You’d no sooner look for great food on a commercial flight. Invert the situation: Mario Batali is an avid golfer, but if he started a golf academy, would you race to enroll?
Those and other musings occupied my mind as I eased through Jupiter and along the waterfront, past giant pleasure boats moored in the harbor, toward a valet stand at the restaurant’s entrance, which sits next door to a Tommy Bahama, across the street from a Wyndham Hotel.
In through the dark glass doors, wrestling with questions: Would the menu feature Cablinasian chicken salad? A surf-and-turf special of poached salmon and grilled zoysia? And what about the big guy? Would he be on hand?
“Hello, and welcome to The Woods Jupiter,” my waiter says.
It’s just past 6 p.m., and I’ve been ushered from the gleaming bar into the dining room, a modern, hard-lined space with upholstered leather chairs, dark wood accents and a soaring ceiling dripping with long pendant lights. It’s my second supper at the restaurant, where I also dined the night before.
The decor is understated, the splashiest feature being a glassed-in wine collection set into a wall. In a welcome departure for a restaurant of this genre, The Woods holds off on fascistic celebrations of its namesake. (No bronze statue of Tiger slaying Phil.) Displays of memorabilia are tastefully restrained. A framed handprint of our hero hangs discretely near the bathroom, alongside a photo sequence of him putting, punctuated by that familiar fist-pump. A row of gray-backed booths runs along the back wall, with muted images of Woods peering out from them and curtains that can pull shut against prying eyes.
It is, on balance, a debonair setting, despite the 40 flat screens arrayed around it: a sports bar gone to finishing school.
I scan the four-page menu, the appetizers hovering mostly in the teens, the entrees largely in the $20 to $40 range. No Cablinasian chicken salad, but there is almost everything else: lobster-crab cakes and shrimp cocktails; tuna clubs and tacos; wood-fired flatbreads and French onion soup.
If the bar is a meat market, it’s got nothing on the kitchen, which caters elaborately to carnivores with center-cut pork chops, charcuterie platters, steak salad, ribeye, lamb chop lollipops, bison burgers, fusilli Bolognese and filet mignon. The chef is Carmen Dicandia, a veteran of the upscale Capital Grille, and his cooking cuts the profile of elevated pub grub.
I start with The Woods Signature caprese, a spin on the Italian that brings peaches and tomatoes, topped with basil, aged balsamic and fresh burrata, mozzarella’s creamier twin.
It’s a sprightly appetizer, a summery combo in a restaurant where many of the pairings are autumn-spring. The couple in the booth behind me fits the billing. They’re sharing lobster bisque and smooching. Just as I’m about to bark at them to get a room, they draw the curtains closed.
Onward with dinner. Lobster-crab cakes, napped with mustard sauce; a cured meat and cheese platter with truffled honey; a beautiful roast chicken, its skin as crisp and golden as a Palm Beach cougar on a tanning bed.
No major beefs here, though I realize that foodies could find cause to quibble. They might point out, for instance, that the lobster crab cakes are too mushy; that the ahi “crudo” isn’t crudo but seared tuna; that truffle oil, the cloying fragrance of faux sophistication, is grossly overused throughout the menu, perfuming the fries, lacing the aioli that garnishes the burger, moistening the portobello mushroom flatbread. Then again, so what? If the restaurant is a long way from Michelin-star dining, it’s also worlds better than a sports bar has a right to be.
Dessert arrives: a layered chocolate cake that’s richer than Elin, infused with chocolate stout beer and adorned with candied bacon.
I signal for the check, which shows up — touche! — enfolded in a scorecard. But my evening isn’t over. Time for a nightcap at the bar. Though the crowd has thinned, the Tiger-focused chatter is as thick as ever. I snag a seat beside a fifty-something damsel with a blown-out ’do and a rock on her finger that could pass for the Hope diamond. She and a friend are midway through a bottle of Napa chardonnay, a well-known label and a wine so oaky it tastes as if you’ve French-kissed an armoire.
“He was here on opening night, you know,” she says.
She means Aug. 10, when Woods made a cameo, pressing flesh, posing for photos.
Ever since, she says, sightings have been scarce. She then repeats a rumor I’ve heard several times: that Tiger comes and goes by way of secret elevator, which leads upstairs to a private dining room. Such gossip rubs against the facts cited by Woods spokesman Glenn Greenspan, who says there’s no lift in the restaurant, only an elevator that takes patrons to the parking garage.
But even as urban legend, the stories cut a poignant picture and speak to Tiger’s image in the public eye: an owner who feels compelled to slink around his own establishment, a superhero losing his powers, clinging to the habits of Bruce Wayne.
“Here’s what he should do,” my companion continues. Everyone, of course, has advice for Tiger. “He should show up announced, buy drinks at the bar. Just hang out, you know, like a regular person.”
That’s when it happens, as if on cue. Through the nearby entrance, in he walks, a global star, California-raised, Butch Harmon-trained and now residing at a lush Florida address, a golfer recognized around the world for his aggressive play and his bold Sunday fashions, the face of a brand, an icon of the game.
He’s with a mini-entourage, who appear to shield him as the hostess leads them to a tucked-away table.
It’s a tempting thought, and I almost act upon it, slipping over to ask for a quote. But then I reconsider. Poor guy’s just trying to grab some dinner.
Better just to leave Rickie Fowler alone.
Josh Sens is a contributing writer and the chief restaurant critic for San Francisco Magazine.
DINNER FOR TWO
Spicy calamari with blue cheese crumble: $12
Lobster-and-jumbo crab cake: $15
Charcuterie plate: $25
The Woods Signature caprese: $14
Roasted free-range chicken: $18
Hog snapper, with lemon, butter sauce and angel hair pasta: $29
Chocolate stout cake: $10
Key lime cake: $8
Cucumber smash: Hendricks gin, St. Germaine, lime juice, simple syrup, muddled cucumbers
Smoked old fashioned: Buffalo Trace bourbon, simple syrup, walnut bitters, orange zest
The Woods Jupiter: Sports and Dining Club
129 Soundings Avenue, Jupiter, FL 33477