The Thornton Park space that for a quarter of a century was home to a Dexter’s finally has a new tenant: The 808. Yes, that’s its address on Washington Street but there’s more to it.
First, to recap, Dexter’s sort of imploded after the popular wine bar and cafe with four locations was sold off to different buyers a few years ago. Only the Lake Mary Dexter’s remains. The Winter Park restaurant moved to Ravaudage and renamed itself Dexter’s New Standard, though it seems to have (predictably) dropped the Dexter’s. The Windermere location is now Feather & Quill.
The buyer of the Thornton Park Dexter’s tried to keep it going under that brand and even brought back some old menu favorites. But in October of 2019 it was sold again to a bartender who had worked at Burton’s Bar across the street with plans to open a new, undisclosed concept.
Then 2020 happened. And new owners Todd Ulmer and Wendy Connor have taken over.
Now it’s the 808, which is not only the building’s address but also the area code for Hawaii, and its decor and menu are an homage to the island state.
That means decorations of surfboards hanging about the large space, which was originally a Publix grocery store, a large photo mural of a Hawaiian beach with blue water and mountains beyond, and green fern upholstery on stools that circle the bar that dominates the room and provide seating at the high-top tables.
For the menu, designed by Daniel Weber, it means poke, kalua pork and, of course, Spam.
I entered grade school the year after Hawaii gained statehood and remember learning from textbooks about the fiftieth state that Hawaiians apparently sat around all day eating a pasty substance called poi with their fingers. Always wanted to try it but have yet to see it on a menu in the continental United States.
Instead we get Spam musubi, which is a fusion food that was likely influenced by the presence of mainland military personnel. It’s sort of a blockish version of Japanese onigiri, with a rectangular pad of rice topped with a grilled slice of the brand-name processed meat and wrapped with a band of nori. The 808’s had a glaze that was like a sweetened soy sauce. It all made for a nice snackable package.
For a main dish, I ordered the two-protein plate lunch, choosing tuna poke and kalua pork from a list. Soy and sesame were the dominant flavors of the tuna, which was cut into sizable cubes and served in one of the four compartments of the tray.
The pork was slathered with a heavy barbecue sauce but otherwise had little other seasoning, which is traditional for kalua pork. Kalua refers to the method of cooking, which usually involves an in-ground pit, which I’m guessing has not been added to the kitchen here.
The lunch platter also came with a mound of rice and a hefty serving of macaroni salad, another traditional Hawaiian dish that is also not poi.
Ulmer and Connor are known entities in downtown and Thornton Park. He has been involved in several restaurants and bars, including Stardust Lounge and Aku Aku Tiki Bar. She operates the Abbey and Mezz venues.
So we may see the 808 become more of a lounge and entertainment venue, but at least one that offers palatable food, too.