Bernard has left Bernard’s Surf.
In truth, there hasn’t been a Bernard at the Cocoa Beach restaurant since the ‘60s. The real news is that the seafood landmark on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Minuteman Causeway is no longer owned by a member of the Fischer family. Rusty Fischer, whose uncle Bernard opened the restaurant on October 30, 1948, sold the restaurant in November.
The new owners are Tomas Saronja and Niko Mihatovic, both natives of Croatia. Saronja has a restaurant and hospitality background with Radisson; Mihatovic is a real estate investor. (And it should be mentioned that I own a condominium in a complex that Mihatovic developed.)
The terms of the sale stipulated that the name of Fischer’s uncle come off the building, and so now it is simply The Surf Bar & Grill. Yet it clings to the history that has made it the destination restaurant of the Space Coast for so many decades.
Saronja and Mihatovic have made only minor changes, both in décor and on the menu. Many old menu items remain, as do for that matter many of the staff who have cooked and served them over the years. And while there are aspects of the dining experience that would prevent it from being a top-tier restaurant if it were located in Orlando, the food is good enough to qualify it as one of the better restaurants on the Central Florida coast, and not just by default.
Seafood is still a prime focus here, and the pompano amandine ($25.99) was one of my favorites. It featured a grilled fillet topped with slivers of almonds toasted under a broiler so the edges had just started to turn a deep brown. The nutty taste was a nice counterpoint to the flaky white flesh of the moist fish.
Raspberry tuna ($26.99), which I’ll admit sounds horrible, was actually quite enjoyable. The seared steak, cooked medium-rare at the request of my guest, was topped with a raspberry sauce that appropriately unsweet. Instead, the fruit added just the right grace note to the fresh-tasting tuna.
While seafood is a forte, nonfish items are not given short shrift. Blue cheese crusted filet mignon ($26.99), a holdover from the previous menu, was a lovely steak topped with a tangy blue cheese sauce that gave it a wonderfully salty edge. And the prime rib ($22.99) was a gorgeous 22-ounce cut with an herbed crust and juicy, tender meat. It was served au jus with creamy horseradish sauce on the side.
Scallops mignon ($9.99) was a satisfying appetizer. Big, plump scallops were surrounded by rashers of bacon, grilled just long enough to cook the bacon and served with a touch of teriyaki sauce. The crab cake, ($7.99), however, had too much breading and not nearly enough crab. Fried calamari ($7.99), on the other hand, had only the slightest bit of breading covering the rings of squid, which were fried perfectly so that the breading was a light brown but the calamari hadn’t become chewy.
Dinners come with a salad, which can be upgraded to a Caesar for an additional $4.99. The menu touts tableside preparation for the Caesar, and indeed it is assembled there. But it seemed the server was only making a show of it, grinding a clove of garlic in the wooden bowl then adding the romaine lettuce and previously-made dressing. My salad tasted primarily of raw garlic.
Bernard’s Surf was one part of three entities that also included Fisher’s Seafood and Rusty’s Seafood & Oyster Bar. Now it’s just The Surf Bar & Grill on one side and, down a couple of steps from the bar, The Surf Seafood & Oyster Bar. When I stopped in at the informal oyster bar one afternoon, I found a lone bartender laboriously shucking oysters, each one taking about a full minute to coax open. Although she looked up and saw me, she did not acknowledge my presence. Seeing that she had a long way to go to complete a dozen, I decided to leave and go to the bar next door. As far as I know, the menu was the same, and I figured I was better off there as long as I didn’t order any raw oysters.
I had a cup of clam chowder ($3.99), which had a not-too-floury base and lots of al dente potatoes, and a grouper sandwich ($9.99), a good-sized fillet on a soft bun.
Although The Surf boasts several longtime servers, the overall quality of service is lackadaisical. But that’s likely just a side effect of being in a beach town.
The main dining room has fresh paint and new lighting, but it seemed that renovations were still in progress. Tablecloths have been added but I never had the feeling I was in a fine dining venue.
One piece of the old décor has been kept: a window etched with the old name and photos of the restaurant. It’s the old photos, which can still be seen on the restaurant’s Web site, that give the place a sense of history. The parades of astronaut heroes in open convertibles riding by remind us that these pioneers lived, worked and dined in Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral. I thought it poignant that my first visit was on the evening of a recent shuttle launch. The young woman who seated me asked if I had seen it go off, when I told her I had she just shrugged and said it was no big deal to her because she grew up watching them.
Luckily, there are still people who don’t take the past for granted.
The Surf Bar & Grill is at 2 S. Atlantic Ave. (Minuteman Causeway), Cocoa Beach. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Here's a link to the Web site. The phone number is 321- 783-2401.