It’s 6 p.m. on a Friday, and Grove, Lakewood Ranch’s newest hot spot, is a madhouse. Drinkers line up around the massive square bar or lean back on low, cushy couches, while diners compete for tables on the restaurant’s sizable patio. Young families share space with older folks who bring their poodles to dinner with them. Single women clink wine glasses next to a couple out on what looks like a first date. Friendly managers patrol the space with iPads, keeping tabs on which tables might be opening up and striving to maintain the peace. At the host stand, a line extends out through the front door.
The buzz is important, because Grove has a lot of space to fill. The property previously housed Polo Grill and Bar, one of Lakewood Ranch’s first fine dining restaurants. After Polo Grill closed last April, Hugh Miller and Greg Campbell, the partners behind Bradenton’s Pier 22, took over the space and gutted the building. Grove’s patio, bar and dining rooms can seat roughly 350 people; the adjacent ballroom brings its total capacity all the way up to 750.
The menu is about as big as the building, with separate listings for dinner, lunch, happy hour, late nights and Sunday brunch. Happy hour is clearly a hit, with solid deals on cocktails, beer and wine. A lavender-colored “Miss ‘E’” cocktail ($8) combines gin, blueberry shrub, limoncello, crème de violette and prosecco; the beer list ($5-$8) includes favorites from hometown breweries like Darwin Brewing Co. and Lakewood Ranch’s own Naughty Monk. Of course, you’ll need something salty to accompany those beverages. Grove’s tasty grouper dip ($7), flavored with andouille and multiple types of cheese, fits the bill.
At dinnertime, the menu grows more ambitious, with a price point that ranges from $12 for a vegetarian sandwich up to $75 for a Flinstonian Tomahawk ribeye. The gorgeous “scallops Benedict” ($28) features rich, meaty scallops that have been seared perfectly and set atop thin potato and scallion pancakes and flavored with bacon and tomato jams and béarnaise sauce. The dish is both creamy and spicy, but you never lose the undersea flavor of the scallops. A fried duck and waffle dish ($28), meanwhile, one-ups the traditional chicken and waffle.
One issue with both: portion size. Three scallops for $28 seems skimpy; ditto for the size of the duck and waffle plate. When asked, a server says she hadn’t even seen the duck dish come out before, which suggests the restaurant is still fine-tuning things. In the meantime, be sure to order sides. Simple roasted Brussels sprouts ($8) have an appealing sweetness, while the dairy in the creamed collard greens ($8) overwhelms the vegetable. Mac ’n’ cheese ($9) is always a hit.
If the opening of Polo Grill in 2007 suggested that Lakewood Ranch had grown into a community big enough to support an ambitious restaurant, with enough conferences and weddings to justify having its own huge ballroom, the early excitement around Grove shows the demand for gathering spots at the Ranch is growing. Up and down Main Street, people are milling about, playing putt-putt, listening to live music, chatting over drinks and food. Now, with Grove, people will have one more destination to enjoy good food and good times.
10670 Boardwalk Loop, Lakewood Ranch | (941) 893-4321 | grovelwr.com