Overall impression: The classic neighborhood American tavern is alive and well at J. Mark's. Its first location in Pompano Beach opened four years ago. The Fort Lauderdale spot followed last summer. Judging by the crowds, people love this place, where dinner might be an entree-sized salad, pasta, or a burger for less than $15, or a big steak or inventive seafood dish for closer to $30. There's definitely something for everyone here.
Ambience: It's a big boisterous restaurant in what was once a Bennigan's. While the place was gutted and redone in warm shades of blond and orange, I wish the dining room was more open. Instead, cubicle-height dividers block table-to-table views. On the other hand, those coffee shop-style dividers give everyone their own intimate space to dine.
Starters: Grilled Jamaican wings ($10.99) aren't exactly authentically seasoned, but I love that whole wings —instead of flats and drummettes — are served. Crispy battered calamari ($10.99) comes with three sauces: predictable marinara, the less likely garlic aioli and a wonderful basil pesto. Ahi tuna appetizer ($13.99) combines seared Cajun-crusted tuna with Cajun mayo for dipping, pickled cucumber and soba peanut-noodle salad. Bam Bam shrimp ($12.99) is more sweet than spicy, but I loved the addition of chopped peanuts.
Entree excellence: Chopped salad ($11.99) is a light but satisfying way to go here. The ingredient list is long, but it's made with just the right amounts of everything: Romaine, apples, tomato, avocado, roasted corn, bacon, blue cheese, lime-marinated chicken and balsamic vinaigrette. Roasted half chicken ($14.99) is moist and flavored with herbs, garlic and lemon. It comes with a homey pile of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Steaks were disappointing despite their prominence on the menu. Both a special 20-ounce rib eye ($29.99) and Hawaiian rib eye ($25.99), marinated in soy and pineapple, lacked the exterior char I look for in well-cooked steaks. While these 28-day aged certified Angus steaks were tender and had good flavor, it was almost as if they'd been braised. Pasta dishes run from simple five cheese penne ($10.99) to a busy Heavenly shrimp spaghettini ($15.99) with white wine, garlic, lemon, tomatoes, oregano, basil and marinara. There were several seafood choices and specials, but none of the fish was from Florida waters.
Side issues: On a recent night, diners could add a very good crab cake for $6.99. While it wasn't the meatiest crab cake, it had a home-made quality that was hard to resist. Side dishes range from the excellent sweet potato fries to not-overcooked carrots and sweet plantains. The staff welcomes switching sides for any particular entree.
Sweet!: Coconut cream pie ($7.99) was the standout sweet, although you can't miss with the carrot cake ($6.99). Key lime pie ($5.99) wasn't to my liking. I prefer mine more tart than sugary.
Service: Friendly and attentive. Servers seem to cooperate, especially when it comes time to get everyone's entree to the table at the same time.
Liquid assets: Since reservations aren't accepted, you'll inevitably wait in the bar where service is outstanding and bartenders never want to see an empty glass.