Nothing harshes one's vibe faster than crappy service, but that's precisely what awaited early visitors to Coastal Taco. The flashy Flats East Bank eatery prides itself on being the perfect host — "Our vibe is chill. We're always ready to throw a party," the brand literature promises — but initial experiences demonstrated otherwise.
Our first visit could not have gone much worse, with exasperating delays, bewildering ordering and delivery processes, and weeded staffers who appeared shell-shocked throughout the entire evening. When the food finally did arrive, it was cold, wrong and unimpressive.
Of course, I wasn't telling Rick Doody anything he didn't already know. For 25 years, Doody, along with his brother Chris, have been opening restaurants at an unprecedented pace. They launched the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group with one spot, eventually growing it to more than 115 stores employing 11,000 staffers serving 17 million guests per year.
"We take full responsibility," Doody, now a Northeast Ohio resident, says during a followup call. "It was our fault for not being prepared, not being ready."
Doody says a perfect storm of factors coalesced to produce imperfect results, not the least of which was rushing to get the doors open in advance of Memorial Day. Doody also credits — or blames — an unanticipated crush of customers all eager to soak up the sun at Cleveland's newest hotspot.
"We underestimated the success of the Flats turnaround and what that would do to us," Doody says. "That translated into doing double the business we had anticipated, which caused problems. We didn't have the staff, we didn't have the training, we didn't have the team."
Our second visit weeks later was markedly improved, if still not perfect. Our server was knowledgeable about the menu, patient with our questions, and genuinely eager to serve, as novel as that might sound. The experience confirmed that the ship was being righted, was on the right course, and eventually would arrive at its proper destination.
"This is a business of 10,000 details," Doody adds. "Every day and every way, we try to get better."
It's not difficult to see why Coastal Taco has been slammed since opening in late May. Despite the influx of new Flats-based restaurants, only two — Alley Cat and Coastal Taco — enjoy blissful waterside perches. Though likely contrived by committee, the laid-back "lake hair, don't care" atmosphere is genuinely appealing, attractive and easy to get used to. The views — of kayaks and freighters, bridges and trestles, sailors and sunsets — are matchless, with a sprawling river-side patio from which to enjoy them.
Depending on the day and time of your visit, you can expect to wait for a table. But after giving our name and cell number to the hostess, we received a prompt to download an app that kept us informed in real time right down to the number of parties ahead of us. While waiting, guests can walk up to the outdoor bar, grab a crisp vinho verde from Portugal ($6), Kona Golden Ale ($4) from Hawaii, or a pricy but good margarita ($9) made with fresh lime juice and agave nectar.
Start with a salsa flight ($6), a trio that includes verde, roasted tomato and pineapple blends served on a sheet pan with fried whole corn tortillas and root veggies. The queso fundido ($6), served with the same chips, is mild and could use more chorizo to kick it up. Despite being in peak corn season, the street corn on a stick ($4) was gummy, but the cheese, herb and spice topping is tasty.
The bulk of the menu is built around tacos and tamales. All tacos are $3 and come on one (not the customary pair) of warm soft corn tortillas. The crispy cod is a winner, as is the crispy fried shrimp, and the halibut, a special. Tacos are not build-your-own, but instead come topped with an appropriate slaw, sauce and garnish. Dense and corny tamales ($5) are topped (not stuffed) with pork carnitas, chicken or veggies.
Coastal's order and delivery process can be confusing in the hands of an indifferent server but fine in the care of a capable one. Guests can check off items on a paper chit or simply state them aloud. All tacos in the group are served en masse on a tray, making distribution tricky without assistance from your waiter. The practice was fine on one trip, not so fine on another.
The Flats-based space is built to be multi-seasonal, with a beachy, weathered and whitewashed interior with open kitchen and stone fireplace that will be cozy long after the garage doors come down and the outdoor bars shutter for the season.
Coastal Taco's unabridged moniker is Coastal Taco Bar + Chill, which might also serve as a nugget of advice to impatient diners.