At one point in time, The Captain's Table in Moline was THE place to eat in the Quad Cities when it came to special occasions, impressing a date, or hosting a high profile business meal. Unfortunately, that was many years - and a few owners - ago. However, the current incarnation of The Captain's Table has been creating a little buzz, locally. For my birthday dinner a while back, Cindy and I decided to head over there to give the place a try.
It had been a long time since I was last in The Captain's Table. Cindy had been in more recently when she was there with the local chapter of the Blue Thong Society. She told me it was "OK to pretty good, but still nothing special." I'd read a couple of different things in the local papers about the place since it had been bought and re-opened last summer by Peter Harman, aka "The Food Guru", who owns (or has owned) restaurants in Iowa City, Davenport, Burlington, IA and Macomb, IL. Harman said his goal would be to bring back the classic menu that made The Captain's Table a stalwart in the Quad City restaurant scene for years.
The Captain's Table started in 1974 as a small steakhouse/supper club next to the Marquis Harbor on River Drive in Moline (see map). Local businessman Jim Sweet ran the marina and restaurant for years before selling the place in late 1990's to American Marine out of La Crosse, WI. The time between 1974 and 1998 were the golden years for the restaurant. Their steaks, chops, fresh seafood and especially their homemade clam chowder were part of the finest in upscale dining the area had to offer. The Captain's Table looked out over the marina and the Mississippi River and was a popular place for locals to dine in the summer, as well as in the winter. Cindy and I had many memorable meals at The Captain's Table during the years Jim Sweet was the owner.
After Jim Sweet sold the restaurant and marina, American Marine leased out the restaurant to a handful of people since then. I do know that the Heart of America group leased the restaurant for a while - the same people that own the popular Machine Shed restaurants that are found throughout the Midwest (and based in Moline). And that's about the time The Captain's Table began to go downhill. Service got bad, the menu changed drastically, the food was not very good, and the homey, welcoming feel the Sweet's had given to the place sort of dissipated. It was just another corporate-run restaurant with no soul.
Heart of America got out of their lease in 2003, but it was taken over by the chef of the restaurant, Mark Luciani. But by that time, any momentum the original Captain's Table had was pretty much gone. Luciani tried tinkering with the menu, but nothing seemed to bring the magic back. With a surge of finer restaurants in the area and the economic downturn in 2008, Luciani closed the restaurant in February of 2009.
American Marine then got into talks with Peter Harman to come over and revive the restaurant. Harman's group leased the restaurant and re-opened the place in July of 2009, not long after he had closed his Graze location in Davenport. Many of the employees from Graze went over to The Captain's Table. American Marine remains the owner of the place, and we were told Harman is more of a consultant who comes to the restaurant once or twice a week to meet with G.M. William Black who runs the day-to-day operations.
It was a beautiful evening, cool, yet clear, when we got to The Captain's Table. Since it was the middle of the week, we had no problem getting in. One thing that I'd noticed since my last visit, oh, maybe three years ago, was that they had put in a nice little outdoor patio with heavy metal chairs and tables that overlooks the harbor and the river. It was too cool to eat outdoors that evening, but there were a couple tables occupied with people having drinks, but dressed in heavier coats.
The original Captain's Table was a long, narrow dining room with huge booths that featured large windows that looked out toward the river. Before Sweet sold the place in the late 90's, he expanded the restaurant to include a large bar area that had a nautical theme to the place. There was also a little watchtower added to the place that allowed people to go up and get a better view of the upstream bend in the Mississippi River.
The original dining room has changed a little from the first time I visited the place nearly 19 years ago after I moved to the Quad Cities. It's more light in the place with white walls and ceilings versus the dark walls and ceilings of the original Captain's Table. The host that evening took us to one of the large window booths and gave us our menus to look over. There wasn't a lot of people in the restaurant and we noticed there was only one waitress working - Nancy, a pleasant 40-something lady who was working her butt off trying to keep up with the orders and requests.
I was still on a Hawaii hang-over and saw they had mai-tai's on their cocktail and wine menu. Nancy came to ask us what we wanted to drink and I told her that we were probably going to get a bottle of wine, but in the meantime I wanted a mai-tai. She went to get my mai-tai and I looked over the limited wine list The Captain's Table had to offer. I decided to get a bottle of the Frei Brothers merlot, a little over-priced at $36 bucks. I've seen the same wine at restaurants in larger cities at lower prices.
Nancy brought out the mai-tai and it was more fruity than boozy. Definitely not like what we had out in Hawaii. But as Cindy reminded me, "We're not in Hawaii. We're in Illinois!"
The host who seated us brought out the bottle of wine and opened it for us. I was actually looking for a hearty cabernet that evening, but they only had two on the menu. I sort of expressed my astonishment that they only had two cabs on the wine list. He said, "Our wine list is evolving. We feel we have about the best values in wine right now. The Louis Martini cabernet is very good." I had to disagree with him. I find the Louis Martini cab to be over-priced and over-rated. There's a number of better cabs at lower prices that they could choose from.
In fact, the original Captain's Table was where we were turned on to one of our favorite California wines, Judd's Hill. Cindy and I were treated to dinner at The Captain's Table about 14 years ago by Jeremy Burkhardt, the president and former owner of SpeakerCraft. That was back when The Captain's Table had a very extensive wine list. Jeremy was blown away when he saw Judd's Hill on the wine list and we had two bottles of their cabernet that evening. Cindy still talks about the night Jeremy took us to dinner at The Captain's Table because she got a little tipsy and Jeremy and I ended up closing down the new bar that evening drinking top shelf Scotch.
The menu was an interesting mix of beef, chicken, seafood and pork chops. Prime rib was available only on Friday and Saturday nights - the same as the original Captain's Table. The steaks were limited to a couple different sizes of tenderloin filets, a rib-eye and a strip steak dubbed "The El Cheapo". A strip steak sounded pretty good, but the name of it completely turned me off. It was the cheapest steak on the menu - $17.99, if you can call that cheap. But I was leery of how good of cut the "El Cheapo" would be. Plus, I couldn't bring myself to order the "El Cheapo" by name. Cindy said, "Just order it as the strip steak!"
"Yeah," I said. "But she'll probably come back and say, 'Oh, the El Cheapo?' And say it loud enough that the restaurant will know I'm a cheapskate!"
Cindy just laughed.
There were a number of seafood entrees on the menu. Cindy was definitely getting seafood that evening and the choices ranged from grilled shrimp, sauteed scallops, broiled salmon, baked haddock in a cheese sauce, herb encrusted sea bass, sesame seed seared ahi tuna, and their famous brown sugar salmon where they top the salmon with brown sugar and Boetje's mustard and bake it in the oven. However, the special that evening was sea bass bruschetta - their house-made bruschetta topped with grilled sea bass, then baked and finished with a garlic sauce. Cindy couldn't pass that up.
I went with the 9 oz. filet with a side of bearnaise sauce. We also decided to get a side of The Captain's Table's own macaroni and cheese. We also got a Captain's Salad that featured mixed greens, tomatoes, onions, provolone cheese, parmesan and topped with their house vinaigrette that is served family style at the table. In addition to all that, we also decided to give a couple of their soups a try. I ordered the gumbo and Cindy got the clam chowder.
There was a point in time when the Quad Cities would rival New England for the quality of their clam chowder. about four or five restaurants in the area had some world-class clam chowder. I had a guy I used to work for back in the 80's who visited the Boston area many times (and ended up moving there) and who used to travel to the Quad Cities for business before I joined his firm. He once told me, "I don't know what it is, but the clam chowder in the Quad Cities is on par with some of the chowder that I've had in New England." It was very good. And "was" is the operative term, here.
Since the original Captain's Table was sold by Jim Sweet, a few other fine dining restaurants in the area went out of business. All of them had great clam chowder. Jim Sweet and his son eventually bought a place on the Davenport riverfront called The Boat House, not far from where we live (and a place we occasionally go to, but the prices are high and the value is not that great), and their clam chowder was revived there. Sweet has since sold The Boat House and the clam chowder is definitely not the same as it was when the Sweet's were involved.
And the present day clam chowder at The Captain's Table is just OK. Cindy had it the time she was there with the Blue Thong Society and she said it was better than what the previous incarnation of The Captain's Table had to offer. But it still wasn't like the clam chowder in the hey-day of Jim Sweet's ownership.
My gumbo, too, was just OK. It really wasn't anything special and I had to put a bunch of Tabasco into it to kick it up a notch in the heat scale. While it was thick and there were large chunks of andouille sausage, tomatoes, okra and other stuff, I've made better gumbo at home.
Nancy brought out our salad in a large bowl that looked more like a center piece presentation than something you'd want to eat. There were four cherry tomatoes that were equally spaced on top with shaved provolone and parmesan sprinkled on top. And for a weird effect, they placed cheese-flavored Goldfish crackers on top. I don't like Goldfish cheese crackers on their own, why would I like them on a salad? I had a couple bites of the salad with them on top, but knocked them off after I found the taste to be distracting. The house-made vinaigrette was also OK, nothing special at all.
Our main entrees soon arrived. My 9 oz filet was a generous 9 ounces, I'll tell you that. It was a thick cut of tenderloin and quick possibly more toward 12 to 14 ounces in size. It was cooked a perfect rare for me.
(Here is a back story with rare steak at The Captain's Table just after Heart of America took over the restaurant. About 12 years ago, I was traveling with Frank Sterns who was the VP for Sales at Niles Audio, a prestigious custom audio/video company based out of Miami. It was my first trip with him and I was trying to impress him. So, I took him to The Captain's Table and Frank ordered a New York strip, rare. The waitress brought it out and it was cooked medium-well. Frank asked to send the steak back and the waitress left with his steak. She came back out and said, "We're all out of New York strips." He asked for a filet. She said, "We're out of filets, too." She said they had rib-eyes, but he wanted something lean. I was embarrassed to no end that evening. I had never had any problem with The Captain's Table at anytime and the night was a disaster.)
The bearnaise sauce they served on the side (you better ask for it that way or they'll serve it over the filet) was pedestrian and bland. It didn't do anything to enhance the taste of the meat. The steak, on its own, was juicy, tender and tasty. You really don't need the bearnaise sauce on it.
Cindy's sea bass bruschetta was very, very good. She gave me a bite of it and I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with the taste. It had a wonderful garlic finish to the taste and the brushetta was also very good. While I was happy with my steak alone, Cindy was overly happy with her sea bass.
The mac and cheese side that we got was sort of like the bearnaise sauce - bland and lifeless. The dish was very cheesy, but there was no taste sensation to the cheese. I think we both had a couple bites and decided to just concentrate on our main entrees.
After we finished our dinners, Nancy tried to tempt us with The Captain's Table's desserts including a coconut key lime pie, their homemade cheesecake with triple berry sauce, an angel food cake parfait with the same triple berry sauce, and a chocolate brownie sundae. The cheesecake was tempting, but between the gumbo, salad, steak and a couple bites of the mac and cheese, I was done. We asked for our bill and lingered a bit to finish our wine and savor our meal.
There were some things very good about The Captain's Table - our entrees were very good and Nancy's service was also very efficient, considering she was the only one working the dining room that evening. The salad was OK, as was the gumbo and clam chowder. The mac and cheese was bland and disappointing. And the wine list was also very disappointing. But with the great view of the river, the over-sized booths with large wooden tables, and a history of providing good food - most of the time - since the 70's, The Captain's Table rated as slightly above average in my book. While I do give Harman some points in trying to capture the former allure of the original Captain's Table during Jim Sweet's era, he'll still have a long way to go to achieve just that.