I don't know why, but I was expecting a dive. Maybe it was the fact that R.J. Gator's seemed to be named after somebody's uncle. Maybe because it was called a "Florida sea grill." Maybe just because it was founded 20 years ago. But R.J. Gator's was far from being a dive. It was more like an efficient urban development in dive disguise. Think of it as a warehouse-sized, Everglades-themed Cheesecake Factory attached to a mall.
We first came upon the restaurant's outdoor bar, which wraps around the building's facade. Among the few tables, the music was blaring, giving one the fleeting feeling of drinking in an outpost in the thick of a swamp. Pulling on the gator-head door handles, my friends and I stepped inside.
The hostess started to show us to a booth near the front window when we noticed a gimmick that we had to partake of: rocking booths. "Can we sit at one of those?" I demanded, pointing to the middle of the room. She mechanically turned and led us to our very own swinging banquet, where we delighted in play as we rocked the booth with our feet, testing to see if our drinks would spill on the swaying but steady table.
As we waited for our food, a wall of hot sauces kept us entertained. We grabbed a handful and tested them with saltine crackers, then kept our favorites and smothered our meals in them when they arrived. The menu was enormous, and we only scratched the surface of what they offered, sticking mostly to the Florida specialties and bar/grill food.
We rocked and rocked until a dozen oysters were placed in front of us, half raw and half steamed. A few minutes later, the refuse of Hurricane Oyster left a trail of cocktail sauce, drawn butter, crackers and shells across the table. R.J. Gator's is no Lee & Rick's Oyster Bar (on Old Winter Garden Road), but the huge, delicate mollusks nestled in their shells were still completely satisfying. Next came alligator tail ($5.49), tender chunks of golden fried meat served with cocktail sauce and another thyme-laden Caribbean-style one. We also got a plate of "strings" ($6.99), a mile-high pile of thin, fried onions that had been rolled in a spicy batter before being plunged into hot fat definitely bar food at its best. Actually, any pub fare you could dream up, R.J. Gator's touches on nachos, quesadillas, spinach dip, wings, fingers, pizza, burgers. And they always feature a fresh Florida catch, so don't hesitate to consider a grouper sandwich, too ($8.99).
Actually, we tried an assortment of recommendable seafood dishes. The selection of fried seafood is astounding, including platters of scallops, clams, shrimp and myriad types of fish. We munched down an order of pleasingly crunchy coconut shrimp ($13.99) that had an alluringly tropical flavor. The Florida-style crab cakes ($12.99) live up to their name: fluffy cakes seasoned with Caribbean flair and with a texture that could live up to any Maryland taste test.
R.J. Gator's serves several dishes "Havana banana"-style, which is a grilled piece of jerk-seasoned meat (I tried mahi-mahi for $11.99) covered in orange sauce and served with black beans, rice and fried plantains.
Skip their desserts, which tended to be gooey, over-the-top messes, except perhaps the Key lime pie. Their version was a creamy tart custard nuzzled into a graham cracker crust and finished with an unnaturally bright green lime concoction that tasted like a Now and Later candy the kind of sauce that a true dive would dish up.