Meet Me at Flanigan’s

The South Florida chain Flaingan's, surrounded by curly fries, fingers with shrimp on them, fish, citrus, and biscuits.

Diner Week – All Artwork by Viv Le

Flanigan’s Seafood Bar and Grill isn’t technically a diner. I know what people think of when they think of diners because I think it, too. We think of converted rail cars and open concept kitchens with flat top grills, counters with puffy stools, and quaint little booths flanking the rest of the interior. We think of waitresses with gravelly voices, milkshakes, drip coffee, greasy smashburgers, and the best damn pie you’ll ever eat in your life. I’m not trying to redefine what a diner is or isn’t, but when I think of what the diner experience is in South Florida, I think of Flanigan’s.

So, no, Flanigan’s isn’t technically a diner, but it’s difficult to explain exactly what Flanigan’s is. The various locations all have the same look, and I know most outsiders assume it’s a sports bar hangout for white South Florida dirt bags. The exteriors are painted white with shamrock green accents or stripes and feature the famous sign with the chain’s characteristic plywood-board-style typeface and a giant black and white caricature of the chain’s founder, Joe “Big Daddy” Flanigan, looking like he’s about to tell you his favorite joke. The interiors of the restaurants are floor-to-ceiling hardwood, and the walls are heavily decorated with taxidermied sea life and pictures of Big Daddy and his family on their many fishing and scuba adventures in the water around South Florida and the northern Caribbean. There’s a long bar at the center of every location, of course, and lots of TVs playing mostly Florida professional and college sports games (or, if there’s a lot of old people around, some golf). All of the locations also have TouchTunes jukeboxes that become some of the hottest spots in all of Broward and Miami-Dade County on Friday and Saturday nights around 10 p.m.

Flanigan’s serves mostly American food (whatever that means), and even though the full name features the word “seafood,” the  most popular dishes don’t feature anything you’d ever find in the ocean: their “famous” and award-winning baby back ribs, Rockin’ Rib Rolls, tumbleweed onions, Buffalo chicken wings, and loaded nachos. Every night of the week, you can get a rotating free appetizer with the order of a pitcher of soda or beer, and they have tons of meal deals that make it accessible to anyone who can afford to spend a little money on a meal out.

On top of that, a close friend of mine and I joke that everything at Flanigan’s is always a B-minus, a solid 80%. You’re not going to have the most stellar meal of your life there, but no matter which location you go to or when, it’ll be consistent and satisfying. Sure, it is pretty popular among the white South Florida dirt bags, but the weird thing about Flanigan’s is that it’s just popular in general. On any given day — and I mean any given day — you can walk into any Flanigan’s location and see it packed with people of all races and backgrounds, ages and incomes. And you’ll see queer people there, too. There’s always families with loud children, people celebrating their birthdays or graduations or promotions, people coming in right after a rock show, people watching the Dolphins or Heat games, and college-aged kids trying to get as obliterated as they possibly can. And everyone is just there together, eating and drinking and minding their business. Flanigan’s restaurants are so often some of the most harmoniously diverse spots in all of South Florida that it kind of feels like there’s a weird agreement between everyone who goes there…like whatever shit you’re holding on to, you better leave it at the door before you go in.

***
I’ve been going to Flanigan’s since I was little, but my clearest memories of going are from after my parents got divorced when I was seven. Even though my dad makes the best grilled cheeses in the world, he’s never been much of a cook. For the first several years after the divorce, he juggled multiple low-paying jobs at a time, and we only got to see him one or two weekends a month and on holidays. Grocery shopping and spending time in the kitchen planning and preparing meals take time, and my dad didn’t have much time for us or himself.

We spent those weekends trying to squeeze a lot in — my and my brother’s little league games and art classes, my dad’s adult intramural softball games or bowling league matches, time with my paternal grandma and extended family, and something fun we could all do together. That’s a lot for a 72-hour period, so aside from Sunday dinners at my Nana’s, we mostly ended up spending our meal times circulating through some of the restaurants closest to the places we needed to be. There was the wing place with the sweet potato fries that came with marshmallow dip, the pizza spot one of my dad’s closest friends owned, a couple of places on the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk famous for fried seafood dishes and ice cream, the bowling alley concession stand. And there was a Flanigan’s in almost every part of the county we live(d) in.

Most of the other places he took us had small arcades or sticker dispensers or other built-in kid entertainment, but not Flanigan’s. Flanigan’s is just a restaurant and bar, no extra frills for children who can’t stand to be confined to a table. That’s why I feel such a fondness for the place. When we’d walk into Flanigan’s, my brother and I knew we’d have to sit at the table and actually hang out with my dad. We’d have to tell him about our school projects and sports practices, explain who the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys and No Doubt were, and listen to his stories without a single distraction except the possibility of coloring in the illustrations on the paper kids’ menu pack.

Since my dad often lived in apartments or small houses he shared with friends, sit-down meals at the kitchen table were pretty much nonexistent. Going to Flanigan’s filled that gap. We’d pile into our little booth, order what we always got — Flanigan’s famous ribs for my dad, dolphin (mahi mahi) fingers and fries for me, and hot chicken wings and curly fries for my brother — and get our sodas in their famous 32 oz. take-home green cups that also feature Big Daddy’s face, then start talking about whatever was on our minds. Often, there’d be other members of what my friends and I now refer to as the “Divorced Dad’s Club,” other kids and their dads without wedding bands eating and enjoying (or sometimes not enjoying) each other’s company. We never talked to them or joined their tables or anything, but there was a weird sense of unspoken camaraderie there. It wasn’t just my brother and me who had a dad who couldn’t really cook and didn’t have a lot of time. Other kids did, too, and that was ok. There was nothing to be ashamed of. It was such a relief to know my brother and I weren’t the only ones experiencing the impacts of how our parents’ divorce restructured our lives.

Funnily enough, Flanigan’s has always been — from its founding by Big Daddy and his son to the decorations on the wall to the atmosphere — a place that was focused on the importance of family, and going there during that time in our lives is part of what helped me reorient what being part of a family looked and felt like. By the time I got to high school, I was already very firmly a big fan (or should I say Fanigan??) of Flanigan’s. At that point, it wasn’t just the place where my dad took us to fill up on food and take some time to catch up with one another before we rushed off to the next place or event. It was becoming an integral part of my social life as a teenager because, as I’d come to find out when I got to high school, almost everyone I knew grew up loving and going to Flanigan’s.

***
The restaurant part of the Flanigan’s dynasty didn’t open until 1985, but Big Daddy’s Liquors has been a mainstay on the South Florida scene since Big Daddy himself got down here in the late 1950s. Many people don’t know that most of the development in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties has happened within mine and my parents’ lifetimes. In the context of the rest of the country, South Florida as a whole isn’t very old. It’s not hard to notice this. There are only a few places in these counties where you can see things older than my parents, who were born in the 1960s, and most of them are in Coral Gables and South Miami. In my whole life in South Florida, I’ve only met two people who grew up and lived in a home that was built before 1950. In other states, I’ve been to restaurants and diners that were over 100 years old. There’s only one place like that still open in South Florida, the very fancy Joe’s Stone Crab, and that certainly wasn’t a place my family would’ve patronized in my youth. Growing up down here in the 1990s and early 2000s always felt a little disorienting in a way that would’ve been hard for me to describe back then. Because nothing feels old, it’s hard to feel the history of the place in the ways we’re taught to feel it. There isn’t a supposed distinct culture here that connects people in the way New Yorkers and Bostonians have their accents, how Midwesterners and Baltimoreans have their slang, or how different Southerners have their cuisines.

In a weird way, Flanigan’s always kind of subconsciously filled that gap for me and for, I think, many of the people I was friends with as a young person, which is why I so often think of it in the same way many people do about their local diners. When we all started to drive and finally had the freedom to decide what we’d do with our time before and after the shows and organizing meetings we were frequently attending, Flanigan’s quickly became one of our go-to spots. I’ll be honest and say that because we all thought we were so cool, we started going to Flanigan’s with an enormous degree of irony. I’ve already described it in detail, so I think it’s easy to see why it might be tempting to treat a place like Flanigan’s with a certain level of ironic detachment. It’s kitschy. It’s kitschy as hell, actually. And it’s gimmicky. You walk in there, and you can see all the parts of South Florida that drove us crazy as “interesting” and “creative” teenagers: Big Daddy’s face plastered all over everything, the gaudy aquatic decorations and saltwater aquariums, and the fish, so many dead fish with their dead, glass-marble eyes. It was almost annoying, actually, as if this was what South Florida culture was all about, this is what we were good for. It felt funny to go see bands like Against Me! and The Blood Brothers, then go to Flanigan’s to eat tumbleweed onions and fries and talk shit about whatever happened at the show that night.

Most of my friends ended up choosing to go away for college and a couple of us, including me, had to stay and attend local universities. This was an especially tough transition for me because it felt scary to not have my queer little friend-family around all the time. These were the people who felt safe when nothing else did, the people I did homework with, the people I struggled with, and the people who helped me learn how to harness the power of community and use that power to do work out in the world. I wasn’t really interested in the process of making other friends, and I didn’t think I’d ever make ones who understood me as much as they did. We spent that last, pre-college summer doing everything we could together, and we found ourselves at Flanigan’s a lot. Our relationship with the place started to shift at the same time our relationships with each other had already started to change. That summer, we didn’t spend a lot of time at the restaurant talking shit and goofing off. We spent a lot of time talking about our fears, our desires, our hopes and dreams. We imagined what our lives might look like in a year or two years or five or ten. We made plans to keep in touch and to see each other but also promised not to get in the way of new connections and new friendships. We even used our final visit before everything changed to order each other’s favorite meals by ordering for the friend who was sitting to the right of each of us. I ordered those famous Rockin’ Rib Rolls and a Caesar salad for my friend to the right of me, and my friend to the left ordered a grilled dolphin sandwich with curly fries for me —  still my go-to order to this day. Then, that night, we said our “goodbyes” there.

For a while, I didn’t go to Flanigan’s, and I didn’t insist that any of the acquaintances I made in my college courses or at my jobs go there with me either. I just kind of passed by it all the time and tried to remember why I didn’t like places like Flanigan’s in the first place, which was a lot easier to do than deal with the anger I had around being a kid who couldn’t afford to go away to school. During that first semester, I spent every moment I could trying to get out of South Florida to see my friends who left, and many of them obliged me by staying at their colleges during some of their long weekend breaks. I’d sleep on their floors, and they’d show me around their college towns, take me to parties, introduce me to their new friends. We’d go see a show or just hang out at their favorite coffee shops. I was getting to know other places and getting to be with my old friends, but we never talked about how much they missed being home. When everyone was finally back during that first winter after we started college, it wasn’t even a question where we’d be having our first meal together. After that, this was what we always did until we grew apart entirely. Flanigan’s became the place we’d go to try to reconnect and to reminisce and to pretend we weren’t all changing as rapidly as we were.

As we got older, we grew further and further apart from one another. One of the hardest truths about being alive is that not every relationship you have in life ends for a distinct reason. Not all of them end dramatically or abruptly or because you decided to end them. Sometimes, you just grow up and grow out of some of the friendships that helped make you who you are. Sometimes, the people you grew up with join sororities or become Finance Bros™ out of nowhere or get into romantic situations that require all their time and attention for one reason or another. You change, too. You want different kinds of relationships, friends who are interested in investing in the communities where you came from, people who match your enthusiasm and optimism about the possibilities of the future but also check you when you’re not treating yourself or others as well as you should. The distance that was growing between us pushed me to build connections with people who were closer to me in both geography and the values that were becoming more and more important to me.

***

Years passed, and by the time I was out of college and into my first years of teaching, I constructed a new web of close friends who, like me, grew up in South Florida and also began their adult lives here. They didn’t all know and hang out with each other like the kids I grew up with did, but they suited me a lot better and made sense for the person I was growing into. It’s hard to remember exactly what events conspired to make this possible, but at 25, I started going to Flanigan’s with friends again. As far I can remember, my friend Liz, a real Miami head with ties to Flanigan’s that are even deeper and stronger than mine, would tell stories and make jokes about the place all the time until one weekend day when we were day-drinking, we just decided to “pop-in” for a couple of beers and some fish dip.

When we got there, we sat down at the bar and ordered our Bud Lights and smoked fish dip, a Florida specialty with cream cheese, lemon, and lime that Flanigan’s really seems to have mastered. By the time we finished both, we worked up an even larger appetite. So, we ordered five hot wings to share, a couple of dolphin sandwiches with curly fries, and more BLs, of course — an order we recently named “The Big Daddy” after her last trip home. For some reason, our trip there that day opened up so many new and exciting conversations between us about growing up in South Florida, about our lives before we knew each other, about our families, about which people at work we disliked the most. At some point, we put a few bucks in the jukebox and played the kind of shit our dads probably listened to with their friends at bars when they were young: KC & the Sunshine Band, The Rolling Stones, and Fleetwood Mac. We ended up staying a lot longer than I thought we would, and all of my warm feelings for the place came rushing back to me in the days following. After that, I went back to all my other friends asking “Hey, how come we never go to Flanigan’s??” Suddenly, Flanigan’s was back in the rotation again.

South Florida has historically been a very transient space, and in the last nine years, many of the friends I’ve made as an adult have moved on and moved out of here to pursue different career opportunities or relationships or just because they were tired of it. Unlike the very first time I watched my friends move away, I feel like a professional at it now. Maturity and being able to juggle multiple responsibilities at a time makes it so much easier to handle the changes that naturally occur in our relationships as we get older. Luckily, the friendships you make in adulthood are also generally more likely to stick, and these ones have regardless of the many hundreds of miles between us. Now, when my friends come home for a visit, we often treat Flanigan’s like our own personal meetinghouse. We go because it’s always the same and it’s always consistent, because we’ve never had a terrible meal or a warm beer there, and because no matter how many people are there, it always feels comfortable. It’s an easy place for us to gather to spend quality time together and revel in the South Florida bullshit of it all, those particular idiosyncrasies they can’t and don’t get in the places where they live now.

Of course, not all of my friends have gone, and through teaching and organizing and attending literary events, I’ve continued to make connections with people who have moved here over the years. I go to Flanigan’s with them (or I have plans to take them in the near future) specifically because they don’t have those same connections to the place as many born-and-bred South Floridians do. It’s a place I can take them to help expose a piece of me that’s always been a little challenging to explain — the piece that feels shameless about kitsch and tackiness and things being ridiculous and bizarre in aspects that are specific to this wild and weird ass region of the country. It’s a little key to a part of me that deeply, deeply respects how absurd and incredible it is that Flanigan’s is one of the longest-running establishments in the three counties that make up this region and that one of the most recognizable symbols in all of South Florida is Big Daddy’s face adorning the Flanigan’s logo. I know my friends who moved here from other places will learn to love it in their own ways, too.

a white napkin with red print that reads AUTOSTRADDLE Diner Week

Diner Week is a 12-part series of essays curated and edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya.


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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 16 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Perhaps most remarkable is that I was with you at a Flanny’s the day before this article came out, and those beers and tumbleweed onions absolutely HIT. A+ article for our favorite B- food. I love it!

  2. “One of the hardest truths about being alive is that not every relationship you have in life ends for a distinct reason.” Stef this made me feel so much. THANK YOU. Also, I really really want to go to Flanigan’s now.

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