If Blue Moon Waterfront Grille were any other restaurant, they'd have changed the name by now. After all, a blue moon is what you call the second full moon in a calendar month, and we have reached at least the third incarnation of this dockside establishment on the Cumberland. But despite a two-decades-long record dotted with inconsistent food quality, inadequate bathroom facilities — and, let's not forget, a flood that finally swept the whole damn thing away — the Blue Moon name still carries so much goodwill and nostalgia that only the most unsentimental hearts would rebrand.
So when Noshville owner Tom Loventhal, Rock Harbor marina owner Fred Nance and Rainbow Key veterans Glen Smith and Dougie Ray (owner of Dougie Ray's in Rivergate) took over the unique restaurant setting, they decided to keep the name that worked and fix the things that didn't.
The result is a familiar but improved dining destination — albeit one where destination still eclipses dining.
In rebuilding the restaurant post-2010 flood, the new owners reoriented the structure to face out toward the river. They installed fountains to animate the water and prevent stagnation around the dock, and they built a system of winches that can raise and lower the dock as the water level changes.
Gently flapping sunscreens look like something envisioned by Christo. Vast red sheets like sails stretched overhead literally cast a rosy glow on the situation. (Though strong in visual impact, the shelter is feeble as protection against late-afternoon sun, so make your seating decisions wisely. Or wear a hat and sunglasses.)
The very mention of Blue Moon brings a swirl of music to mind, from the 1934 Rodgers and Hart song that shares its title to Nanci Griffith's "Once in a Very Blue Moon." Either of those ballads might waft across the waves as you dine dockside, depending on the shifting character of the passing boat traffic or the live music on the restaurant's stage. I take this detour into ambiance because Blue Moon is unlike other restaurants. With approximately one-half its seating bordering an aquatic thoroughfare of industrial barges, pontoon boats, yachts and paddleboards, it's more of a feast for the senses than the average dining room. Nature weighs in here in a way it doesn't in other places. There's the weather, ranging from blazing heat to chilling breeze; there's the light, subsiding from retina-searing rays to lazy lengthening shadows. And of course, there's the crowd, ranging from slow Sunday brunchers to rowdy boat people. It's never the same place twice.
That said, fans of the old Blue Moon will recognize a few things from the old place. Grit cakes and a double-cut pork chop hearken back to favorite dishes from Blue Moon's grittier days. There's deep-fried lobster tail coated in an impressively greaseless batter and served with vibrant mango salsa. Reminiscent of Blue Moon's Twin Tails of yore, the sweet and tender shellfish is available as an appetizer or an entrée.
We were delighted to see the familiar favorite Siamese Cat on the menu; however, the soggy sautéed fillets speckled with black sesame seeds and bluntly accented with wasabi fell short of our memories. If you've got an appetite for nostalgia, stick with the fried coconut shrimp recipe from bygone Rainbow Key, cloaked in golden batter threaded with sweet shredded coconut and served with a sweet red wine-sherry sauce. We ordered a single appetizer, then came back for a second serving.
The BLT loaded with chewy applewood bacon on thick slices of soft multigrain bread is a strong version of a staple sandwich, as is the grilled cheese, oozing with thick slices of American cheese on golden toasted bread. As for sandwiches, the po'boy took the cake, laden with plump fried oysters, oozing briny seafood liquor onto a soft loaf of toasted baguette from Provence.
Fish tacos were a generous serving of grilled mahi and fresh fruit salsa on warmed flour tortillas, with a side of black beans and rice. Crab dip was a rustic medley of sweet chunky shellfish, tossed lightly with mayonnaise and finished with the bright detail of lemon-zest threads.
Fried calamari rings were slightly overcooked, though we appreciated the touch of sweet, chunky stewed tomato marinara with shredded Parmesan, in lieu of ubiquitous dark-red and overly concentrated tomato sauce.
If there was one glaring disappointment in our meals it was the salad. The grilled skewer of sweet glazed shrimp on top deserved better than its pale-green bed of iceberg lettuce and shredded yellow cheese.
Don't tell my husband, but one of the best dates I ever went on was to Blue Moon, many moons ago. We arrived at Rock Harbor by ski-boat, put our name on the waiting list, and swam in the harbor until a table came available. Then we climbed onto the dock and ordered grit cakes and lobster tails.
Come to think of it, I don't remember what they tasted like, but the alfresco experience ranks among the high watermarks of carefree youth — when I wasn't afraid to swim in oil-tinged harbor water or to wear my bathing suit in public.
Similarly, I probably won't remember years from now what I ate at the new Blue Moon this summer. (I might remember the po'boy. Let's hope I forget the iceberg salad.) But the experiences will stick with me — lunching in the sun with a conspiratorial feeling of playing hooky, or watching paddleboarders punt toward open water while I balanced securely on a barstool, clinging to a perspiring pilsner glass.
Of course, the real Kodak moment of my visits was the image of my kids leaning over the railing and tossing breadcrumbs to a swirling school of turtles and fish, then laughing as greedy ducks paddled over to get in on the action. That kind of entertainment is rare. Given the ready response of the turtles and ducks, though, such a family-friendly feeding frenzy happens pretty often in this particular Blue Moon.
Blue Moon Waterfront Grille serves Wednesday and Thursday 3 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., with brunch until 2 p.m. Live music Wednesdays in July from 6 to 9 p.m.