Our Mystery Food Critic Visits the Smugglers' Wharf
Amidst all the talk of Erie's Bayfront and its potential development in the coming years, perhaps it's good to take a moment to observe some gems already there – in particular, we're talking seafood at the Smugglers' Wharf.
Situated at 3 State St. near the Bicentennial Tower, Smugglers' Wharf has been dishing out fresh seafood to Erie for over three decades. With a relaxed atmosphere and feel, the restaurant also offers a nice array of chicken and steak options as well as soups and salads, all prepared in a classic American style.
With a warm breeze blowing in off the lake one particular Thursday evening, my dining companion and I approached the restaurant, noticing the packed parking spaces near the Tower. Families moseyed by, pushing little ones in strollers. Friends tiptoed along the edge, bending to gaze down into the water.
The deep, warm wood tones of exposed beams inside the restaurant set the nautical feel and welcomed us. Quickly seated – we had made reservations, as I would recommend to you – we decided to begin with an appetizer in order to afford us more time to peruse the menu.
Smugglers' offers standard appetizer fare, ranging from shrimp cocktails to mussels to chicken tenders, but both being artichoke enthusiasts, we decided to try Smuggler's Artichoke Seafood Melt.
Blanketed in a thick layer of Swiss cheese, a medley of artichoke hearts and crabmeat are buried beneath. While certainly different and better than your average artichoke dips ripped from the freezer, nuked in the microwave, and slopped on the table with salt-laden stale tortilla chips, the marriage of artichoke with crab seemed unbalanced, with the sweetness of the crab bullying the tartness expected from such robust chunks of artichoke. Still, the melt was flavorful and distinctive – although bit less creamy and thinner than standard artichoke dip – and the pre-sliced French baguette it came with paired nicely with.
Moving from the "Great Beginnings" to the entrees, we had a good array of options from which to choose without feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly never-ending menu.
For those with a penchant for pasta, the "Pastabilities" section offers three distinctly different possibilities with Shellfish Carbonara, Chicken Fettucini Alfredo, and Shrimp Mediterranean. Diners with a taste for something other than pastas or seafood may be drawn to the four different takes on steak, ranging from prime rib to sirloin to strip to filet mignon, as well as the standout on the menu from the description alone, the Bourbon Pecan Chicken Breast.
While the Spring Specials – the Penne with Clam Sauce and the Flatbread Pizza with Shrimp in particular – caught my attention, my dining companion and I decided to stick to the standard offerings to get a more authentic experience of what the restaurant was like year-round. Sporting a nautical theme and being situated right on the beautiful lakefront, we agreed that it wouldn't be a true trip to Smuggler's Wharf without continuing our experience with seafood entrees.
The Catch of the Day – swordfish that particular evening but varying from evening to evening – can be blackened, baked, or grilled to a diner's determined delight. We again passed on the special, looking for something for which Smugglers' had come to be known.
We narrowed our decision to three options: Smugglers' Signature Langostino-Crab Cakes, Ahi Tuna, and Broiled Sea Scallops. Being a "signature" dish, the crab cakes – served with a "not-too-spicy del Ray sauce" – struck us as a must, so I ordered those with a side of garlic sautéed portabellas and "Old Bay" seasoned potatoes.
Torn between the scallops and the ahi, my companion elicited a recommendation from the waitress, who, without hesitation, suggested the scallops. That recommendation turned out to be one of the better overall parts of our dining experience.
The eight scallops, broiled in garlic butter, lemon, and white wine came topped with bread crumbs, adding a nice crunch to the otherwise delicate texture of the mollusk. Often a problem with sea scallops, which are larger and meatier compared to the tinier bay scallops, is the sometimes-gritty texture from improper cleaning. Not the case at Smugglers', as the scallops were clean, allowing us both to focus more on the simple yet delicious hints of the garlic butter, lemon, and white wine at work together.
My companion sided her scallops with Smugglers' coleslaw and the fresh vegetable of the day, a squash mix – simple, fresh, and delectable on both accounts, as the coleslaw wasn't drenched in sauce or dry enough to be considered simply cabbage, and the squash wasn't overly seasoned or cooked, letting its flavor linger on a high note.
The crab cakes – a combination of langostinos and "real" crabmeat – were crispy, yet flaky to the tines of a fork. As one who could live on seafood – crab in particular – alone, the "real" crab makes all the difference for these cakes.
The letdown though, came in the way of the "not-too-spicy" sauce. Not spicy at all – granted, I enjoy foods on the spicier side than most – the sauce was borderline bland and underwhelming at best. And the crab cakes were flavorful enough on their own that a sauce truly isn't needed to augment their sweet tang.
The "Old Bay" potatoes were a table favorite – something truly distinctive. The seasoning complemented the lightly fried, bite-size potato wedges without taking away the natural clean taste of the starch. They also weren't overly salty – an all-too-often occasion at many restaurants.
The garlic-sautéed portabellas were the biggest letdown. Rubbery – it seemed more like a boil than a sautéed – and near flavorless – the garlic was virtually nonexistent – the mushrooms went unfinished and disappointed two mushroom-enthusiasts, as we actually squabbled a bit over who would order them and enjoy the lion's share based on the menu description.
Be forewarned: If you want dessert, skip the appetizer, as our melt and entrees left us with no room to conclude the meal with something sweet. For lighter options, a guest could order something like the Cajun Catfish or the Barbecue Pulled Pork from the Sandwich Board.
Fresh seafood isn't always easy to find. And it's not always able to be enjoyed by a breathtaking body of water. But at Smugglers', you can find both. And come Memorial Day weekend, you'll be able to dine outside – a great bonus for this restaurant.
So with the warm breeze soon blowing summer in, head to Smugglers' Wharf to experience a gem the Erie Bayfront already has.
Smugglers' Wharf is open at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Closing times vary depending on the day. For full menu options and prices, visit smugglerswharfinc.com or call 459.4273.
You can contact the Reader Eater at ReaderEater@eriereader.com.