Tarks of Dania Beach gains new owners and an ambitious plan for upgrades

There’s been a seafood shack shakeup at Tarks of Dania Beach, with its new owners pledging to upgrade the aging roadside restaurant — and atone for past mistakes that tainted its reputation.

Citing burnout and decades of stress in a post on social media, longtime owner Ted Itzoe sold his stake in Tarks in March after 30 years of operating the roadside eatery at 1317 S. Federal Highway.

Restaurateurs Kesi and Jennifer Dibrani acquired the Tarks building and land underneath for $725,000, according to property records. The Dibranis also operate Moonlite Diner in Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale and Fratelli’s Pizza, Pasta & Vino in Deerfield Beach and Delray Beach.

In the past six months, the Dibranis have poured cash into behind-the-scenes upgrades, replacing Tarks’ freezers and deep fryers and installing new air-conditioning units in the dining room and walk-in freezer this spring. The restaurant next added fans and umbrellas on the patio and hurricane-proof windows, along with new fences framing its rear dumpster and a repaved parking lot now nearing completion.

Most of Tarks’ upgrades are long overdue, necessary and aimed at modernizing the 1,300-square-foot clam house after years of neglect, Kesi Dibrani says. And, yes, he has heard the customer complaints about Tarks’ grimy appearance and declining quality over the years.

Manager Rene Filecci, center, tends to customers seated at the long counter at Tarks of Dania Beach. (John McCall / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

In 2018, commenters on social media bashed Tarks’ reputation after one employee uploaded a viral video of a dead rat on the kitchen floor as customers ate lunch in the background.

Customers on the “Let’s Eat, South Florida” Facebook group, run by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, still invoke the vermin incident. Since then, they appear to praise the restaurant’s Buffalo wings and clams as much as they criticize its appearance.

“The food looked legit but the place was dirty,” one commenter wrote in January, before the ownership change. In a post from February, another commenter wrote, “That place is filthy. I wish it was not, cause the food rocks,” adding: “I wish they would just clean it up.”

Other customers, meanwhile, celebrated its reliably unchanging menu: “Before you shoot them down, go ask for the medium garlic [wings] … best ever!” one customer posted in the same February thread.

“Hole-in-the-walls usually have the best food,” another commenter added.

Dibrani hopes to work on this mixed reputation, starting by erasing any perceptions that Tarks’ quality — and appearance — have declined.

“I put in a lot of money to patch things up, but it’s a small building with a lot of flaws,” Dibrani says. “My pest-control company comes in every single night since I took over Tarks in March. The past is the past, and our time and energy in this place is at a maximum.”

New England clams, barbecue garlic wings, conch salad, Louisiana oysters and fried grouper are part of the menu at Tarks of Dania Beach. (John McCall / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Rene Filecci, an employee of five years who became Tark’s manager in March — the same month the Dibranis took over — is happy about the new makeover and says she’s hearing renewed praise from diners.

“We’re getting all these new compliments recently, like, ‘This place seems a lot cleaner’ and ‘nice new air vents,’ ” Filecci says. “[Kesi] has been replacing everything that’s broken, making it look like a restaurant should.”

She says the raw bar returned to daily deliveries under the Dibranis, who source their seafood from Tarks’ longtime supplier, Perkins Shellfish in Port St. Lucie.

Conch salad at Tarks of Dania Beach. (John McCall / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Born in Albania but raised in Italy, Kesi Dibrani emigrated to the United States as a teenager and moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, in his 20s. There, he ran Prontos, an Italian seafood restaurant. He moved to South Florida with wife Jennifer in 2014 and discovered Tarks a few years later, falling in love with its clam chowder and oysters.

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In 2019, he even approached Itzoe to buy Tarks, “but he wasn’t ready to sell yet,” Dibrani says. Still, Dibrani was determined to own a piece of South Florida history.

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After all, Tark’s Clam Stand has been on Federal Highway since 1966, created by Guido Pasquale “G. Pat” Tarquinio. At its height, Tarks grew to 11 locations from Cutler Ridge to Delray Beach, until chain restaurants bought and replaced all the Tarks except for the Dania Beach original.

As Dania Beach sprouted new high-rises, chain restaurants and even a sprawling shopping mall, Tarks, by contrast, changed very little. It kept its no-frills menu the same: Buffalo wings, steamers and fried-belly clams, New England chowder and seasoned curly fries, and dozens of topnecks or littleneck clams steamed or raw by the bucket.

Garlic and barbecue-sauced wings are served at Tarks of Dania Beach. (John McCall / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

It is that delicate balance — changing without losing Tarks’ identity — that Dibrani says he wants to strike.

Tarks’ distinctive ocean-blue facade, splashed with murals of dolphins, palm trees and clam shells, will remain. This was a deliberate choice, Dibrani says, to avoid changing the familiar, hole-in-the-wall vibe that Tarks maintained for four decades.

The interior decor is “stark in there, but it’s efficient and it worked for 40 years, so we’re not changing it,” says Dibrani, 39, who lives in Miami Beach but is currently scouting for homes on Hollywood Beach.

Between now and next summer, the plan is to add palm trees and other fresh landscaping along South Federal Highway. Dibrani is also organizing a ribbon-cutting event after Thanksgiving to hype the restaurant’s face-lift.

New England clams at Tarks of Dania Beach. (John McCall / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

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