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Traveler's Taste

A feast for the eyes, and it serves food, too

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / February 23, 2005

CAPTIVA ISLAND, Fla. -- Entering the Bubble Room feels like walking across a life-size Candy Land board game: You pass striped awnings in sherbet hues, multicolored railings, brightly painted chairs and benches, cartoon character murals -- even the curb in the parking lot is painted a bright pink.

But the eye-popping exterior doesn't begin to prepare a visitor for the sensory overload of the inside of this 26-year-old local icon.

Walls and ceilings are plastered with more than 3,000 old movie photographs, toy trains run around the perimeter on a high track, rotating chandeliers with red and green bubble lights twinkle, and Christmas decorations stay up all year.

Affable servers, called Bubble scouts, wear zany hats and khaki uniforms covered with appliques and buttons.

Tables are glass-topped shadow boxes filled with items from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. In our table we picked out Monopoly money, jigsaw-puzzle pieces, a sheriff's badge and toy gun, a back-scratcher, matches, Mickey Mouse playing cards, a racetrack betting form, postcards, sheet music, marbles, jacks, Hopalong Cassidy birthday paper plates, and toy cars.

Guests are welcome to wander through the five dining rooms on three floors. One private booth celebrates love with photos of famous couples -- Elvis and Priscilla Presley, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn -- while another is a trolley car.

There are some 50 Santa Clauses from the 1940s and '50s, including one driving a Corvair by a sign that says "1,987 miles to Wall Drug Store" (an emporium next to the Badlands in South Dakota that has earned a reputation by posting signs to its location all over the world). From the second-floor landing, guests can look down on a mechanized Santa's workshop salvaged from a Macy's department store window.

The Bubble Room is based on a similar restaurant in San Antonio, the former Hip's Bubble Room, general manager Jim George said. The Florida restaurant's collection continues to grow; the emphasis is on the post-World War II era. Even the music, with songs such as "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)," recalls the period.

"What makes this job different from any other I've had," said George, who has been with the restaurant for eight years, "is that people seek us out because they've heard about us. So we start out with happy customers and a fun place, and then we give them good food as well."

The building was badly damaged by last season's hurricanes, but the collection remained mostly intact. "We know what to do to prepare for a hurricane," George said. "We removed everything from the first floor, boarded the windows, and sandbagged the doors." Nonetheless a piece of flying debris decapitated two ceramic Marx Brothers statues on the top floor. "It was a little bizarre to see the statues with the heads lying at their feet," George said.

The Bubble Room's menu includes local seafood, meat, and poultry, but the restaurant is perhaps best known for its desserts. In fact, the admonition to "save room for dessert" takes on new meaning here: If you want to actually finish dessert, you may have to skip the main meal entirely.

The Bubble Room bakery produces more than a dozen distinctive cakes and pies. The most popular, George said, are the Very Moist Chocolate Cake, layered with chocolate fudge, toffee, and pecan crunch icing; the White Christmas Cake, with toasted slivered almonds, iced with whipped cream, packed with coconut, and topped with white chocolate shavings; the Orange Crunch Cake, with slivered almonds and cinnamon and brown sugar between layers, covered with an orange cream-cheese icing; and the Red Velvet Cake, a rich buttermilk-based dessert with pecan cream-cheese icing, made famous by the Waldorf Astoria hotel. His favorite, however, is Buttercrunch Cream Pie, an Oreo cookie crust topped with homemade vanilla ice cream mixed with Butterfinger candy bars and smothered in toffee butter brickle sauce.

George said all desserts are made on site, and the task occupies five people a day -- two bakers, two icers, and a Bubble scout on a rotating basis. Dessert servings are cut to the width of "four fingers," George said, but we estimated our White Christmas to be about 4 or 5 inches across. Having downed a plate of coconut shrimp and a smoked turkey wrap, we barely made a dent in it.

The Bubble Room Restaurant, 15001 Captiva Drive, Captiva Island, Fla. 239-472-5558. www.bubbleroomrestaurant.com. Dinner entrees $20.95-$28.95; lunch $7.50-$14.95; desserts $6.25.

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