St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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Successful salvage

Jack Willie's Original Tiki Bar & Grill, the latest incarnation of a 25-year-old backwater joint, goes beyond the expected.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Food Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 6, 2002

[Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
Margaritas, lobster and blackened grouper are on the menu at Jack Willie’s Original Tiki Bar & Grill in Oldsmar.

OLDSMAR -- Sushi at the mall is one thing, but sushi at a fish camp in the farthest-flung weeds at the top of Tampa Bay invites disbelief -- and a bucket of bait jokes.

But the kitchen at Jack Willie's Original Tiki Bar & Grill does crank out some fancy sushi rolls on weekends, and it plans to have a complete bar in place this summer.

If sushi here is limited and shy of truly exotic ingredients, Jack Willie's still makes clever stuff, darn clever for a place where a grouper sandwich garnished with a Bud would seem to be the seafood of choice. Jack Willie's adds raw tuna to a California roll of crab and avocado, plus cucumber horns and dots of mayo to create the Red Dragon, and it revises a spider roll of soft-shell crab into a Yankee Clipper. Both passed muster with me; they were filling enough that I didn't get around to a confection of almond shrimp and asparagus.

That says less about America's new appetite for sushi than it does about Jack Willie's, which usually delivers better than you would expect.

It has flown numerous flags under many owners over its 25 years, often unsuccessfully. I was lucky with the incarnations I visited, particularly Pegleg Pete's with its prime rib sandwiches and grouper fajitas, but ultimately it sank too far.

A salvage operation began two years ago with the backing of New York Yankees pitching guru Billy Connors and former Yankees pitcher David Cone, and the work is still in progress with the addition of Alfie Crescentini, formerly of Grattzi and the Grill at Feather Sound.

Ramshackle is now just an image. Look closer and the paneling and woodwork are solid, if endless, and the thatched roof is as sturdy as the tin. Other than the sushi, the food is familiar sandwiches, spaghetti and such, but it's dependable and on occasion, surprising.

A certain breed of folks, me included, would stop at Jack Willie's just because places like it are vanishing. In the literal backwaters of Tampa Bay, suburban sterility and roadside junk have eroded or poisoned many of these last chunks of Old Florida. This place seems like a patch of Ozona lobbed in the face of Westchase.

So to sit outside by a tiny, muddy spit of water and watch waterbirds in dead trees or the herds of trucks on 580 is a rare pleasure. Throw in guys who play Mr. Bojangles and Buffett with a tip can marked "Haircut Fund," plenty of room to smoke, and a dress code that runs from stained work shorts to golf-course brights, and the livin' is easy.

Families are here, too, because the kid-proof furniture tolerates messes. Nonsmokers are advised to sit outside; the indoor quarters are dark and lined with memorabilia, not windows.

The strengths I found were in bar food: jerked chicken skewers cut from juicy breast meat; fat, crisp Buffalo wings; and peel 'n' eat shrimp on ice or still hot in an Old Bay-style broth. Skip the house specialty of crab bread, which is more like party pig-out fare: four slices of bread are slathered with crab dip and melted American cheese.

Lunch items are all-day food at a place like this. I'll endorse the peppercorn burger, a half-pounder with blue cheese and fried onions, if they'll make it crisper. Get it with potato salad, punched up with a smoky bit of bacon or ham. Pastrami, grouper, plus roast beef on focaccia and portobello looked hefty passing me by, but the tuna wrap I tried was light on the seared tuna and flavor (I'd add radish, avocado or kimchi).

One crucial failing for the beer-gut crowd was the fries. Jack Willie's were wedges and just not crisp enough. If I'm going to kick back, I want the old-fashioned french fries I'm not allowed anymore: skinny, crisp and straight from the fryer.

Salads are straightforward, mostly romaine but with too much shredded cheese, and a lightly spiced chipotle ranch.

For dinner entrees, you can go light with shrimp, scallops or crab, or pop for a steak and lobster tail. My filet mignon was a good, thick, 8-ounce cut, rare as ordered, but not as crusty as I like. Lumpy mashed potatoes with garlic were a good accompaniment; the flavorless mushrooms and onions were not. The vegetable medley was just that but a surprise in these surroundings.

Fish selection is the usual grouper, salmon, tuna and mahi mahi. I'd love to see amberjack and mullet (smoked, if nothing else). Grouper dressed with crab and a pico salsa was a good idea, but I'd like that fish with more edge off the grill, too. Chicken with artichokes and asparagus in a creamy wine sauce over fettuccine was the best dinner entree -- not Cracker cuisine but not a diet plate, either.

Surprises continued at dessert, such as a sugar-attack bread pudding of old croissants, and those cute sorbets frozen into fruits and imported to the United States.

Surely more tricks are to come. On one visit I saw the kitchen send out a mountain of tempura vegetables and shrimp to the owner's table; that wonderful Japanese take on frying sometimes shows up on nightly specials.

Can't say I drank enough to give a full critique on the bar except to say that the top-shelf margarita was too sweet. But the beer is cold, and I do like the old wooden Chris Craft the bar is fashioned from and the twinkling tequila lights around the thatch.

I'll have to go back.

Jack Willie's Original Tiki Bar & Grill

1011 St. Petersburg Drive


(813) 854-1972

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday; noon to midnight Sunday.

Reservations: For large parties.

Details: Most major credit cards, full bar, smoking and nonsmoking sections.

Special features: Outdoor seating, live music nightly.

Prices: $6.25 to $21.95.

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