Infused with good vibes

Beak's is a newcomer to St. Petersburg's Grand Central District, but it feels as if it's always been here.

Published April 26, 2007

Exhibit A: the bar snacks.

A melange of popcorn, seasoned cracker rounds, wasabi peas and M&Ms. While undeniably crowd-pleasers, sinus-clearing horseradish crunchies are seldom accompanied by candy-coated chocolates. The unambiguous message: No one is taking themselves overly seriously in the kitchen.

Exhibit B: the decor.

Beak's Old Florida doesn't so much have decor as an astounding accretion of stuff. It's a more-is-more motif whereby if one plastic parrot is good, 20 plastic parrots are great. Carved decoys, plastic bamboo fountains and birdcages imprisoning a variety of fake jailbirds crowd in at the bar with the customers, themselves mostly attired in Hawaiian shirts.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit that Beak's is the kind of comfortable, good-time neighborhood joint that usually takes decades to create. I'm newish to Florida, but I like to think places like this used to dot the state with regularity, maybe topped with a palmetto-leaf thatch or a Cracker tin roof.

The thing is, Beak's is a hatchling, opening at the beginning of March on a pleasant stretch of St. Petersburg's Grand Central District.

That's why it cracks me up that the motto of this new restaurant is, "Same as it ever was."

Let's call that Exhibit C.

The funky little bar-restaurant is the brainchild of partners Evelyn Powell and Jamie Farquharson, the latter the founder of the Bubble Room on Captiva back in 1978. The culinary focus is bar-food-with-a-twist, most of these twists improvements upon the originals.

The single-page dinner menu no lunch packs in appetizers, sandwiches, more elaborate "red plates" (entrees on retro red melamine Fiestaware-style squares), and a few desserts, nothing tipping the scales at more than $15. Sunday brunch may be on the horizon.

There's a concrete patio painted grape Hubba Bubba, a crowded barroom with a handful of tables, and a teeny indoor dining room presided over by a pirate mannequin, Beak the Dreaded (very Jack Sparrow, with dreadlocks but more demure eye makeup).

The food is fun, though not as lively as the surroundings.

In Cockatoo Crab Corn Dogs ($8.95), the dog is replaced by a tasty crab-and-bread-crumb mix, served in a cornmeal-crusted trio and paired with workhorse remoulade.

A starter of "Caribbean crisps" ($6.95) brings six fried flour tortilla triangles (corn would stay crisper) laden with shredded, seasoned chicken breast, melted cheddar and jack, and topped with the requisite jalapeno round. Nothing to write home about, but fine with a ramekin of sour cream and another of mild salsa.

The salad list shows a heavy reliance on iceberg wedges. There's the classic tavern wedge ($4.95), cold, crisp lettuce napped in blue cheese dressing and clouds of Maytag blue. A Greek version ($5.95) tops the iceberg with drifts of feta, pitted calamatas, cubes of tomato and shreds of Parmesan (not too Greek) paired with a scoop of mayo-and-hardboiled-egg-spiked potato salad.

Of the red plates we sampled, the panko-dredged fried shrimp ($13.95) was the most winning, the flavorful shrimp accompanied by an unnecessary toast rusk, a drizzle of key lime butter and a choice of sides.

The most interesting of these is the "smashed tamale souffle." Usually a smashed souffle is a mistake, but these are appealing chile rellenos-like discs of cornmeal masa.

The "bawdy brisket" ($13.95) - everything has PG-13-rated names - brought commendable smoky-tender beef slices ladled with a balanced brown gravy. The only dish that resulted in a serious doggy bag was the "babe's boy" bacon-wrapped filet mignon ($14.95), but mostly because the meat was excessively chewy.

For dessert, a wedge of ancho fudge pie ($4.95) with a rousing I Got a Girl Named Bony Maronie in the background seems to suit the place: The song's goofy fun, and the dense chocolate pie - with real whipped cream - leaves the kind of slow, creeping ancho-chile burn that lingers in your memory.

Laura Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment. Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com.


Beak's Old Florida

2451 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

(727) 321-9100

Cuisine: Old Florida

Hours: Appetizers 4-5 p.m., full menu 5-11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Details: American Express, Visa, Master Card; reservations not necessary; full bar

Prices: Dinner entrees $6.95-$14.95