MADEIRA BEACH — The management of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. is looking for a certain type of server. What they call "Gumpy" is really just glad-handing, loud-voiced extroversion. At the new Bubba Gump's in John's Pass Village, there are nearly a hundred Gumpy staffers whisking around the vast indoor-outdoor dining space, each of them in possession of an outsized personality. They kibitz, cajole, interrupt, toss out Forrest Gump trivia and generally have a grand time.
People are lapping it up. During a time when restaurant news has been grim (closures, bankruptcies, diminished sales numbers), this newcomer is seating more than 1,000 people a day. It's packed to the gills, would-be diners not flinching at waiting more than an hour. While the shrimp are tasty and Gump-obilia decor fun, the biggest draw is the boisterous, whoop-it-up shenanigans of the staff. On my first visit, a normally unflappable 12-year-old in my party let loose with a, "Whoa, this place is cooool."
A tabletop stand holds two license plates. Flip it to "Run, Forrest, Run" and the waiters keep moving, change it to "Stop, Forrest, Stop" and someone instantly comes to a halt tableside. Yes, they'll get you another Tropical Breeze (Midori-mango tropical goofiness, $7.95), but not until you tell them what bus number Forrest was supposed to take to get to Jenny's house.
They'll also help navigate the menu: "There's, um, shrimp kebabs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo, pan-fried, deep-fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp and lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich." Well, that's a quote from the movie — but the restaurant's actual shrimp offerings are indeed vast, a number of them paired together in the Shrimper's Heaven ($18.99). Paper cones fit into a metal holder, each cone packed with coconut, fried, chilled and tempura shrimp, accessorized with dipping sauces from a workhorse cocktail to a super-sweet marmalade or just a wedge of lemon. The dish comes with fries (enough fried already) and a cup of sweet-mayo slaw.
For those with their eye on a fried shrimp entree, the appetizer list leans too heavily on fried fare (hush pups, $7.99; a foot-high tower of fat onion rings, $6.99; delicious little popcorn shrimp, $7.99). Better to go with a messy pile of beer-steamed peel-and-eats ($9.99) or to share one of the entree-sized salads with the table (the barbecue chicken, $9.99, is a knockoff of the chopped chicken salad at California Pizza Kitchen, but tasty with its tortilla strips, roasted corn and avocado).
It's a multi-page menu, but many items recur in different combinations. Firm white mahi mahi gets a batter-dipping and just the right amount of time in the fryer before it appears on a fishwich ($8.99), in a "bucket of boat trash" ($18.99) along with fried shrimp and a couple steamed lobster claws, or in a classic fish and chips ($10.50). Fried shrimp make appearances in everything from a po' boy ($9.99) to a Caesar salad ($11.74).
This is the chain's 22nd restaurant in the United States and 33rd in the world — I've been to a few of them and the consistency is amazing. It's an aesthetic that fits particularly well at John's Pass.
Tourists treat themselves to big, gooby desserts like "That Chocolate Thing" ($5.99, a flourless chocolate cake kitted out with ice cream, whipped cream and raspberry drizzles) or another Louisiana Lemonade in a souvenir glass. Management swoops around the dining room, quick to head off problems (thus far, the kitchen's location upstairs presents the occasional logistical predicament in getting food out quickly), while patrons browse through Gump merchandise in the little retail store. And outside a lone pelican dives, unperturbed, looking for his own dinner in the channel carved by the great hurricane of 1848.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.