Comfort food soars at Three Birds Tavern in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

Limey's was a drinking place. You ordered your usual, you kibbitzed with the barkeep and then, maybe, awhile later, you'd think it was a good idea to get a little food in the system, something sturdy and starchy.

This is why Robin and Jack King are daredevils. And why Domenica Macchia is a highwire artist, a culinary Flying Wallenda. A couple of years back, the Kings moved to St. Petersburg from Cleveland and bought the British pub, eventually hiring Macchia (MJ's Martini Jazz & Tapas Lounge, Diner 437, BellaBrava) to preside in the kitchen of Three Birds Tavern. Macchia has a devoted following, people who have been charmed by her ability to playfully update classic Americana, to make the familiar a little unexpected. Still, the Kings and Macchia had to contend with the expectations of nine years of Limey's regulars.

The Kings repainted, cleaned up the bar, added a south and north patio (the latter with a cozy fire pit), but the bigger changes came in the kitchen. Since March, Macchia has reinvented the menu (the fish and chips being the last holdout from Limey's days, which still seems to bug her), with more changes on the horizon after the threesome gets back from a culinary expedition to New Orleans.

Macchia is a creator, a chef who is at her best when she's coming up with something entirely new, damn the torpedoes, let's start from scratch. It seems like a sign of maturity to see her settling into a steady kitchen and tinkering and making incremental changes. She's still got a heavy bar crowd here — get too froufrou or edgy and risk angering the natives.

She's doing burgers ($8), but these are hand-chopped sirloin, great texture, with a slather of bacon onion jam on a really good bun: Sub out the Parmesan and truffle oil frites (a $2 upcharge) and it's a serious rockstar burger. Some of her bar foods verge on kooky. She's got chicken fried bacon ($7; Macchia has some pig-centric tattoos, so you see where she's coming from), baked then battered and fried, the thick strips have a spiciness that is complemented by a bourbon-spiked maple gravy.

She's always had a way with soulful cuts like short ribs, which here get their most exciting showcase as the lush center of a pair of egg rolls ($8), accompanied by a signature Gorgonzola sauce that has followed her from restaurant to restaurant (long ago she invented it on the fly at a party for Calvin Klein). Dishes like these are available on a night-owl menu all the way until a 2 a.m. close.

With entrees, she's taken baby steps. Limey's prefab shepherd's pie was paid homage with Macchia's vegetarian version, only to be subsequently replaced by a vegetarian risotto of the day ($9 appetizer, $14 entree), maybe pumpkin or English pea or asparagus. More sophisticated than what preceded it, surely — same goes for seared diver scallops paired with nuggets of crisp bacon brittle ($21, a reprise from MJ's days), a lamb burger with feta and fragrant cumin aioli ($13) or a pan-seared wild Alaskan salmon fillet ladled with a bright ginger/sesame/soy sauce ($16).

Where Macchia really shines, though, is savvy spins on comfort foods: fried chicken breast atop a waffle with a big scoop of maple bourbon butter ($14; there's bourbon in the waffle batter, too, so it's got oomph) or a tender-moist sirloin meatloaf lifted by red wine, brioche, Parmesan and an honest slick of Heinz ketchup ($14).

The Kings know what Macchia fans have long asserted: the girl's got chops. And now the trio has created a comfortable, good-times gathering place that even diehard Limey's fans can embrace.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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Three Birds Tavern

1492 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg

(727) 895-2049, threebirdstavern.com

Cuisine: American

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday

Details: MC, V, AmEx, Disc.; reservations accepted; full bar

Prices: Appetizers $4-$9; entrees $8-$21; desserts $5-$6

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★★ Service: ★★★

Atmosphere: ★★★

Overall: ★★★

Comfort food soars at Three Birds Tavern in St. Petersburg 12/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 10:18am]

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