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Early bird: From Salt Rock to Red Mesa and La Fogata, deals are in vogue

If I had uttered the phrase "early bird special" before this protracted economic tailspin, it probably would have been as the punch line of a joke. Let's face it, the early bird is a Florida thing, the 4:30 p.m. dinner date with Grandma in Miami Beach. • But now dozens of studies have shown that people are eating out less, spending less, drinking their cocktails at home, forgoing desserts, sharing appetizers and using restaurant coupons. People who might never have ventured to dinner so early are also reconsidering the early bird special. Go light on lunch, eat dinner early and then see that movie or show afterward. It's about flexibility, and besides, doctors say it's best to digest way before bedtime, so this shift is medically sanctioned. • For restaurants, that time between 4 and 6 p.m. can be dead, with a full kitchen staff in place getting ready for the evening ahead and servers coming on to reset tables and prepare the dining room. The mandate: Get bodies in the door by making them an offer they can't refuse. • With all this in mind, we trolled Tampa Bay for some of the best early bird special deals.

Frank Chivas and chef/partner Tom Pritchard are offering early bird deals at their four restaurants: Salt Rock Grill, Island Way Grill, Marlin Darlin and Rumba. We stopped into Salt Rock Grill (19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores; (727) 593-7625; $20.10 for two people between 4 and 5:30 p.m., must order by 6 p.m.) and found it packed to the gills, with good reason. In honor of the new year, it's $20.10 for two people. Each diner gets a salad (a competent little Caesar or a more interesting tossed green salad with a citrus vinaigrette and jicama and matchstick yellow squash plus a chiffonade of basil jazzing things up), then a choice of lots of entrees (chicken cordon bleu, lamb chops with mint jelly, jumbo lump crab cake and, what I had, sweet-gingery Asian-inspired pork loin slices nestled against buttery garlic mashed potatoes) and then each gets a chef's choice on dessert (on our visit, a slice of blueberry cheesecake). Also, drink specials: well cocktails, house wines, domestic beers, all $3.

Despite a packed house, service was great (fairly zippy, though; they want that table to move) and the food was really, really good. My companion didn't finish his entree, so he had a little to-go box for lunch the next day. I repeat: a three-course dinner for $10.05, with leftovers for lunch. According to Chivas and chef Barry Spaulding, the early bird dinners have been a big success, so make a reservation.

Not nearly as high volume, but also a great deal, Red Mesa (4912 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 527-8728, $14, 4 to 5:45 p.m., must order by 6 p.m.) is offering chips and salsa; choice of sangria, wine-erita, draft beer or soft drink; choice of entree; and a chef's dessert of the day for $14.

The salsa is a fairly fine puree with good depth of flavor but not a lot of heat; chips seem freshly fried and greaseless. Sit on your hands if you can't stop eating them: Entrees are full-sized with as much care devoted to presentation (range of colors and textures on a nutritionally balanced plate) as later-evening entrees. Both tuna tacos and pork Coloradito were exceptional, the former grilled hunks of tuna in warm flour tortillas with mixed greens. A soy-orange coulis, wasabi aioli and pico de gallo provided a nice spectrum of ancillary flavors. With the pork, sophisticated mole rojo had just the right bitterness for the slow-cooked, moist meat, the rest of the plate given over to black beans and a big disc of rice. A foiled packet of hot corn tortillas made for good dunkers. Dessert brought a generous wedge of tres leches cake, sponge cake moistened with cream and a dense layer of chocolate. Delicious.

La Fogata (2832 Beach Blvd. S, Gulfport; (727) 327-4200, entrees with side salad for $6.95 to $9.95, 4 to 6 p.m.) has reinvented itself and tinkered with its concept numerous times since opening in 2007. It started as a straight-up Brazilian-style churrascaria and has since scaled that back to weekends, adding an entree menu and refining its salad bar. Not long ago they added an early bird, a tidy menu of just six options at good prices. The best deal is the grilled New York strip for $9.95, an ample steak (not super thick, so order rare or medium rare so it doesn't dry out) with a pile of crisp, nicely salted fries. That is preceded by a lovely little house salad.

Chicken marsala ($9.95) was also a well-conceived dish, a swirl of spaghetti noodles and 4 ounces of grilled chicken ladled with a lively marsala reduction. The plate also had a handful of sauteed snow peas and a few baby carrots (real baby carrots, not the whittled nubbins) that were a little al dente. Only the pork Madeira ($9.95) seemed too small to satisfy, with thinly sliced pork medallions that totaled 3 ounces. Wine selections are thoughtful at La Fogata, but prices are steep — during the early bird, it's easy to spend way more on liquid refreshments than dinner itself.

Only our visit to the Colonnade (3401 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa; (813) 839-7558, special menu served with choice of two sides for about $10 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday) harkened back to those early bird specials of yore. The clientele is mature, some of the service staff even more so. Still, the views of the bay — Rollerbladers gliding, gulls wheeling, a cruise ship departing for tropical ports of call — are unrivaled in Tampa restaurants.

The restrooms may be ready for a major overhaul, but the early bird offerings have kept pace. A basket of warm corn muffins, then an iceberg-based tossed salad with lots of crunchy red cabbage and cucumber rounds, and then on to the entree: A heap of jumbo fried shrimp ($9.99) was crisp and tasty, and a gargantuan chicken breast breaded with sliced almonds and cornflakes ($10.99) a treat with its sweet and sour dipping sauce. That chicken was so ample it might have served two, especially with the evening's vegetable of tender cauliflower lurking beneath a sinfully gratineed cheese sauce.

Gazing out as the sun began to pinken the sky above the bay, we wondered why we had been so reluctant until recently to, as the saying goes, "catch the worm."

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog is at 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.

Early bird: From Salt Rock to Red Mesa and La Fogata, deals are in vogue 02/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 6:58am]

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