By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
CLEARWATER — The original concept was pure Vegas. Opened in 2008 by a team of inveterate party people, the Venue was going to be a 25,000-square-foot adult playground of martini bars, champagne lounges, cabana decks and VIP rooms, with a sushi bar and Mediterranean tapas restaurant whereby revelers could fortify themselves stylishly. Chef Robert Uzzillia, a Culinary Arts Institute grad and New York transplant, was hired to add sizzle to the tapas concept, dubbed Viaggio.
Fast forward three years. The economic outlook isn't what anyone anticipated. A careful analysis reveals the bars are making the money at the Venue, the restaurants not so much. A consensus is reached: Focus on drawing larger live music acts, expand the stage and remodel the space so that it's more open and conducive to seeing a band, then retool the restaurants. The sushi bar, Takara, can stay — sushi lends itself to a nibble here, a nosh there after a couple of cocktails. But Viaggio? It's gotta go.
Gone are the hand-painted walls, the lovely booths, the well-set tables, the wall of glass separating the dining room from the stage. In its place, a sports bar idiom prevails with high top tables and hard surfaces, all glamor summarily excised. Uzzillia is still the Venue's executive chef, but the new Venue Grille is overseen by kitchen manager Tim Fling. The Viaggio menu of luxe lobster salad, perfect profiteroles and lovely Maple Leaf duck breast is gone. Instead? Wings, burgers, quesadillas and chili cheese dogs.
In general, the world of restaurants is a meritocracy: Good ones succeed, while bad ones live short and difficult lives. I can't help but think, though, that this is a case of the economy killing a good restaurant and replacing it with one of very limited ambition. It's true, go-getting menus and concert venues aren't always synergistic. But there are some: Café du Nord in San Francisco, Yoshi's in Oakland, Anthology in San Diego among others.
The new Venue Grille is presided over by a staff that is pleasant and casual, but which has no expectation that diners might eat a full meal with appetizers, entrees and desserts. And once a band gets started on the expanded stage, it's easy to see why. It's too loud for real dining. Instead, it's a pit stop kind of place for a grab-and-go flatbread ($8.50) or passel of sliders ($7.50-$8.50).
Burgers are the best bet, especially a kobe version ($12.50) with a base of sauteed shiitakes, the nicely seasoned meat topped with Napa cabbage, grilled scallion and a bit of soy-tinged ketchup. Beyond that, navigating the menu can be tough. A portobello topped with tomato sauce and cheese ($6.50) was soggy, its sauce unpleasant-tasting. Fried calamari ($7.50) were tough and flavorless, a Maryland crabcake ($8.50) mushy and unaided by a pool of mustard sauce and a pouf of undressed frisee. Wings? Lots of places do better. Same with quesadillas.
The pedestrian menu seems less about giving patrons another reason to visit the Venue and more about a place for concert-goers to mindlessly fuel up. Maybe that's the formula that will take the Venue robustly through these difficult times, but I can't help but lament that Uzzillia no longer has a showcase for his considerable talent.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.