By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
Yeesh, was I wrong. Exactly a year ago I predicted that Tedesco's Grillside was finally the restaurant that was going to stick it out for the long haul at the old McCrory's dime store site on Central Avenue. It didn't last the year.
But this time, this time I'm certain. It's Grillside Central now, and here's why it's going to last. Craig Chapman, former corporate chef for Bonefish Grill and Hops Restaurant and Brewery, has hit on a formula that feels just right in the current economic climate: Southern classics, served homey and big, at super-affordable prices in a casual, open-kitchen setting.
It's the first of three St. Petersburg restaurants for Chapman. The second, Chappy's Creole Soul, opens in the next two weeks at the site of the former Redwoods, and a third is slated for late in the year at 400 Beach Drive NE.
Juggling it all may be tough, but for now Chapman can be found behind the counter at Grillside, dredging catfish, scooping collard greens and plating fried chicken.
Making an open kitchen work for you and not against you is tricky. It can be loud and a little unglamorous whipping things in and out of the fryer and ladling sauces out of chafing dishes. That may be why this location has cycled through so many concepts: The long, narrow restaurant space is saddled with a diner-style kitchen front and center. Chapman has considered all this: "The biggest thing is to make sure you train your staff that they're onstage. They've got to keep it clean, execute and be real nice." Waiters and kitchen staffers alike seem to have taken these words to heart; everyone aims to please.
The same menu at lunch and dinner makes Grillside affordable at noon and a steal in the evening. There's a separate, also budget-friendly breakfast menu: eggs your way, home fries, Texas toast and thick bacon or sausage patties for $4 and that kind of thing.
Shrimp and grits are offered all day ($7), perfect buttery grits capped with fat shrimp and a drizzle of a dusky sauce made of dark beer, Worcestershire, onions and butter. Enough for an entree at lunch, it's better as a starter at dinner, maybe followed by an enormous plate of crispy, moist fried chicken ($9, breast, thigh, leg and wing).
Entrees come with a choice of sides, a range of delicious Southern choices that sometimes steal the show. Crunchy sweet potato chips ($3 a la carte) are accompanied by an orange marmalade sauce kicked up with Thai chilies. Red beans and rice ($1.50) are cooked for a mere 45 minutes, yielding delicious flavor and maintaining their integrity and tooth resistance, while collards ($1.50) come soft and ham-smoky.
At lunch, I had two favorite entrees. A vibrant balsamic vinaigrette elevates nice spring mix dotted with tomato, cucumber and fluffs of feta ($6). Simple and healthy, but if you're not feeling so pious, the Grillside burger ($8) is gorgeously drippy, topped with cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onion and absolutely fabulous candy-sweet, slow-cooked bell peppers. A triple napkiner.
Desserts, as is common in the South, are too much of a good thing. Peach cobbler ($6) left us speechless, spoons swooping for ages in and out of the stewed peaches, ice cream, whipped cream and simple biscuit.
As Chapman gets his next projects up and running, Grillside might get less of his attention. But for now, it is among downtown St. Petersburg's greatest values. A quarter barbecued chicken with a side of candied sweet potatoes for $5? A cup of hearty white bean soup for $2? I'm telling you, this one's going to last.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com 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.