There are a million moving parts to a restaurant. You take your eye away from one problem to attend to another, and it flourishes like tropical foliage in time-lapse photography. Opening a restaurant is even more precarious, with tortuous permitting laws and complexities of staffing.
Hammerheads opened April 1 after many delays and setbacks with construction. Owner Skipp Combs (formerly of Rattlefish in Tampa) had an accident that further delayed things while much of downtown St. Petersburg was wandering by to see how things were coming along.
It was easy to see that the look has been drastically modified from when it was Julian's at the Heritage Hotel — much more casual, with royal blue walls hinting at ocean waters and a good-times Key West decorating motif. An aquarium at the front signals seafood loud and clear (sadly, I heard the mascot hammerhead shark had met its demise).
Conceptually, it's a welcome addition to downtown (drinks, fun, affordable seafood). Thus far, though, Combs and management have to focus on service staff training. At the end of April, I stopped in for lunch. No one stood at the hostess stand so I wandered back to the dining room. The server on lunch duty whisked by me about a dozen times. Eventually, I stepped into her path, asking, "Um, do I just sit down?" Her response: "Oh, I thought you were waiting for the manager." Curious.
Several weeks after that I went back for dinner with a friend and waiting was again on the menu. This time, our server attended to us immediately but then repeatedly disappeared for long stretches. Ordering another drink, getting the check or a replacement fork — 10 or 15 minutes would go by, our necks getting stiff from craning. Inattentive service can wreck a meal, just as a great server can redeem the nearly irredeemable.
Hammerheads' servers are also masters of hyperbole. Asked about a dish, they're likely to enthuse, "I guarantee it's the best you've ever eaten." Risky business, unless you know you're delivering the goods.
The goods in question are mixed, with a lot of casual, familiar seafood dishes at the top of the heap. Buffalo shrimp ($9.99) are crisp and spicy, served with the requisite blue cheese, celery and carrots. Gulf shores tacos ($13.49) bring a pleasant heap of mustard-battered, fried fish, crunchy lettuce-cabbage mix, pico de gallo, cheese and a key lime dressing on two flour tortillas. The accompanying queso dip and chips didn't add much, but no harm done.
Grab a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp ($19.99) or the gulf shores-style grouper ($16.49) — rounds of andouille sausage, sauteed spinach and a few mushrooms surrounding a nice piece of grouper napped with an appealing creamy garlic sauce.
The best of the landlocked dishes seem to be burgers, like a blue cheese-stuffed patty topped with onion relish and fried onions ($8.99). Island roasted pork ($12.99) lost its way, the slow-cooked meat greasy and stringy (like a duck confit without the pizzazz). A chopped salad ($9.49) adopts a tasty kitchen sink approach (who says hearts of palm, sun-dried tomato and sunflower seeds can't play nice?), but the house's spin on Caesar ($7.49) is an unwelcome innovation, grilled and sweet with brown sugar.
Not a bad mascot, the hammerhead. Just as a shark has to keep swimming to stay alive, Hammerheads will have to keep moving forward, tweaking the details, to compete effectively in the increasingly hot downtown St. Petersburg dining scene.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.