It isn't hard to see why someone hanging out at the beach for any amount of time would appreciate a trip to Lisa's Cafe. After a vacation filled with burgers and pizza, a home-cooked meal has to look pretty good.
And the food at Lisa's Cafe is solid home-cooking, which is a compliment. Mostly.
Lisa Ammons decided to ditch her corporate gig and get a job doing what she loved to do close to home. What she loves to do is cook, and the spot that used to be Grecko Grill on Gulf Boulevard became available, so she moved in.
The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, and Ammons is usually there. A U-shaped bar dominates the main room, with a smaller dining room off to the side. Sports are on the flat screens, and today's paper is on the bar. Anyone sitting around the bar is prepared to talk about what happened in Sunday's game, and ready with an opinion on the weather. There is no pretense. If your house had a U-shaped bar at the entry, it might look a lot like this.
Here are snapshots from each meal:
• Breakfast. We get a plate of cinnamon French toast ($4). Three thick slices of bread are suitably soaked, griddled and cut on the diagonal for pleasant presentation. Add a side of bacon ($1.50) and a bowl of grits ($2.25), and it's a filling breakfast. The grits, in particular, are comforting on a cold morning. At Lisa's, they are cooked well enough to present as a mounding scoop in a cup. No thin, soupy porridge here.
• Lunch. The seafood combination ($12.50) comes with two huge scallops, two large shrimp and a fillet of tilapia. All are bread-crumb-coated in-house, according to Ammons, and fried. The scallops and shrimp are impressive not just for their size, but tenderness and clean flavor, and the tilapia is better than I expect from the bland species. Maybe it was the spicy horseradish in the cocktail sauce.
• Dinner: When we order a cup of clam chowder ($3 cup, $5 bowl), we are told, somewhat emphatically, that the chef's chowder is intentionally thin, despite its creamy New England nature. It isn't "gloppy," like they do it everywhere else, we're told. Got it. Turns out, that's fine, because that makes it more evident that there are a lot of clams and potatoes, and you can taste them, which I guess was the point. And a good one.
In an appetizer of fried mushrooms ($7), the 'shrooms are freshly breaded much like the seafood at lunch, but taste a little tired. It's the rare day when I leave mushrooms, but these were disappointing.
Whenever there is a house specialty, I always want to try it, so when an entree is called Lisa's Special Chicken, and we're at Lisa's, I order it. It is a fettuccine dish, topped with sauteed chicken and a white wine-cream sauce with artichokes and mushrooms. It is a classic combination, prepared well, and a completely satisfying dinner. But we go back to that home-cooking thing: It is home-y to the degree that it feels like something that wouldn't be too tough for someone of moderate skill to pull off at home, and for less than $16.
Add a glass of sangria and split a dessert, and the total bill for dinner checks in at about $35 per person. Even at the beach, that seemed high for what we had.
They seem to be aware of the issue. Various incarnations of the menu show most prices dropping over time, and there are a lot of specials available, which start at $6 at lunch and $10 at dinner. A $6 lunch of beef stroganoff over pasta was very simple, but totally reasonable at the price.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.