Mad Dogs and Englishmen has a sense of humor. Perhaps that explains its longevity. Celebrating its 20th year, its new menu sports the old joke: "Two cannibals eating a clown. One says to the other, 'Does this taste funny to you?' " Talking about things tasting funny on a menu? Is this a good idea? Co-owner Wilton Morley seems to do things his own way, and that has worked out just fine.
A neighborhood go-to place for South Tampa, it has a loyal following. Loyalty — something Morley thinks Tampa has in spades.
"People are very loyal here. That's what the restaurant has in common with an English pub, which is something you're loyal to your whole life. But with a restaurant, you actually have to get the food right."
That's where Tavis Schafer comes in. A graduate of Johnson and Wales' culinary program, he's been in the kitchen for six years, the last two as executive chef. Cooking stints in Wales, Bangkok and Singapore have loaded Schafer's tool box with some extra goodies, which means Mad Dogs' English staples are supplemented with dishes like Asian dumplings and red Thai shrimp curry.
Schafer's aesthetic is best exhibited by the house chicken curry ($16). A staple of casual English restaurants that's usually solid and rib-sticking, it most often has a one-note curry-powder wallop to the sauce that is best soaked up with fries. Mad Dogs' version is more delicate, with spinach, carrot and cilantro lightening it up, a lovely almond-raisin basmati providing the foundation. Its provenance is somewhere between Thailand and India, far from London pub grub.
Still, this is a family place, a casual indoor-outdoor spot to meet for a pint and a nibble on the odd Tuesday night. The beer list favors Britain, the wine list is more global (prices very reasonable, by-the-glass pours very generous) and the servers and bartenders seem to be from all over the place. They are friendly and solicitous, as comfortable with little kids as they are with grown-ups out for a rowdy night.
Some things remain constant at Mad Dogs: crisp, greaseless fish and chips ($12) that need nothing more than a spritz of malt vinegar to be irresistible; the Mad Dog mixed green salad topped with Stilton and candied pecans ($6; Morley's fave); a handful of grilled-then-baked individual pizzas ($8-$13) topped with fancy stuff like goat cheese and figs or arugula, spinach and olives. Then Schafer gets to stretch his legs a bit with pan-seared diver scallops served with baby arugula and mashed potatoes with a hint of citrus oil and a lush puddle of caper brown butter sauce ($20), or a new vegetarian whole wheat (or gluten-free) penne dish with whatever seasonal vegetables strike his fancy ($14). And for dessert the chef clearly enjoys the mad science of making his own ice creams (oatmeal cream pie to peanut butter bacon chocolate chip), but keeps the fried brownie on the menu for regulars.
It's eclectic, but hangs together in much the way Moon Under Water does, St. Petersburg's own Great-Britain-meets-Florida pub. It's the mark of a restaurant that has found its groove when hummus with toasted naan ($9) or tuna tartare with black sticky rice ($9) don't feel the least bit incongruous alongside English pub dishes. It may be a little mad if you think about it, but in my experience there aren't any dogs among them.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com 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.