Chris Fragale grew up in restaurants and it shows. At one point, he had five Ballyhoo Grills, four in the Tampa Bay area and one in Gainesville. He divested himself of all but the one in Gainesville to focus his local effort on his other project, Ozona Blue.
Five years after closing his Tarpon Springs Ballyhoo's, which in between had been a Deepwater Grill and then Crabby Bill's, Fragale is back with the Ballyhoo Original Grill. At the invitation of the building owner, he reopened in September in the same spot he once held for nearly 16 years as sure-footed as any veteran restaurant after a month and a half of remodeling.
There are the details: cool bamboo wainscotting throughout; the ladies room stalls are shiny corrugated aluminum, the walls festooned with eye candy (nothing racy, just some head shots of Denzel, George, Brad and their fellow leading men). Out front, a mammoth great white shark strikes a Jaws pose; beneath him a bed of gleaming oyster shells looks like the aftermath of a Calusa buffet. Adjacent to the restaurant a separate bar is capped by a lithe blue marlin and a sign that reads, "Husband Day Care Center: Leave your husband with us! We'll look after him for you! You only pay for his drinks!" There's a lobster tank filled with frisky Maine beauties and usually at least one scale-tipping grouper glowering on ice in the foyer.
What Ballyhoo does is smart. It has a long wheelchair ramp entrance and, in fact, seems to cater to a slightly older demographic. But it is kept spry with a contemporary pop soundtrack and a youthful, bubbly service staff. It feels young and fun, even if the clientele is more hip to AARP than OMG.
At the Key West-esque bar next door, you'll find deals on buckets of beer, $3.50 rum runners and margaritas, and happy-hour $1 drafts. The wine list in the restaurant is fairly sophisticated, with a short but smart, mostly California list divided by varietal, everything offered by the glass. Oak-aged chards and big, inky-fruited cabs suit the menu, which runs from Florida seafood to straightforward steaks and ribs.
This time of year, you'll find stone crabs, many pulled from nearby waters (right now $18.95 for a pound of mediums with a salad, $21.95 for the large), but there are plenty of interloper species like Alaskan snow crab claws (half pound $11.90, pound $21.90) with drawn butter and a choice of sides (the best being the Greek-inflected zucchini and yellow squash stewed with tomato).
In fact, the menu has a number of nods to its Greek setting, with a fried calamari dish ($8.90) filigreed with fluffs of feta, kalamata olives and dots of pesto. Peel-and-eat shrimp ($7.90 half, $13.90 full) get a similarly Grecian turn, with fruity olive oil and fresh oregano. Burgers can be taken in a similar direction with feta and tzatziki ($9.90), but the kitchen does a nice job with bar staples like Buffalo wings ($6.90 for 10 crispy yet juicy drums and drumettes).
I wasn't as enamored with some of what manager Nick Marku described as the "old favorites." The baby-back ribs ($13.90 half), while tender, had a cloying sweetness to their sauce, and the Bimini-stuffed tilapia ($15.90) to my mind was too much of everything, with crab, shrimp and mushrooms swirled in a buttery, creamy sauce and fitted inside a fillet of oak-grilled fish. The mild fish is a little adrift in all that lush creaminess.
Desserts, too, have a more-is-more aesthetic, with a huge glass case of pumped-up cake and cheesecake wedges — fudge and whipped cream and caramel goo flirting shamelessly with impressionable diners. But isn't that what ballyhooing is all about, exaggerated or sensational promotion? Ballyhoo Original Grill hardly needs clamorous attention-getting. Tarpon Springs has clearly already embraced this new iteration of an old favorite, one that feels at once familiar and quite fresh.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.