By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
Crabby Bill's is one of those restaurant names that kindles strong feelings. Last year when it was named the "readers' choice" award in the St. Petersburg Times' iconic-restaurant story (the Tampa Bay area's signature restaurants that have been around for more than 25 years), there were fierce boosters and voluble detractors. Owner Matt Loder Sr. did his best to listen to reader grousing and to propose solutions and new approaches. In fact, in all my dealings with Loder, he seems eager to learn and quick to respond to criticism, certainly traits that contribute to Crabby Bill's longevity.
It began as Captain Bill's in 1975. These days there are a whole mess of Crabby Bill's (named for the dad when one of Loder's sisters had the bright idea: "We love eating crabs, we love selling crabs and Dad is pretty crabby"). There's a franchise or offshoot in nearly every community in Pinellas County, most of them run, as Loder says, by "cousins, in-laws and outlaws." The most recent addition is on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, in the space vacated by Bennigan's when that company went bankrupt in 2008.
They've taken the basic good bones of Bennigan's and lightened them, removing carpeting, taking the paint brighter, carting in picnic tables and adding assorted crabby decor accents. It's pleasant, breezy, with an inviting central bar. Servers, by and large, are young, friendly and a little green, but it seems to suit the casual approach.
The appetizer list leans heavy on the deep fryer, shrimp in all manner of guises getting the hot oil treatment. I worked my way through popcorn ($7.99), Buffalo ($7.99), coconut ($8.99) and Boom Boom ($6.99) and preferred this last, a slightly less elegantly presented spin on the Thai chili-sauced dish invented over at Bonefish.
You may need to be hosed down afterward, but the most fun entree is the steamer bucket ($23.99) crowded with snow crab, shrimp, mussels and clams with a side dunker of butter. All of the seafood therein was fresh-tasting and not overcooked. With that you get a choice of a couple of sides, the best being the slightly battered fries and simple steamed broccoli with a hint of garlic (Loder says he's tinkering with the Southern green beans, but he's just not quite pleased with them yet). In a completely different vein, the house fish and chips ($9.99) uses fastidious planks of snowy pollock, the coating not too heavy and fairly greaseless.
Here's the thing. I ordered that fish grilled, it came fried, I ate it anyway and was happy with it. To try the grill skills, I came back another day and settled in with a plate of gulf grouper ($18.99), definitely a fresh piece of fish that spent just a hair too much time on the grill. Still, a nice showcase for good, local stuff.
I'm almost embarrassed to say that my favorite dish at Crabby Bill's is a pale orange wedge of cheesecake ($4.99) that tastes exactly like a Creamsicle. Not real orange flavor exactly, but some simulacrum made in a laboratory by mad scientists. It's delicious, and sort of a metaphor for what the Crabby Bill's restaurant group does best. Without taking itself too seriously or getting too fussy, it's a cheery outpost of well-priced seafood for regular folk.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining blog at tampabay.com/blogs/ dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or assessment.