TAMPA — Top five answers on the board. Aside from the food, why do people go to restaurants? Survey says: friendly service; nice ambience; affordable drink specials; a good location; and a view. Whiskey Joe's, which opened at the site of the Castaway Restaurant in October, has got them all in reckless abundance.
The old Whiskey Joe's was out on Rocky Point and closed due to hurricane damage in that furious 2004 storm season. Whereas the Castaway was known as the seafood place where you took Mom for Mother's Day brunch, Whiskey Joe's was more about $5 beer pitchers. Both had gorgeous waterfront views, but Whiskey Joe's skewed younger, to college kids and young professionals out for a good time.
Based on two recent visits, this Whiskey Joe's is splitting the difference. Some 20-somethings, but the crowd spans a few decades beyond that. Some folks are business people bedded down in the nearby Rocky Point hotels, some are locals just out to enjoy the sunset and a little happy hour. Or, more accurately, "hours" — $2 pints and such are offered between 5 and 7 p.m. and again between 9 and 11 p.m.
Sunday nights feature reggae bands, and game nights get the 14 flat-screens revved up. A wide wrap-around patio provides some of the sweetest al fresco dining around. Inside, with its peaked roof and rustic wood beams, seems reminiscent of a hunting or ski lodge, casual and inviting.
All fine, but what about the food? It's pleasant but unremarkable. You may find yourself plowing through a whole burger ($9.95) and its batter-dipped fries, or snarfing a very competent shrimp and crab Louie ($14.95) without so much as a comment. You may scoop multicolored tortilla chips through cheese-topped spinach, crab and artichoke dip ($8.95) while quietly watching pelicans swoop and dive in the water outside. Later, you might not quite remember what you ordered.
This may seem like damning with faint praise, but the menu is comfortable and familiar, its execution not pushing any envelopes. Only the Whiskey Joe's Famous Fish Tacos ($8.95) were out-and-out boring (even blackened, the fish was bland and the "very special sauce" seemed like nothing more than mayo). Everything else we sampled was carefully plated, amply sized and what we expected.
One may ask if that's enough in this economy to sustain such a large restaurant (a private dining room can hold 90, the whole restaurant can seat 300). I'm not sure. But the management is savvy about hiring personable and efficient staff and having enough special promotions and activities to keep things exciting.
Still, one day's iceberg wedge salad ($4.95) was an undistinguished example of its species. We ate our way through a plate of four pulled pork sliders ($8.95), doused with pedestrian barbecue sauce and topped with crunchy onion strings, but the prevailing opinion was ho-hum. Finishing with a huge slab of mud pie, we all had a sense of deja vu, remembering similar fudgy, ice creamy, chocolate-cookie-crusted concoctions from our past.
This new Whiskey Joe's has much to offer, and perhaps playing it safe with a traditional casual American menu of burgers, flat-bread pizzas and po'boys is the key to longevity. Surely we're all feeling a little like po'boys these days.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is 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.