CLEARWATER BEACH — The Pinellas County beaches along the Gulf of Mexico are bustling this time of year with sun-seekers and others escaping the cold up North and in the Midwest. (It was 30 degrees in New York City on Monday and 10 in Chicago.) New businesses have opened to accommodate locals and this onslaught of visitors, including these two restaurants.
The premium burger battle wages on with a newcomer from Strathroy, Ontario. The chain, started in 2010, has 12 Canadian locations and its first foray in the United States, which opened on Mandalay Avenue in August in the old Beach Bar location. This unit is a first for the small chain. On the left half of the attractive space (butcher-block tables, wide tile floors that look like wood, faux alligator red booths) it's burgers, fries and onion rings, while on the right-hand side it's Coffee Culture Café & Eatery, a Starbucks-esque emporium for espresso drinks, coffee, tea and pastries.
Two sets of registers make it seem like two restaurants co-habitating, but it makes sense: You're on vacation, it's 2 p.m. Mom wants to get out of the sun with an iced mocha. Dad wants a mushroom Swiss burger, stat. One stop, everyone's happy.
I have no beef with this concept. But I do have a beef with the beef. With burgers that hover at the $7 mark, $10 for a combo, this ends up being a tricky niche. Significantly more expensive than fast food, even Five Guys, it's squarely in the price range of the area's top burger spots (Burger 21, Square 1). But it's just not as good.
Order at the counter and take a buzzer to your table. You hop up and retrieve your tray when it buzzes. There's a beverage and condiment bar (nothing fancy: ketchup, vinegar, etc.). What you're going to need, big time: salt and pepper. From the skin-on hand-cut fries to the crumbly coating on the onion rings to the burgers, everything is underseasoned. The meat itself is bland, not juicy, and toppers like grilled mushrooms or caramelized onions are meager and also not flavorful.
The meat is said to be fresh (not frozen), with no preservatives or additives. But to really have a chance of grabbing market share in a fairly dense playing field, Union Burger is going to have to look at the flavor profiles and impact of the finished burgers and sides.
A more promising newcomer opened in December. Jackie Eash and Michael Gelasso opened Cork-N-Brew Bistro a block away in a building that has lived many lives (as a gym, a real estate office and a fried chicken shack). Their aim was to put together a late-night hangout for those enamored of great craft beer and distinctive, mostly New World wines, all at affordable prices.
Faves like Cigar City's Maduro brown or Sweetwater 420 extra pale ale are assembled with a range of ciders and lots of Belgian wheats, all roughly $5 a pint, while wines like a Paco and Lola albariño ($9.50 a glass) or a Silver Palm cab ($8.50) make choosing tough.
The biggest challenge for Eash and Gelasso has been the kitchen. It's a warming kitchen. Making a virtue of necessity, the small plate menu shows just how much you can do without some basic equipment. There are puffy flatbread rounds cut into four sturdy wedges, the best of which simulates a Cuban sandwich (roasted pork, ham, pickle, mustard sauce; $8.95), and a great house salad (mixed greens, dried cherries, toasted pecans, and fluffs of goat cheese in a vinaigrette slightly sweet with a sesame oil edge; $5.95).
The most successful, and substantial, dishes come on lava rocks heated to 800 degrees. From filet mignon to sea scallops, it's a DIY entree: Sizzle the meat on the rock at your table until it reaches your preferred doneness, then airlift it to a plate and top with veggies or accompanying sauces like béarnaise. I had a seared tuna version ($13.95) that brought a gorgeous hunk of sushi-grade tuna along with accouterments like wasabi cream, pickled ginger and Sriracha aioli. Dramatic and fun, it was a great shared nosh alongside a Leffe blonde or a glass of prosecco.
Cork-N-Brew is attractive, with a sleek bar backed by modern glass tile. And with patio seating and live music most nights, it's given Clearwater Beach's heat-seekers another great option for once the sun has set.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.