for years, the St. Petersburg side of the Gandy Bridge chugged along supported by an organic mix of Old Florida waterside allures: Kahuna's for burgers and beer, the Crab Shack for the obvious, Vegas Showgirls for a different obvious, Derby Lane and such. Longtime businesses might peter out (Dave's Aqua Lounge), but it wasn't a stretch known for its dynamism.
But what's this? Drive Gandy Boulevard toward Tampa now and there's something going on, cars shoaled tight like fish, the odd outliers on the causeway shoulder getting ticketed or even towed by exasperated cops. It's a tiki explosion, launched in this chilly Florida winter and poised to be the biggest draw around as the weather heats up. The Getaway, owned by Scott and Karina Tashkin and Dave Burton, and I.C. Sharks Seafood Market Waterfront Cafe and Tiki Bar, owned by Brian Storman, seem to have had the same good idea at the same time: Take advantage of the allures of Snug Harbor, with its views of Weedon Island, with indoor-outdoor tiki concepts that rely heavily on Old Florida grub and equally Old Florida recreation.
The interesting thing is how differently they've approached this same vision. Each is effective, each has already been embraced by Tampa Bay area party people, and together they make a tremendous afternoon or evening out. Just watch where you park!
At the Getaway, which sits on the old Banana Boat spot to the west of I.C. Sharks on property once owned by Storman, there's a decided contemporary twist to the proceedings. Two huge-beamed open-sided tikis (one a whopping 1,600 square feet) are flanked by waterside tables, fire pits in the sand surrounded by low-slung Adirondack chairs, flickering tiki torches and a whole bunch of just-planted palm trees propped upright. There's a floating dock with dozens of boat slips, a guy renting kayaks and paddleboards, and at any given time there are dogs (which are actually invited on Margarita Tuesdays) and children frisking with abandon at the water's edge.
Ro Patel, the mixology master responsible for many of the concoctions at Ciro's, Anise Global Gastrobar and others, has reinvented classic tiki cocktails using smarter mixers and liquors that nudge them squarely into craft cocktail territory. But here's the thing: The Getaway has no restaurant kitchen.
In edgy 21st century fashion, the Getaway relies on a "food truck carousel," originally overseen by Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally but now overseen by the Getaway itself. This means on any given night you pull up and find a seat and a server will present you with the day's menu. You place your order and somebody scurries over from the food truck du jour with your order — so it operates like a real restaurant, with no waiting in long food truck lines.
This, of course, makes it hard to review. I zipped in one evening for savory brats and delicious currywurst from Der Wurstwagon; another night, it was excellent spicy Asian buns from I Wanna Wok. One night it's Burger Culture, the next it's Jimmy's Meatballs or Alaska Mike's Yukon Fry Bread, so it requires a certain level of flexibility. But it's fun, and especially easy on a beautiful spring evening while sipping a Key West ricky (cane citrus vodka, lime juice and soda water; $9) or a luscious MacDill Navy Grog (aged Jamaican rum, tequila liqueur, sneaky tiki juice, apricot flavoring and floated with blue curacao with grenadine; $9).
It's a scene, this place, with some folks crouched around the green snook light attracting fish and others playing that maddening Bimini Ring game (you know, the ring on a string that you try unsuccessfully for hours to snag on the hook). That may sound down-home, but the Getaway's $3 million budget gives the whole place a tropical paradise vibe, even with Gandy Bridge traffic shooshing nearby.
Sadly, relations between the Getaway and I.C. Sharks owners have been a little rocky, even though Storman's new I.C. Sharks cafe and tiki bar look a little like a continuation of the party next door. Storman is a diehard gulf seafood aficionado (well, plus a little Ocean City, Md., blue crab razzle-dazzle), having owned and operated restaurants in the area, from pouring drinks at Penrod's Palace to opening Storman's Palace, the Venue and a Tampa nightclub called the Millennium 2000. He opened I.C. Sharks five years ago, focusing in on fresh Florida seafood direct from local fisherman, oysters from Apalachicola, Florida wild-caught shrimp and Joe Island clams.
His plan all along was to add a capacious tiki off the back, equipped with cool swing chairs he saw 35 years ago in a fun-times Florida bar. He launched it last Memorial Day with one 600-foot tiki on the main level and a second similar-sized one upstairs, both with water views. He rents 15- and 17-foot Boston Whalers off the back, either by the hour ($35, with a two-hour minimum) or the day ($199-$250), with a little shop selling live bait and tackle. Sweetwater Kayaks launches eco tours and the like right from there into Snug Harbor. There's a scary hammerhead shark over the back bar and a gloriously shiny antique diving suit at the front. You getting the picture?
Still, Storman has taken it slow. He launched with a short initial menu drawn heavily from the seafood case at the market up front, but the fire marshal just signed off on the mechanical hood inspection so a full menu debuts any day. Think jumbo lump crab cakes, grouper sandwiches, conch fritters and clams casino. But even before this launches, tiki revelers have plenty of good choices.
A recent evening brought generous bowls of tomatoey, zingy seafood chowder ($7.75) and creamy, sherry-dashed blue crab bisque ($8.25). The most addictive item was the mahi mahi fish spread ($7.75) served with a pile of saltines, or a dozen fresh-shucked gulf oysters ($12; these days Apalach oysters are sparse, so they often come from Texas or Louisiana). And tiki-appropriate beverages include Storman's own Tampa Bay spin on the rum runner (this one featuring a Myers's float, not 151, with fresh-squeezed Florida citrus, banana liqueur, blackberry brandy and some other rums and brandies) and the Panhandle's famous Bushwacker (like a light coconut mudslide, try it with a rum float).
Before these Gandy guys, Courtney Campbell Causeway dominated as the bridgeside tiki titan with its Tampa end Whiskey Joe's, Hogan's Beach and Bahama Breeze, but I'm betting that the Getaway and I.C. Sharks will give the Gandy Bridge its day in the sun.
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.