The packet's front is stamped: "LIBRARY MATERIALS MAY NOT BE CHECKED OUT OVERNIGHT." It is chubby, gapping with yellowed St. Petersburg Times clippings date-stamped, the restaurant name underlined in red grease pencil. Bob Heilman's Beachcomber had a whole lot of clippings in 1959, the year a fire gutted the restaurant on Mandalay Avenue and they rebuilt, bigger and better, Clearwater Mayor Alex D. Finch presiding over the ribbon cutting. There was a safe crack and a burglary, both in 1963. And then there were the accolades and reviews.
Ruth Gray reviewed it for the Times in 1975, 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1984, all favorably. "Extra attention to detail ... mark Heilman's as a place where customers count," and "It would appear that Bob Heilman, a former president of the National Restaurant Association, still knows how to put the elegant touches to dining." Then the assessment of the Alaska meringue ice cream pie: "Yum." (Oh, Ruth, we critics never use the "y" word.)
In 1989, there was a slam from then-critic Chris Sherman ("I'm not sure a new idea has walked in here in 20 years"), followed by a slew of blistering letters to the editor demanding Sherman walk the plank, or at least be traded to the Tribune.
I had never reviewed Bob Heilman's Beachcomber. But a place that opened in 1948 (its precursor, a Heilman's restaurant in Lorain, Ohio, dated to 1910) and has outlived hundreds of restaurants in Clearwater and neighboring beach communities, seen trends come and go, witnessed generations of Tampa Bay date nights — surely it was doing a whole lot right to stay in the game?
I visited twice in the past couple of weeks, first stopping in for the Back-to-the-Farm Chicken dinner, a tradition that dates to that Ohio restaurant and is an absurdly good deal at $18.95. The half chicken is golden and batter-dipped pieces of juicy Bell & Evans chicken, a Pennsylvania company started in 1890 that recently opened the first organic certified animal-welfare-focused hatchery; it's a chicken that retails at Whole Foods for about $12. That comes with mashed potatoes, dusky pan gravy and a daily veg (mine was battered eggplant nuggets), but before that there is soup of the day and creamy slaw. And before all that, the relish tray.
I'll let Ruth Gray explain: "A footed relish tray is brought to your table after you sit down. This holds applesauce, cottage cheese, watermelon pickle (mine was corn relish) and beets; it is a fine way to begin a meal."
That relish tray is a Rorschach of sorts. Longtime Heilman's fans embrace it, demand it, slather the relishes on the house-made muffins and banana bread and sliced white bread. Heilman newbies are suspicious, prod at it, make inquiries and, finally, ignore it summarily.
"That darn relish tray," Robert E. Heilman Jr. said by phone. "I can't get rid of it."
This particular Bob Heilman is in his 60s and a graduate of Cornell School of Hotel Administration. His grandparents, Ross and Elnore, started the restaurant; his dad ran it from 1948 to 1981 and died in 2007; and his son, Robert E. Heilman III, has Bobby's Bistro next door named for him but is currently not in the restaurant business. Bob Jr.'s wife Sheri is involved at Heilman's; his sisters have worked there over the years; his uncle had a Heilman's location in Fort Lauderdale.
From Hector Hernandez in the kitchen to Helen Garzieri managing the books, many employees have been on the payroll for decades. It is open 365 days a year, doing monster numbers for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Heilman's has the kind of wine list, heavy on the burgundies, California and Oregon pinot noirs, that makes you rationalize a big splurge.
Now back to the chicken dinner.
Heilman's is big into soups, but this was still September in Florida, so I swapped out a wedge salad, not lavishly accessorized, but crisp and cold with nice creamy blue cheese dressing and a flurry of tomato concasse and slivered red onion.
I plowed onward with the aforementioned chicken and accompaniments, pausing to eavesdrop on the sales guys from California at the next table who really didn't get the relish tray. I capitulated after the second piece of chicken, boxing the rest and moving on to a slice of house-made chocolate pecan pie ($7.95), perfect plush custard, crisp toasted nuts, buttery-flaky pate brisee.
This is classic American food, well executed and served in a couple of dramatically different dining rooms, one dark and clubby with live piano, the other with lots of light and soaring ceilings. On my second visit, I cooled my heels in the bar for a bit waiting for my date, the regulars boisterous and prone to fits of standup. (One leaned in: "I tell them, if I'm not sitting right here in the evening, it means I'm dead.")
Bob Jr. said prime filets, New York strips and rosy slabs of prime rib have been steady menu offerings, with braises and stews making a more seasonal appearance. In recent years, seafood has crept in to fill out more of the daily-changing single sheet of specials. Our order reflected that, starting with a casserole of six escargots, the snails out of their shells, nestled in little cups with similarly textured whole mushrooms and a ladle of dark, savory Madeira sauce that seemed built for diligent bread dunking ($12.95). There was also a single Maryland-style griddled crab cake, one that won't give Faidley's in Baltimore a run for its money but that had minimal filler and a lively accompanying remoulade ($12.95).
From here we moved on to a North Atlantic fillet of salmon napped with textbook bearnaise sauce ($24.95), as well as a surf and turf of small filet mignon, maybe a touch past the medium rare requested, and a fat cold-water lobster tail with a candle-fueled warm butter bath ($42.95), each of which was preceded by a choice of several salads (mixed greens, Caesar, sliced tomato, wedge, creamy slaw, spinach).
You've seen this food before. There are no foams or spherified sauces. There is no Asian fusion or Instagram-ready verticality to the food. It is akin to what we used to call Continental fare — upscale American that draws heavily from the classical French sauce canon, served courteously by waiters who know their stuff — but it does not feel tired or hackneyed.
When the news is rough and the world seems steeped in chaos, there is something sustaining about a dome of baked Alaska ($7.95), its cap of bruleed meringue golden whorls in the dim light. Having dinged fellow critic Gray for use of the "y" word, I'm not going to go there. But it's not inappropriate.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.