The biggest downside to a sizzling downtown restaurant scene is parking. The second biggest is this: The humble neighborhood mom-and-pop — the kind of place where the idea of reservations is hilarious and the owner knows your name, your drink and your dog's name (heck, even your dog's drink) — gets squeezed out by hipster retro diners and bespoke grilled cheeseries. Real estate becomes too dear for the kind of easy hangout where there's not precisely a culinary concept beyond "food people like to eat" and where no one has ever said pre-dinner to their beloved, "Is that what you're wearing?"
McNally's Neighborhood Grill was that kind of place for 14 years. It wasn't the cleanest, the food was solid and unremarkable, but it was an easy gathering spot. Dan Pemberton and his daughter, Danielle, bought it earlier this year and debuted Pesky Pelican on May 31. They employed a whole lot of elbow grease to spiff things up, doing away with much of the shambling Irish pub effect and employing patron Brian Mohr to come up with a logo and the prolific Vitale Brothers to do murals on the back wall and outside.
The Pembertons haven't been in the restaurant business before. Danielle works full-time for a waste management company, and Dan is director of operations for a software development corporation.
So why the restaurant?
Beer. Dan has been brewing for about 15 years, ramping up his skills and ambition such that Rapp Brewing in Seminole recently sold out of his Thorny Bramble raspberry wheat in about a day and a half. Pesky Pelican will be his nanobrewery when all the permitting gets worked out, with four beers on offer at a time: his raspberry wheat, a seasonal beer, a solid staple and one that Dan can play around with.
For Danielle's part, she's always liked to cook. Dan's sister, Deanna Martiniuk, is making the desserts for the restaurant, a very homey array of brownies and blondies and a great individual butter cake. And in the kitchen they've retained Damian Rosales from McNally's days, whose wife, Rosa, is at the helm for Taco Tuesdays. With two tacos with beans and rice for $6.99, this is a good introduction. Dan smokes his own pork butts on the smoker out back for 10 to 12 hours after giving it a brisk rub with 18 spices. Smoky pulled pork may be the top taco offering, but there is also a straightforward ground beef, a chile-tinged shredded chicken and a mahi taco, all of them offered flour or crispy corn.
While there's not a full liquor license (a holdover from noise transgressions in McNally's days), you can accompany T.T. at P.P. (that's Taco Tuesday at Pesky Pelican, stay with me here) with a margarita made with surprisingly good wine-based tequila (frequently offered for $2.50 on T.T. along with $2 Coronas). Otherwise, whistle-wetters include a solid array of beers and a short lineup of workhorse wines.
I'm a little sheepish about my favorite dish on a couple of visits. Housemade chips ($6.59), served either crispy or thicker and soft (go crispy) come hot and salted just so, accompanied by sultry brown gravy as a dunker. There are solid house-fried tortilla chips and salsa ($3.99), too, but I just kept creeping back to the gravy and potato chips.
Rosales is given free reign with daily specials, which range from chicken marsala to meatloaf to shrimp and rice. But Pesky Pelican feels like a burger kind of place, the signature offering ($9.49) an appealing assemblage of bacon, sauteed mushrooms and onion, lettuce, tomato, mayo and molten cheese on a bun that is tender without risking decimation by all those toppings and a sturdy-juicy half-pound patty.
Dan and Danielle are still tinkering. They've nixed trivia nights and added live music on Saturdays (for a westside restaurant, this has emerged as a slow night because neighborhood folks are braving the crowds and parking to make the pilgrimage downtown). There's still Dan's beer to come and doubtless other amendments as newbie restaurateurs settle in. But Pesky Pelican has the kind of comfortable mom-and-pop charm that used to be commonplace in St. Pete's restaurant lineup.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.