Monday, June 18, 2018
Dining

Review: An '80s flashback, Shells will find a way

ST. PETE BEACH

In my family, the Land of Lionel Richie is the place where overexposed celebrities go when — blam — they disappear. They are everywhere, and then all at once nowhere. In 1986 Richie was everywhere, by 1987 he'd gone to the Land. What was confusing, then, was when Richie came back from the Land of Lionel Richie, maybe turning the keys over to Wesley Snipes.

Shells Seafood Restaurants are a little like that. The Tampa Bay mainstay was huge in the late 1980s, at one point numbering 45 restaurants and employing 1,200 people in the U.S. The concept was taken public in 1993, and that's when the trouble started.

"None of them seemed to work except the ones in Florida," remembers John Christen Jr., son of founder John Christen Sr. "We had to guarantee those leases, so we were sending money to landlords out of state."

In 2008 the company declared bankruptcy and filed for Chapter 7 liquidation. But the moderately priced seafood chain's shrimp and garlic pasta, the clam chowder, the scampi lingered in our collective memory like strains of Say You, Say Me. The younger Christen, a fresh University of Florida grad, and his uncle David Canady decided to put the band back together.

In 2012 Canady opened a location on Fowler in Tampa; this August Christen opened a St. Pete Beach location in what was most recently Jaxson's. The menu is nearly identical to the Shells of yore, the recipes mostly dating back to before the company was taken public.

It's going to remind you of the last Shells in St. Pete Beach: There's a robust early-bird contingent, a surprisingly multi-ethnic set of regulars and a fair number of casually clad date-night couples (hey, in some settings, shrimp scampi is foreplay). Wine and beer (all usual suspects) are budget-priced, desserts are sized to defy all nutritional admonishments, and on Tuesdays there are pound-and-a-quarter lobsters flown in for around $20, silly bib included.

The local fish spread ($9) is unusual, the smoky fish kept in larger hunks so it reads more Scandinavian and less like a mayo-glued salad, its flavor rich and satisfying. Peel 'n' eats ($11) are a messy good time, a half pound of decent sized crustaceans without much heat or razzle-dazzle to the seasoning — just simple, briny-sweet shrimp flavor.

The core of the menu are eight pasta dishes that feel very mid 1980s: lobster cream sauce, garlic-wine cream sauce, tomato sauce blended with that garlic-wine cream sauce. Yes, the signature Shrimp Pasta ($12.99) is a little like the Dancing on the Ceiling of pastas, but that doesn't mean it's not tasty: Linguine studded with bouncy shrimp, heavy cream getting a little garlic and white wine lift. It's an "if it ain't broke" kind of dish, but I'd suggest that Shells' side veggies and side salad should venture into the 21st century.

From fried clam strips to fish tacos, this new incarnation of Shells offers familiar seafood for a fair price, administered by a gregarious staff. John Christen Jr. isn't aiming for an empire this time, but he is hoping to recapture the Tampa Bay area, with maybe locations in Brandon and Clearwater.

Clearly comebacks are possible: Richie's 2012 Tuskegee went platinum.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

     
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