INDIAN ROCKS BEACH
It's one of those locations that has cycled through identities, beginning life as Sam's Hamburgers in the 1940s and more recently sliding through a series of good-times, snowbird-friendly places like My Place and On the Rocks.
Shirley Smith O'Barr and her husband, Emmett O'Barr, were not previously in the restaurant business. He was an air-conditioning contractor and she owned an apartment services business in Texas, but driving down Gulf Boulevard they saw the empty restaurant site and started dreaming.
They opened Aqua Prime on Dec. 10 after some major renovations, from new booths and chairs to glamorous Chihuly lighting in the dining room and a newly refinished mahogany bar. With two bars and a patio out back, the sprawling restaurant is painted a pale ocean-sky blue, the name further reinforcing any beachy steak-and-seafood expectations.
It has almost instantly become a relaxed, happy-hour hangout, the servers and bartenders not yet up to the task of coping with the flow of diners. Drinks can take a while to concoct and servers may look a little blank when you ask exactly what pork short ribs are (I'm still not sure). Nonetheless, there's a cheeriness and bustle to the place that's winning.
The kitchen, overseen by team Corey Ryan and Jason Vargo, adopts a something-for-everyone approach. This means traditional Buffalo wings ($9) and appealing fish spread ($5) as well as the ubiquitous seared ahi slices paired with wasabi and pickled ginger ($11), the Aqua Prime version lent a little novelty by zesty sesame broccoli slaw.
In a couple of visits, the most appealing dishes included mussels in a winey lemon butter lent heartiness by rounds of smoked sausage, artichoke heart and fluffs of feta ($9) and a straight-up ribeye ($22 for a plenty-big 10 ounces, $28 for 14) served with a pedestrian vegetable medley but a nice red wine gravy (all entrees come with soup or salad, veggies, a side and a choice of seven sauces).
You've seen most of these dishes before, which doesn't detract from their appeal. A grouper sandwich ($12.50) is juicy and fresh tasting, with a spunky garlic caper mayo, and sea scallops ($24) come with that perfect golden sear on each side (the trick is not to jostle them around once they go in the pan).
As with most new restaurants, Aqua Prime is a work in progress, the wobbly parts sure to be refined as time goes by. Greater menu knowledge would improve service tremendously, and I'd like to see a few housemade desserts (this key lime pie and velvet peanut butter pie are as overexposed as a Kardashian) as well as greater inventiveness with things like side veggies or the house salad.
Still, a fair-priced wine list and generous happy hour parameters — 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday enjoy half off well drinks, house wines and domestic beers — have gotten Aqua Prime off with a bang. To add to that particular percussive noise, the patio is dog friendly and the Reel Bar patio frequently hosts live music. This newcomer might not be in its "prime" quite yet, but there's a whole lot of potential.
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.