In April, Harvey's on Fourth Street celebrated its 30th anniversary, something of a miracle in the restaurant world, especially if you consider its location, in an unglamorous strip mall north of bustling downtown. Seemed like a good time to sneak in and try to suss out its secret.
Decor is a hint to what has given Harvey's legs. It's a flotsam and jetsam approach, with lots of time-mellowed wood and doodads assembled from historic St. Pete hotels like the Vinoy, Soreno and Albemarle. It's got the lived-in feeling of a favorite sweater that has gone a little wispy at the elbows.
The menu, too, is a grandmother's attic of culinary invention. It seems little is discarded in the name of progress, items merely scooted in tighter on the menu to make way for something new. I'm going to engender the ire of Harvey's longtime fans by saying that some dishes are a little dated (1984 wants its Fourth Street Pasta back), but there's plenty here that is timeless.
In the lineup of Pinellas County grouper sandwiches, Harvey's version ($11.95, depending on grouper prices) is right up there, a buttered, toasted bun cradling a hefty swath of snowy fried or broiled fish capped with molten cheddar and equipped with frilly lettuce, tomato rounds and tartar sauce. Same goes for the steak sandwich ($10.95) topped with a tangle of grilled onion and thick Swiss, and the classic corned-beef Reuben ($8.95, also offered with grouper for $11.95) drippy with thousand island dressing and set on crunchy grilled rye. Sandwiches come with a workhorse pickle and a choice of respectable fries, cole slaw that is lush with sweetened mayo but still satisfyingly cabbage-crunchy, potato salad or a cold rice salad that is a bit of an oddity.
Lingering on oddities for a moment, I'm always flummoxed by menu items augmented with adjectives like "fresh" or "homemade." What, then, are we to make of the dishes without such embellishments? At Harvey's, broccoli bites ($5.75) and jalapeno poppers ($6.25) get a proud parenthetical "homemade," while onion rings and chicken nuggets below them soldier on without. Those broccoli bites are something of a fabled dish, the kind Harvey's fans recall providing ballast for the wild party nights of their youths: a soft center of cheese, broccoli, onion, bacon and a bit of carrot are encased in a crunchy deep-fried breading, the best part the accompanying zingy horseradish sauce.
Servers at Harvey's exude a hard-bitten competence and veterans' deep menu knowledge. Ask them for advice and they'll steer you to Harvey's staples: a buttery croissant packed with mayo-rich chicken walnut salad ($9.25, again a sandwich I associate with the mid 1980s, but a classic) or a silly-messy burger blowsy with chili and cheddar ($8.95) or maybe even an order of fish spread ($6.95) for the table made locally and served with no-nonsense celery, carrots and saltines.
As we've moved into an era of the $14 glass of wine, Harvey's has stood firm. The menu straightforwardly indicates which beverages are refillable (sodas, coffees, iced teas), offers house wines at exact 5-ounce pours for an astonishing $3.95, and keeps the wine list at a tidy lineup of 10 familiar and unpretentious bottlings mostly in the $25 range. But resolutely reasonable prices aren't why Harvey's has withstood the test of time.
It's a feeling of collegiality, the strong conviction that you'll run into someone you know while tucking into a plate of crispy-edged corned beef hash on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Indeed it's not uncommon to spy a former mayor or two at a corner table. Harvey's is the kind of place that makes St. Petersburg feel like a small town, even as its residents increasingly embrace big-city sophistication.
Laura Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.