By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
It's hard not to be superstitious. First it's one restaurant, then another. Then another. Etc. Like the horror flick's Indian burial ground, there are certain plots of land that, despite people's best intentions, just seem to be always haunted by the ghosts of businesses past. The building at 3128 Beach Blvd. is such a space. It was most recently the train-wrecky Dive Bar, then Roman Gardens before that and Aqua Bella before that (I could keep going).
On June 30 it opened as J's, a nautical-themed, family-friendly, midpriced American restaurant. It's big, with something like 180 seats and three bars spread over two levels. Despite a serious renovation (floors, walls, ceiling, paint, furniture), the spaces are oddly divided. There's one dining room off the downstairs bar that seems marooned somehow. But perhaps this time the prime spot just at the beach end of Gulfport's main drag will make a go of it.
New owners Rita and Mike Janecek already own two Paradise Grilles, one in Pass-a-Grille and one in Upham Beach, plus the Snack Shack in Madeira Beach. What these restaurants share is an easy, affordable approach to beachy fare, from shrimp baskets to burgers. It shouldn't be surprising then that the menu at the new J's follows suit while taking things a little more upscale. You've seen all this before: conch fritters and fried calamari; fish sandwiches and u-peel-'em shrimp.
Are they discernibly better, or different, than versions you've seen in these parts before? Not so far. Fried calamari with cherry peppers and lemon ($9) was a generous portion but fairly status quo, as was a ho-hum shrimp cocktail ($8). Of the appetizers the most interesting was a layered crab meat dish ($11) with a kicky vinaigrette, greens and surprisingly effective use of tart peach wedges. For entrees, the crab-stuffed flounder ($22) and Parmesan-crusted grouper (market price) both brought nice pieces of fish, but the presentations were somewhat hackneyed. And a seafood marinara ($16) buried tasty fish and shrimp under a much-too-sweet red sauce.
In a couple of visits, the best item we tried was described rather majestically as a broccoli crown. Served a la carte or as a side with many of the entrees, it's a lovely fresh head of broccoli, expertly steamed and ladled with gloriously velvety hollandaise. J's is just a baby, but it's rough when the highest praise goes to a side of broccoli.
Still, I suspect the Janeceks, restaurant pros, will figure out what niche they are trying to fill in restaurant-rich little Gulfport. They've assembled a team of friendly and efficient servers and offer a number of wallet-friendly drink deals to lure diners.
Plus, they have this one other ace in the hole: Many of the fixtures and all of the chairs came from an auction at the fabled Wine Cellar, which closed at the end of April. Not to get superstitious again, but surely that legend's 38 years of success in North Redington Beach has the power to spread fairy dust in Gulfport's most fledgling restaurant.
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.