Peter Leonavicius has been a mover and shaker in the Tampa Bay food scene since the mid 1980s, having been lured here from London by Dominique Christini of Café Largo. He was chef of Le Bouchon Bistro before opening Toasted Pheasant in Tampa's Carrollwood neighborhood. Then he took a gamble and opened a place in Cedar Key called Steamers. He sold his share of that last year and looked around for what next. • Something casual, he thought. And in October, he opened Jacks London Grill, a good-times British pub. So far, the place has two strikes against it. One: The space, a no-fuss cube, clearly began its life as a Pizza Hut. Two: The beer selection is seriously lacking in a British beer lineup. The latter can be fixed almost instantly, the former can be ignored, which is what seems to be the stance regulars have adopted.
The building's humble corporate roots are easy to ignore because there's so much else going on. For St. Patrick's Day weekend, there will be Guinness specials and corned beef and cabbage; on Tuesdays, it's trivia quiz night (a hoot, but evidently my buddies and I are not trivia titans; we lost); Saturdays, it's London-style pub curry; and on Sundays, Leonavicius is doing a traditional Sunday roast, accessorized appropriately with Yorkshire pudding.
Service is unpretentious, friendly and without polish, and Leonavicius manages to attend to cooking in the kitchen while simultaneously making his way around the dining room (he wanted a place where he could do it all). The wine list is a little swankier than one might predict, but as I said, the beer list needs more UK verve, or even a smidge more local craft suds. Surely the Bud Light can step aside.
The menu is pure British pub, from the big-as-a-Kia batter-dipped fish with classic plank fries and a housemade tartar sauce ($10.99) to a solid shepherd's pie ($9.99), which to my mind beats a bunch of other local versions because it combines ground beef and lamb to give that musky savor to the mashed potatoey comfort food (his taters are herbed, with melted cheddar riding high).
Of the apps, the puff-pastry-covered baked Brie ($4.99) was a crowd pleaser and easily shared, while the Scotch egg (a hardboiled egg given a bread-crumb-and-sausage mantle, served with sharpish mustard; $3.99) is a hold-your-own bar food staple.
Perhaps the best thing at Jacks London is the gravy, a lush and lustrous murky brown that one can sample atop Irish fries (an oddity with spicy pickled peppers and molten cheese; $5.99), as a puddle on a plate of bangers and mash ($9.99), on a simple entree of pan-seared chicken breast with melted Brie and accompanied by sauteed spinach ($8.99), or, if you are thinking way outside the box, on its own ($1, but I imagine he's hoping you'll pour it over something).
It's not a vast menu, but nightly specials keep things interesting for regulars, and prices are low enough that regulars seem to be emerging.
Desserts lean to familiar U.S. staples, with a workhorse creme brulee ($5.99), so I'd love to suggest Leonavicius head into headier waters. Spotted dick (if only for the sniggering opportunities) and sponges and trifles get so little forum in these parts that it would be a treat that further cements Jacks London as an authentic British newcomer, despite its Pizza Hut past.
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.