“My family's first restaurant was just down the street in the space now occupied by a Thai restaurant. As a boy I was a dishwasher there. This was well before we ever had dish machines. My little brother and I would spend evenings pitching clam shells into the little harbor behind the restaurant. It was a real circle to find myself back here 38 years later."
So says Matt Loder Sr., longtime Tampa Bay restaurateur of the Crabby Bill's franchise. He's speaking of his and partner Greg Pohn's Seabreeze Island Grill and Raw Bar, opened at the start of 2012. It moved into the longtime Shells location that briefly became CiCi's Pizza, a spot with absurdly lovely water views off wide patios and open dining rooms.
The original idea for the space was something upscale, leaning closer to Salt Rock Grill than Crabby Bill's. But as they settled in and took the pulse of diners, they realized those pulses raced more for casual, good-times seafood at reasonable prices. Done and done.
"I felt like an actor who had always done westerns," said Loder. "The actor tried a serious role in a drama and the fans said get back on that horse."
The revised Seabreeze requires you to consult your calendar: On Thursdays the special is $4 for a dozen oysters, on Wednesdays it's all-you-can-eat fish and chips for $9.99, on Sundays there's a mimosa and Bloody Mary bar during the day and then a shrimp and grits dinner for $10.99. Happy hour runs from opening until 7 p.m. with $3.50 drink specials, and special meal deals are offered every night giving you a smallish protein, two sides and a dessert for $12.50.
With roughly 200 seats and live music from 6 to 10 p.m. most nights, it's a rum runner kind of place ($5). There's nothing cerebral about rum, blackberry brandy, banana liqueur, pineapple, orange and grenadine in a mason jar over lots of ice, but that's just fine. In fact, the wine list and house cocktails represent a lineup that is familiar, accessible and affordable, the dessert list following suit with a dense chocolate cake ($8) the size of a Mac Classic and a key lime pie ($4.99) that's the Florida sweet-tart original.
Despite a clear focus on value, the kitchen aims to take full advantage of the area's dayboat catch. Hogfish is a regular menu item, the sweet, moist fish ($17.99) getting a panko coating and a quick pan-frying, offered with a choice of two sides (the most interesting of which are cinnamony mashed sweet potatoes with golden raisins or a creamy-tangy tropical slaw. They were out of hogfish on my first visit, but on my second I found out why this is a top seller — a lovely piece of fish.
Meals start with soft, warm house-baked bread accessorized by seashell-shaped butter pats, one of them a beguiling coconut butter. From there, fried coconut shrimp with key lime honey butter ($7.49), garlicky steamed mussels ($10.99) or an island salad ($8.49) of pulled chicken, blue cheese fluffs, bacon, onion, cuke and tomato are all flavorful and generous enough to share. And if fish (grouper, salmon, grilled Bairdi snow crab) isn't floating your boat, the house guava barbecue sauced baby-back ribs ($12.49 half rack) are meltingly tender and zesty.
Service can be all over the map at Seabreeze, one night the waiter going MIA regularly and plopping down new plates before clearing the empties, another night spot on and knowledgeable about the menu (don't get him talking about hogfish). In a place of this size that's not surprising. With its indoor/outdoor space, Buffett-inspired musical selections and brightly colored rooms, it's got the easy, breezy feel of a beachside classic, even with no sand between your toes.
And for Matt Loder, having started his restaurant career journey so close to this spot, Seabreeze is like coming home.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.