Downtown's little Cracker bungalows are being put to promising new use. Longtimers Green Springs Bistro and Whistle Stop Grill have been joined by newer efforts by Parts of Paris or even more recent ones like Nantucket Bucket and Southern Fresh. These last two represent the best kind of entrepreneurial thinking. "What don't we have in Safety Harbor's dining scene?" The answer is: casual, downhome Southern fare and New England seafood. Done and done.
Both restaurants serve the same menu at lunch and dinner, making them a bit of a splurge at midday and affordable in the evening. At Southern Fresh, a tiny, pleasantly spare one room space with patio seating, the menu totals about 10 items with a couple of daily specials. Two dishes stand out, big time. A BLT soup ($3.50) made me reconsider getting so moony-eyed about tomato bisque. A vegetable broth cradles soft hunks of simmered plum tomato, with garlic, shallot and bacon making their presence known. A little flurry of cilantro and chopped romaine gets added at the last second to the smoky, piping-hot broth. The just-wilted greens lend the soup enough crunch that it gets at just what makes a bacon-lettuce-tomato combo so satisfying.
Home run No. 2 is fried chicken ($11). At lunch it takes enough extra time that you need to be fairly committed. But it's excellent fried chicken — a drum and a thigh, moist and hot, with a crunchy flour coating, neither too thick nor too thin, seasoned expertly. Now add to this a big spoon of homey, buttery mashed potatoes and bacony soft collards and you're in a low country reverie. Even better, finish with the guilty pleasure banana pudding ($3.50), complete with Nilla wafers and whipped topping from a can.
I'm guessing the kitchen at Southern Fresh is minuscule, which accounts for wine and kitchen deliveries hanging out in the dining room overlong, but the general feel is homespun and casual enough that some stacked-up Budweiser cases won't chafe. The short and affordable wine list seems a little tossed together, but the beer lineup hits a couple local blockbusters. In short, Southern Fresh seems committed to doing a few things and doing them well.
Southern Fresh opened in September and less than a month later came Nantucket Bucket, debuting just before Safety Harbor's thronged third Friday celebration. The throngs seem to have stayed at this much larger, 200-or-so seat venture.
The menu follows suit, with owner Russell Latimer hitting New England classics like belly clams just as vigorously as he pays homage to Florida Cracker classics like smoked fish spread. Decor is suitably nautical, with pale Nantucket blue paint throughout and a pet-friendly deck out front. The bar already has a devoted clientele with spirited kibitzing among regular customers (some wearing plastic bibs, always a social lubricant).
I donned my own bib and launched myself at one of the "buckets." It starts with a veggie setup ($4.95), in this case a few boiled red potatoes and carrots, a small onion and way too much boiled celery. Like so many New Englanders themselves, boiling liquids tend to be restrained, with none of the riotous spicing of Louisiana, Maryland, etc. Which is why smoked sausage ($3.95) makes a savory add-in, the assertive smokiness adding to a handful of pink peel-and-eat shrimp ($4.95) and green-lipped mussels ($5.95). The seafood in this lineup was more freshly succulent than another night's Maine lobster. While perfectly cooked, it made me wistful for those sweet, rich monsters I've eaten on splintery picnic tables on Cape Cod.
The house lobster corn chowder ($3.95) is tasty but a little lean on lobster, although the crab dip ($7.95), creamy and lush, was packed with blue crab lumps.
The message at Nantucket Bucket gets a little muddied with chicken marsala, garden burgers and pork sliders, and then it coalesces again in preparations like the fried whole belly sandwich ($11.95). Clams are so often served as just battered, chewy strips. Whole bellies tend to be Ipswitch clams, (gross-out alert for the New England newbie) the G.I. tract of the clam lending a softer, sweeter, brininess to the finished sandwich.
Although not every dish is a smash, Nantucket Bucket is aiming high and, more importantly, filling a new niche in Safety Harbor's burgeoning dining scene.
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.