I reviewed this space favorably back in 2008 when it debuted as The Venue, then less favorably in 2011 when the nightclub concept's ambitious restaurants were dumbed down, then less favorably still in 2012 when it changed hands and became the V. In all of its incarnations, one of the chief problems was this: It was way too big. The 28,000-square-foot complex drew its aesthetic from nightclubs of an earlier decade, and on a Tuesday night with even a hundred people eating, drinking, dancing, flirting, it still seemed cavernously empty.
Barry O'Conner, Marcus Winters and Sean James swooped in earlier this year and did something smart. They broke up the space, devoting one side to a nightclub available for special events, live music and such, then launching a Yard of Ale in a separate space with a great outdoor bar and patio. The team already has two other restaurants of the same name, one in Tampa's SoHo district and a second in the dense beer zone on First Avenue S in St. Petersburg, and they own MacDinton's as well, so these guys are familiar with how to put on a beer-forward, good-times bar.
It shows. The new Yard of Ale in Feather Sound is slick, with a smart lineup of 28 craft beers on tap and a menu that gets at burgers and wings, but also has enough sophisticated small plates and salads to be a logical girls' night out venue. The menu is overseen by Tavis Schafer, formerly of Mad Dogs and Englishmen in South Tampa (where I was a huge fan of his lively spins on British pub grub).
Service is amiable and swift, and on a nice day a seat at the outdoor bar, adjacent to a little man-made lake, feels like the best thing going in Feather Sound. Once the beer has been decided upon - which can run from 8 ounces of Yuengling lager for $2 up to a 32-ouncer of Huyghe Delirium Tremens for $25.50 - launch a visit with an order of wings (all $9). They're baked, not quite crunchy exteriored, moist and with good flavor, whether you opt for Tullamore Dew barbecue, hot or mild buffalo, Thai chili or garlic parmesan. Even fried calamari ($8) are a cut above many around here, cornmeal-crunchy and greaseless, with a kicky garlic aioli.
A duo of house flatbreads brings more winners, the shrimp version ($12) with roasted red pepper, sweet corn, a flurry of cilantro and a slick of chipotle mayonnaise, beats out the chicken and olive one ($11) by a nose. Even Yard of Ale's crab cake ($11), not something often associated with beer bars, is a keeper: Maryland style with big lumps of crab and a nicely crisp edge, it gets a red pepper coulis and a pouf of complementary frisee.
Heading back squarely into pub territory, the house shepherd's pie is rib-stickingly hearty, with that nice musky-but-not-too-musky flavor provided by a blend of ground lamb and beef, topped with a buttery mashed potato cap and a deeply flavored gravy. And it's a serious bargain at $12, with nearly enough heft for two people to share.
One quirk that may just reflect Schafer's personal enthusiasm, Yard of Ale has kick-butt ice cream ($2), with a short, changing lineup that may include malted walnut, bacon peanut butter cup or Mexican chocolate. If it's between another pint of beer or a scoop of coffee toffee, step away from the suds.
In the space that was born years ago as Storman's Palace, a fabled and immense nightclub, it required a little reimagining to bring the building gracefully into the present. And the Yard of Ale team appears to have done just that.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.
* * *
Yard of Ale GastroPub
2675 Ulmerton Road, Clearwater
(727) 800-9872; yardofale.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday to Wednesday, until 1 a.m. Thursday, until 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; reservations accepted; full bar
Prices: Share plates $8-$11, sandwiches $9-$14, entrees $12-$25
Rating, out of four stars: Food: *** Service: ** Atmosphere: *** Overall: ** 1/2