CLEARWATER — In an industry where fads come and go, Bob Heilman Jr. knew the value of balancing tradition with ingenuity.
When he bought his father’s Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber restaurant in 1984, he kept the classic white tablecloth identity that had made it a staple on Clearwater Beach but began implementing a legendary wine list before such a thing was so trendy.
He made it into a place that generations of families have depended on for anniversaries and birthday celebrations but can still charm newcomers with upscale American cuisine.
“He threaded that needle a lot of restaurants have a hard time doing of offering the old standbys but also being in this century,” said former Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley, now with the Washington Post. “The chicken dinner, the relish tray, you can’t break people’s hearts by removing these hallowed things. That kind of limits how much forward momentum you can have, culinary speaking, but Bob was able to do it.”
Bob Heilman Jr., a food and wine expert who cultivated one of Tampa Bay’s most beloved and consistent restaurants, died on March 23 following complications from an infection, according to his wife Sheri Heilman. He was 64.
The family published an obituary on May 23 and celebrated his life and achievements in a small ceremony with close friends, a reflection of the privacy Heilman preferred.
Heilman was born in Clearwater and grew up in the restaurant his father, Bob Heilman Sr., opened on Mandalay Avenue in 1948.
He graduated from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in 1978 and made his way back to Clearwater to carry on the family business. His first innovation, the wine list, has grown to a selection of 700 in two above-ground cellars.
Sheri Heilman met her future husband at a gathering with friends weeks after she moved to Florida from Ohio. It was the kind of meeting where they kept locking eyes across the room. They married in 1979 and had three children.
Heilman had a way of being a traditional gentleman, always opening doors for women and making sure they were first to order drinks. But he also advocated for women, especially in the way he supported his wife as a businesswoman and partner running the restaurant, Sheri Heilman said.
“He was so easy to be around and like nobody I had ever known,” she said.
The couple had a passion for travel and would bring ideas they found during their trips to Oregon, California and elsewhere back to their business.
They opened Bobby’s Bistro next door to the Beachcomber in 1994, before the concept of light fare and a la carte menus had become “so bastardized,” said son and namesake Bobby Heilman.
In 2001, the family bought 60 acres in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and planted an 8-acre vineyard. Three years later, they harvested their first batch of what is now their FoxyRock label, a Pinot Noir sold at the Beachcomber.
Sheri Heilman remembers hand-picking that first harvest, she and her husband covered in grape juice and ladybugs with smiles on their faces.
Frank Alfano, who opened Alfano’s Restaurant in Clearwater in 1984, said Heilman’s love of wine not only elevated his restaurants, but was a driver of many friendships. The Alfanos and Heilmans bonded over many meals, where Bob Heilman always impressed rooms with his knowledge of Bordeauxs and Burgundies.
Alfano said Heilman’s kindness shone through in different ways. From the way he’d show up at Aflano’s restaurant on his birthday with a fancy bottle of wine, to the way he’d treat strangers walking into the Beachcomber.
“He was about consistency,” Alfano said. “There are so very few places like that left.”
But that tradition isn’t leaving Clearwater Beach anytime soon. Sheri and Bobby Heilman have been running the Beachcomber for the past four years that Bob Heilman stepped into semi-retirement.
In that time they’ve adapted their restaurants to the new normal of coronavirus precautions. They’ve led the way on a local initiative to ban single-use plastics from restaurants.
For Bobby Heilman, continuing the legacy of the Beachcomber was never really a question.
Just like his father felt, the restaurant business is in his blood.
“I couldn’t not do it,” Bobby Heilman said.