Restaurants with heavy theming can go awry in a number of ways: too much, not enough, mixed messages, ham-fisted devotion to cliches, etc. It can be a runaway train that unduly influences the food, music, architecture, server uniforms, menu fonts and overall feel of a place. There are restaurants with zombie themes, ninja themes; ones with a safe house or time machine theme; some devoted to airplanes or dinosaurs or Doctor Who. Disney does a pretty darn good job of theming in ways that are coherent and aesthetically pleasing; places like Hard Rock Café show a light enough touch that it's not music memorabilia as a two-by-four to the noggin.
23 Restaurant Services is the parent company behind Ford's Garage and Yeoman's Cask & Lion, the former with a Henry Food/early automotive theme, the latter with a Big Ben/Beefeater/Pip-Pip-Cheerio British theme. The restaurant group took over the Rowdies Den (another themed restaurant that never quite gelled), which had sat woefully empty for some time, neatly bisected it and created two side-by-side concepts, each with its own serving staff and kitchen.
For a few days last week I toggled back and forth between the two restaurants, assessing them individually and how they worked as a double-whammy. Ford's Garage is a lot smarter and more coherent; Yeoman's is a pleasant place to watch a game but the food is entirely unremarkable and in many cases schizophrenic.
Let's start with Ford's. It's a theme CEO Marc Brown comes by honestly, the first one having emerged in Fort Myers where Henry Ford had his winter home. There's a Model T hanging up high (fun fact: the first automotive recall was when Henry Ford stuffed the seats of the original Model T with Spanish moss and chiggers were coming out and biting drivers on the tuchuses), the napkin rings are hose clamps, and the ladies' room sinks are set in tires with levers that I was insufficiently automotively savvy enough to identify.
The menu is dominated by burgers, very solid across the board, with a charming extra feature: The sandwiches are named for local luminaries, the mayor, school board folks, etc. I'm not sure if these people had a hand in the creative process, but it's a far-ranging and appealing lineup of burgers, each served on a shiny branded brioche bun and offered with regular beef. For no charge you can sub out a portobello, chicken breast, ground turkey or Impossible Burger (I love this burger, but for vegans one quibble is there's no vegan bun); or for a small upgrade Australian wagyu ($2.50 additional), prime ($3) or bison ($4.50).
Downtown St. Petersburg is a very burger-intensive place, with loads of choice within blocks of Ford's. The average burger price here is $12.50, then if you opt for prime it scoots you up to $15.50, which I consider nearly the acme of what the market can bear. Still, Ford's does a nice job, the details dialed (greaseless and moist-interiored fries in a wire mesh basket, strong accoutrements like house-made chipotle ketchup and fried onion straws), with lots of build-it-yourself temptations (fried egg, bacon white truffle aioli), and then a long list of sides to add a little oomph (a range of green veggies, sweet potato tots, creamy house coleslaw that goes a little heavy on the celery seed). And for dessert, solid options include a Detroit original chocolate bumpy cake ($5.95) and easy-to-share funnel cake fries with a chocolate and a raspberry dipping sauce ($5.95).
Both restaurants are titans when it comes to happy hour specials and regular discounts, both have long craft beer and signature cocktail lists, and both could benefit from more intensive server training. (Follow-through and focus seemed to be in short supply at Yeoman's in particular.)
At Yeoman's, there is a distressed metal bar backed by the Union Jack to orient us. (But I ask you, if it were the stars and stripes would we feel comfortable putting two large TV screens in the middle of it?) The bar stools, as is increasingly the case at many bars (trend alert), are not tucked front-forward to the bar, but rather oriented at a 45-degree angle so as to be more inviting when you enter. Here's the thing: This setup creates more work for the diner, because we have to reorient the legs of the chair to face the bar rather than just swiveling the seat to hop on or off. Especially when, like at Yeoman's, the swivel action automatically orients back to center, so if you don't adjust the legs of the chair frontwards, your chair is always swiveling left against your will. A quibble, but something that annoys me.
There's nice use of dark brick and fake cobblestones, with a back dining room with a stage (live music some nights) and a front dining room that opens with garage doors to the street. Flanking the door is a pair of Beefeater statues resolutely as noncommittal as the real thing. (Reason they are called Beefeaters: They were once paid partially in hunks of meat.)
The original Yeoman's was a fun little pub on Davis Islands; a subsequent location in downtown Tampa lacked the warmth of the first, as does this one. The menu, oddly, offers a long lineup of burgers, these ones with Anglophilic names like the Manchester or the Bond Burger. You'd think this might prove redundant with sister restaurant next door. There are also British staples that are a far cry from the textbook versions you'll find over the pond. One lunch's fish and chips ($8.95) was exceptionally greasy, its thick beer batter flecked lavishly with what I believe was thyme, imparting an unpleasantly soapy taste to the overall dish. The next night I worked listlessly through a crock of shepherd's pie ($12.95), very dry, and wondered why its beef was ground but its lamb was in large, chewy chunks. The whole dish needed more creaminess and lushness to be a good exemplar of that comfort food.
And while the thick, russet Churchill chips ($5.95) are quite good, their plastic ramekin of gravy was coagulated, excavated like strands of rubber cement; same with the beer cheese on the otherwise solid royal pretzel rolls ($8.95). And there are plenty of dishes that are utter anomalies at a British-style pub: skirt steak with black beans and pico de gallo? Hummus? A range of mac and cheese options?
Our favorite dish came at meal's end at Yeoman's, a sampler plate ($7.95) containing sticky toffee pudding in a lush sea of buttery caramel, a wedge of chocolate cake sturdied with Guinness, a plastic ramekin (this is a little cheesy — how about ceramic or glass?) of vanilla ice cream and a duo of crisp but buttery shortbread cookies.
The choice to split the vast Rowdies Den into two concepts seems wise, the decision to feature two complementary themes a reasonable one. If Yeoman's can focus its menu a bit and execute with greater precision, it's a one-two punch that will draw St. Pete diners to First Avenue S.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.