I met Terry Bollea (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan) and restaurant partner Ben Mallah just before Christmas for a walk through what was just about to become Hogan's Beach. Taking over the Crabby Bill's space at the Best Western Bay Harbor hotel on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, this new concept would pay homage to Bollea's long career in professional wrestling, film and television while offering the public three menus.
Food and beverage director Robert Uzzillia enumerated: a 30-item sushi bar, a second indoor menu of upscale steaks and seafood, and a casual menu of Frenchy's-style Florida favorites for the patio.
Opening with a New Year's Eve party, Hogan's Beach immediately boasted huge numbers, with the tiki huts and newly laid sand thronged with party people most nights and weekends.
But at this point, the food is a train wreck and the three menus incoherently jumbled. The physical menu is a good indicator of the care currently taken: Several pages of copier paper are stapled, their only embellishment the odd spill, footprint and dog-eared corner.
Hogan's Beach opened too soon, long before any of the fundamentals were dialed in. The Best Western Bay Harbor hotel is contractually obligated to have room service and a working restaurant, but couldn't the eatery have closed as Crabby Bill's and operated for a while just as "the restaurant at the Best Western Bay Harbor hotel" before debuting Hogan's Beach with a big splash?
One night my leg was scratched by ripped vinyl in the booth. Ripped vinyl in a 4-week-old restaurant? And at four weeks, if you call the restaurant and are put on hold, the recording still gives the details about Crabby Bill's. Often there's no host at the door; servers are clueless about the food, wine and cocktail options; and managers swirl grimly around the dining room without anticipating diners' needs or heading off problems. So much is still a mess.
I'm a firm believer in cheesy fun — the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company's "run Forrest, run" signs, the erupting volcano at Margaritaville, even Medieval Times' utensil-free dining. Hogan's Beach has a cheese factor, the foyer and hallway given over exuberantly to Hulkobilia, with cases of reproduction championship belts, a wall devoted to "the body slam heard around the world" when Hulk defeated André the Giant, and loads of movie posters for regrettable cinematic efforts like 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain.
But good cheesy isn't sloppy cheesy. Restooms aren't particularly clean, and servers are likely to say things tableside like this: "Uh, your food is back in the kitchen." Yes, that's where I'd guess; does this mean I should go get it myself?
And then there's the food itself. I strongly suspect that a number of dishes are straight off the back of a Sysco truck: Pork pot stickers ($6.90), coconut shrimp ($9.50) and fried calamari ($8.90) were all perfunctory, their sauces clearly not housemade, their presentation bare bones. Far from a 30-item sushi menu, a quartet of rolls includes yawn-worthy California ($6.50) and spicy tuna ($11.90) inexpertly rolled. On my last visit I asked the waiter about the M.I.A. patio menu and he answered vaguely, "I think they're adding pizza and sliders."
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Having favorably reviewed Uzzillia's projects in the past, I can only assume he's cringing at some of what is being sent out of the kitchen. To be fair, serving mahimahi tacos ($10.50) made with cheap fish or wedge salads ($6.50) with bagged bacon bits and even red onion that tasted prechopped may be the expedient, cost-conscious route for a high-volume restaurant. But "upscale" it is not.
The 12-time world champion and wrestling icon was not in evidence on any of my visits. Thus Hogan's Beach becomes more about the idea of Hulk Hogan than about the man himself. Yes, what he said to me in December is true: "In 36 years I've become so tangible to the public … We have a chance to be an international draw." But the 20,000-square-foot restaurant is at risk of becoming the kind of touristy "turn-and-burn" factory where customer satisfaction is irrelevant because of the availability of fresh faces. A serviceable meatloaf ($12.90) and a lush whiskey bread pudding ($5.50) don't go far enough to compensate for the dozen or so other dishes I ate that were unremarkable or downright poor.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.