CLEARWATER — Normally my companions for restaurant reviews are expected to use utensils and napkins and engage in at least moderately entertaining conversation.
Not this time.
My dog, Ollie, and I were going to review the new "pup menu" at Clearwater's Besa Grill. Seven dishes later (he declined the nonalcoholic Bowzer Beer), he gave it two paws way up, although he made the classic rookie-critic mistake of aiming for the Clean Plate Club.
Four-legged friends in restaurants are an increasingly common sight, the Tampa Bay area awash in yappy hours and pet-friendly patios. But last week, the Mexican-fusion bar and grill stirred things up by launching a "pup menu" of Chicken Mutt-Loaf, K-9 Meatballs and even doggie desserts and cupcakes made by nearby Woof Gang Bakery.
According to Anna Cooke, editor of the New Barker magazine in Dunedin, this isn't the first restaurant offering for dogs. Café L'Europe in Sarasota, Gaspar's Grotto in Ybor City and Cassis and Parkshore Grill in St. Petersburg have added special temptations for dogs, and the TradeWinds Resort in St. Pete Beach even offers a room-service menu for pampered pets.
Still, Besa Grill's new menu represents the area's most ambitious dog menu, the "pet" project of general manager Sam Haupt. Besa's patio, always pet friendly, had seen an uptick in pet owners who ordered off the regular menu — filet mignon and so forth, dishes designed for humans.
This can be a problem, said Dr. Eddie Garcia, clinic director of Veterinary Medical Clinic in Tampa. Ingredients like onions, raisins, grapes and chocolate are toxic to dogs, but high levels of salt, fat and sugar are also tough on dogs' systems, especially those with a history of pancreatitis or other digestive issues. As with humans, dogs love that stuff but it doesn't always agree with them.
But Haupt took to the Internet and began testing recipes, running each finished dish by a number of Tampa Bay veterinarians. Humans have about 9,000 taste buds, dogs only 1,700, so while it's tempting to make food that would appeal to owners, man's best friend doesn't need the latest gastronomical bells and whistles. I wanted Ollie to be the judge of that.
Digging the dish
Ollie started out too strong. He was mental for the Backyard Hash ($4) with diced steamed fresh vegetables, mashed sweet potatoes and a savory drizzle. Ditto the next one, the K-9 Meatballs (ground beef, diced carrot and rice with a natural pan gravy; $5), the 10-year-old schnoodle inelegantly dragging a sphere from the plate.
From there, he segued to Besa's only canine brunch dish, a Bark Bowl of scrambled eggs, brown rice and mashed sweet potato ($4). High marks for the eggs, the rice was ignored and here the sweet potatoes caused a slight backup and head cock.
Two squares of Chicken Mutt-Loaf, while texturally interesting, lost his attention in favor of their sauce drizzle (veal demiglace? he didn't know.) And then came the piece de resistance, the Fido's Finest ($6.50), a dish of diced filet mignon tips with gravy, a timbale of brown rice and a side of sauteed shredded carrot. He finished with an iced carrot-peanut butter muffin, which seemed a little dry.
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Dog dining etiquette
Garcia and Cooke are quick to say that not all dogs are ready for restaurant time, and there is indeed etiquette for taking the pooch public.
Don't feed them from the table, and don't have them sit up on chairs out of respect for your table's next guests. (Haupt says patio chairs at Besa get a good washing after canine guests.) Also, make sure you bring a leash and bags so dogs can be walked after the meal.
But what's going on? Why all these restaurants going to the dogs?
Haupt says it's a reflection of dogs shifting from pets to "members of the family."
Cooke agrees, noting that there's an increasing percentage of the population that won't go anywhere without their dogs, and businesses have paid attention. Plus, she says, it's just a lot of fun to dine out with your canine companions, and unlike children, they don't talk back.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.