The mural of his head is about 35 feet by 55 feet if you include the American flag behind him, Aretha Franklin's cleavage and the Radio Flyer logo. In the trophy cabinet on the main floor are stacks of collector's mugs in the shape of his visage, ready for purchase. His name is on the sign out front, at the top of the menu. And in the past few weeks, he has been on every local news and talk show cooking barbecue, eating barbecue, talking barbecue. Dr. BBQ, a.k.a. Ray Lampe, is the name and face of St. Petersburg's new hot spot.
But let's pause for a moment. This Barbecue Hall of Famer has been the victor in hundreds of barbecue competitions around the country; he has been a judge or competitor on virtually every television show involving fire, knives and smoke. And he lives in St. Petersburg.
This last fact did not escape the notice of Suzanne and Roger Perry, the owners of Datz, Dough and Roux, with a second Datz coming to St. Pete adjacent to their cafe at the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art. They met Lampe, liked him, felt there might be an unfilled niche. They started scheming.
The Perrys are that rare thing these days, autodidacts who just keep plowing forward, learning new things, tinkering until they get things right. Back in 2009 when they opened Datz, I wouldn't have bet they would emerge as two of the most dynamic and notable restaurateurs in the Tampa Bay area. Roger sold 31 pet superstores to PetSmart in 1994 and retired, only to have a second career raising Derby-worthy thoroughbreds in Ocala; Suzanne was a philanthropist and socialite in Ocala. These were not restaurant people. And yet. They launched Datz with the aim of re-creating a great American deli, a la Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., or Katz's and Carnegie in New York.
It was bagels and pastrami and 150 kinds of cheese in the case. Not everything worked. They reconfigured the space, ditched the cheese. Over the years they traveled with a vengeance to see how other folks did things. They started going to restaurant shows. They read voraciously. They bought more restaurants, figured out what the market wanted.
And now, in partnership with Lampe and with the assistance of many dozen servers, bartenders, kitchen workers and a Texas pitmaster named Lee Jasper, they've debuted something we've never seen before. It's upscale barbecue, nondenominational barbecue. Lampe told the staff before they opened, "You're going to get people who complain that's it not 'real' barbecue, that it's too fancy to be barbecue."
It is fancy. It's not a cinderblock shack like Franklin's in Austin, Texas, or a low-rise sprawler adjacent to gas pumps like Joe's in Kansas City, Mo. Dr. BBQ has 20-something vegan items on the menu. It offers a $14 brambly glass of Earthquake cabernet, which scored 90 points with several of the big wine magazines. Dr. BBQ does not have a strict paradigm or barbecue style. But hold up: Florida doesn't have a strict paradigm or barbecue style. Any barbecue we do is ipso facto "authentic."
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I agree with Lampe, there will be detractors who grouse that it's nouveau 'cue. Fine. But is it good? It is. There is bouncy-salty pastrami, cured and smoked in house ($16, served with two sides), lusciously smoky-fatty brisket ($16), and if you really want to focus on the good stuff, there are nuggets of meat candy called burnt ends ($18), taken from the point end of the brisket, upon which some kind of black magic has been performed. Things veer into new directions with gochujang sticky pork ribs, sweet and spicy and speckled with sesame seeds and loops of green onion ($13), and slow-cooked lamb belly slices on cute bao buns contrasted with a puckery tangle of pickled veggies ($12).
But the allures aren't all meaty. The spit-roasted half pineapple ($10) with its brown sugar-cinnamon-rum glaze, and the ears of grilled corn basted in a Korean-ish sauce ($6) have been plastered all over social media because they are visually arresting, but there are envelope-pushing dishes like simple garlicky crisp-tender caulilini ($6), a hybrid of cauliflower and broccolini; and some downright goofy, but tasty dishes, like a mock mac-and-cheese called "flamin' mac-a-phoni" ($6), which subs hominy for noodles and jacks things up with habanero cheddar and a topping of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, or a side of applesauce jump-started with Fireball candies and habanero ($4).
It's a loud, boisterous place with lots of different kinds of seating, including absurdly deep booths into which it feels just right to pile with friends and make unwise decisions like a round of Picklebacks ($13, a shot of Horse Soldier bourbon with a bread-and-butter pickle juice chaser, surprisingly delicious). Because the restaurant has so many moving parts, and because we're in the midst of a competent-server crisis (expert waiters right now can pick between dozens of new and exciting restaurants on both sides of the bay), service is thus far the wobbliest element of Dr. BBQ.
The good Doctor can be seen meeting and greeting in the dining room many days, but my money is on the Perrys to methodically tinker and refine until all the kinks are worked out. Who knows, maybe together they will invent something we can call Florida-style barbecue.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines unannounced and the Times pays all expenses.
1101 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 443-7227; drbbqs.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc.; no reservations; full bar; takeout
Prices: Appetizers $6-$19; sides $4; sandwiches $12-$16; entrees $13-$75
Rating, out of four stars:
Food: *** Service: **