Chef Domenica “Donnie” Macchia may have found a perfect fit at Beak’s Old Florida in St. Pete’s Grand Central district, where she’s been stirring up some seriously stylish comfort food since leaving Three Birds Tavern in October.
Something about the former Beak’s Old Florida didn’t quite work for me. It felt old, all right, but kind of stale, its atmosphere reminiscent of a nursing-home tiki party. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good. Now that Macchia is on board, though, with Dan Soronen’s guiding hand and a new owner in Jason McNeil, the place is finally realizing its potential.
“I wanted birds and boobs,” Macchia says, smiling and pointing to the walls. “What do you think?”
The once cluttered (and dusty) walls have been given a good scrubdown and a fresh coat of paint. And yes, they’re graced with birds and boobs — paintings of flamingos, herons and egrets alongside portraits of topless bathing beauties. Reigning over the cache of Florida tchotchkes are Captain Jack Sparrow and his queen, a redheaded mannequin who sports a year-round tinsel scarf. It’s a delightfully strange vibe, tiki couture meets trailer trash scrub country, and Beak’s pulls it off incredibly well.
Macchia’s eccentric yet lovable personality certainly fits here better than anywhere else the chef has landed. Her upscale downhome sensibility matches up nicely with Beak’s 1950s-Shriners-meets-Florida-kitsch décor. The strongest form of advertisement is word of mouth, and people are talking about Beak’s.
When Mr. Doom and I arrive for an early dinner, the indoor lounge is relatively empty. A few cigar smokers are relaxing in the fall air in the adjacent outdoor patio, but the restaurant doesn’t smell at all like smoke. There is a full liquor bar, wine, draft and bottled beer, but no specialty drink menu; I wouldn’t mind if they were to start serving some fancy Tiki lounge drinks (ahem, Mai Tai anyone?) as the vibe certainly fits.
We start with the truffle oil and cheese popcorn, served in a brown paper lunch bag that plumes mushroomy truffle and Parmesan goodness. As we dunk our hands into the bag of crispy popcorn, we debate whether to order upside-down chicken potpie or Mojito Hanger steak.
But the chef comes out and decides we’ll be doing some dining off the menu tonight.
Macchia told me in October that she’s inspired by the foods she grew up with. At Beak’s she is still playing in the kitchen, testing recipes, making decisions on the final menu. We are her willing guinea pigs for the evening.
She hand-delivers a thick juicy burger patty topped with not one but two lobster tails cooked to succulent perfection on a homemade ciabatta roll.
Mr. Doom takes a bite, bringing a whole lobster tail along for the ride. His eyes roll back in his head and he releases a gentle moan before slouching back into the booth. Macchia lifts both arms up like a football player landing a touchdown. The lobster burger is juicy without being soggy, savory without being too salty, decadent but simple.
Next up, beer and bacon mussels in a nice broth with toasted bread. Then falafel disks with fresh aioli pesto cream something-or-other. Everything is divine.
But I die for the funnel cake sticks with frozen crème fraîche and raspberry coulis.
Macchia tells us the pseudo-ice cream topping was a happy accident, one I am very grateful for as I plunge my crispy fried sticks into the cold and creamy depths.
The chef wields a deep fryer in the same way a painter holds a brush; foods exit her fryer perfectly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The funnel cake sticks are no exception. They remain crispy the whole time, even after 10-plus minutes spent soaking in cream and raspberries.
Beak’s still has a ways to go before reaching solid ground. Yet actions often speak louder than my words, and all signs point onward and upward for the St. Petersburg staple.Beak’s Old Florida, 2451 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, 727-321-9100.