The new Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at downtown St. Petersburg's Albert Whitted Airport is an interesting choice for Steve Westphal's third bayfront eatery. His Parkshore Grill blazed a trail for new concepts on Beach Boulevard, and 400 Beach — which moved from steakhouse to fancy fish shack — seemed to pack them in during the months after opening.
The Hangar, however, steps back from the upscale vibe at his previous two spots and the easily accessible setting of the Beach entertainment district. Not that Whitted isn't a scenic spot, to be sure. The terminal at the small, private airport has the feel of an exclusive jetway, free from long lines, deadened airline employees and the hassle of baggage claim. Walk up the stairs to the restaurant and you're treated to panoramic views of criss-crossed runways, with the new Dalí Museum building rising off to the north.
Sit at the delicate tables and chairs arrayed around the stairwell or the high-top tables around the bar, however, and the airport vibe starts to seep in. Or rather, the feel of a hotel restaurant off to the side of the lobby and check-in desk.
The Hangar's list of dishes is innocuous enough to fit into a mundane hotel restaurant, with a few key exceptions that make all the difference. None of those are in the starter list, however, which is stacked with items like bland cheese "fondue" which is more like brothy queso than the rich, clinging dip you might hope for, or a shrimp and avocado stack that's nothing more than two pale, thinly sliced shellfish topping a cylinder of unripe, crunchy green hunks.
Mussels come with a choice of seasoned broth, with the Thai chili version powerful enough to overcome the cloying sweetness of the sauce, although the meat in the shells is undercooked.
Entrees are much better in execution, like a simple salmon filet that almost oozes rich fat onto your tongue, the flesh a glorious, medium rare pink. Other fish dishes are almost as good, and the Hangar's burgers are salty and cooked just right.
Best of the bunch, however, is an almost perfectly realized version of chicken and waffles. This is the kind of dish that could make a less fussy restaurant, the kind of food that alters your life after a single bite. The deep-fried chicken — a split breast — is coated in crunchy, golden brown batter and doused in rich milk gravy dotted with minuscule specks of sausage. All of that is plopped down onto a massive Belgian waffle that has the right amount of crunch and cream texture and a finely calculated drizzle of syrup that serves more to accent the savory meat than take over the flavor of the dish. It's one of the most fantastic things I've eaten this year.
The restaurant also serves a stripped-down menu focused on sandwiches during lunch, which sands down some of the rough edges of the kitchen's inconsistent output, and a simple array of breakfast food anchored by those capable waffles. There's also an inexpensive Sunday brunch buffet that's well worth the money compared to most of the weekend options in downtown St. Pete.
Is all of that enough to make this new restaurant a recommended destination? The Hangar's vibe isn't great, but the view is nice. The menu isn't terribly exciting and the kitchen sends out food that ranges from poorly executed to perfectly cooked. It's a mixed bag for a restaurant that won't benefit from the built-in traffic of a destination dining district like downtown St. Pete's bayfront.
But I'm pulling for The Hangar, if only because I need to keep that chicken-and-waffle supply line running.