Lazy Js

click to enlarge NO-FRILLS NOSH: Casual fun and good, simple food can be had - at P.J.'s - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
NO-FRILLS NOSH: Casual fun and good, simple food can be had at P.J.'s

One of the most appealing aspects of a stay at the beach is its timeless spell, which lulls visitors away from their ordinary, metronomic schedules and inspires beach bum behavior like ignoring the clock, sleeping until noon and spending hours doing nothing. How about a swim at 6 a.m.? No problem! Beers at noon? All right! Afternoon naps, anyone? Sure! Poker into the wee hours? Yeah!

And I guess another pleasure is the casual, leisurely way people eat there as well: They are willing to sit awhile, maybe order a couple of rounds, try the appetizers, linger over the main dish and dally over dessert and coffee.

Maybe that's why the parking lot at P.J.'s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant is always full. A perpetual line of waiting patrons snakes out its front door. Everything about this restaurant shouts: "Beach vacation!" The food is nothing fancy, rather elementary, but simple and fresh, and the atmosphere is carefree: You feel as if you're playing hooky from work, or are on a weekend jaunt, even if you just drove over for dinner on a Tuesday night.

We loved the good-natured camaraderie among those waiting in line, and the lighthearted, friendly welcome at the door. We read some of the thousands of $1 bills tacked to the walls and inscribed: "Jan and Bill, 1997," or "The Cusick Family from Toledo, Ohio."

The tables are wood, covered with paper place mats. Rolls of paper towels are jerry-rigged above them, so as to be handy if you're eating something messy, like stone crab claws. The servers push the tables together to accommodate big families or small groups. At the bar, singles dine comfortably and huddle together, nursing drinks.

Service is uniformly fast and terrific, though the restaurant does not take reservations, so at meal times, you'll probably have to wait for a table.

We started with tossed salad ($1.95) and coconut shrimp ($5.95) served with a marmalade sauce. The salad was too stripped-down, a nest of iceberg lettuce with a few vegetables thrown in for color. The shrimp was fresh, but uninspired, and its sauce heavy and too sweet. I scored the best appetizer: a thick, mild seafood gumbo ($3.25), big chunks of scallops and shrimp floating in a rich, zesty broth. It was so good I wished I had ordered a bowl instead of a cup.

For an entree I thought I'd try one of the more complex dishes: the baked grouper in mayonnaise garlic cream sauce ($12.95). The fish itself was cooked perfectly and was super fresh, but the sauce was pretty nondescript and uninspired. I guess my advice to would-be diners is: Stick to grilled, broiled or blackened dishes, stone crab claws or fresh oysters on the half shell — and spritz them liberally with fresh lemon juice. We're not talking serious gourmet fare here.

This was reinforced when the desserts arrived: Snicker pie ($3.50), layers of gooey chocolate, bits of Snickers' candy bars, bittersweet chocolate, chocolate liqueur and whipped cream, sprinkled with peanuts. It was cold and very sweet, but certainly far from spectacular. Ditto the banana split pie ($3.50), fresh banana layered with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream on a crumb crust. It was good but too predictable to blow me away.

Still, I can recommend P.J.'s because it does the basics well — and it's a fun, neighborly and companionable spot.

A couple of years ago, T.J.'s was my favorite restaurant on the beach. (Do not get it mixed up with P.J.'s; they're along the same stretch of beach, but completely separate). Its pizza was fabulous, its lasagna to die for, but I am dismayed to report that, after a recent meal there, the place has descended a few notches to join the great tide of mediocrity.

It's a small restaurant with a big deck out front, facing the Gulf of Mexico. You sit at plastic tables shaded by big umbrellas. At one time, you could see the beach from your table, but new construction across the street obscures the water now. Still, you know it's nearby because you can smell it, and you can see the wind fret the palms, disturbing a colony of parrots nesting there.

Sick of turkey and famished for garlic, we started with garlic bread ($1.95), which came out crisp and buttery, but too bland. Garlic! We want garlic! Onto the salad — like P.J.'s, fresh and crisp but short on interesting ingredients. Awfully bland.

We awaited the pizza ($11.95, small with extra toppings) touted on the menu as among the "gourmet specialty pizzas." We were hoping it would live up to its former high standard, and when it came out, it looked pretty good, sporting a handmade crust with grill marks on the bottom. But the essence of gourmet pizza is excess, and T.J.'s version needed more generous helpings of peppers, onion and olive, and could have used more sauce as well. We even ordered extra cheese, but you couldn't tell from the taste that the pie had been fortified.

When the pasta dishes arrived, the lasagna ($10.95) was heavy with meat, but alas, its sauce was too thin and its flavor pale. My dinner companion ordered spaghetti and meat sauce ($8.95). As she ate, she uncovered an unappetizing, watery pond at the bottom of the bowl — dismaying, because it meant the chef had failed to properly drain the pasta. An amateurish mistake.

I ordered one of the day's specials: grouper in white wine sauce ($13.95). We were cheered when it arrived because the plate was gorgeous, the fish arranged carefully and dewy with sauce, accompanied by a nest of pasta Alfredo, and grilled zucchini and squash; a tiny tomato had been carefully carved to resemble a rose, resting like a jewel before me. But alas, the dish's beauty was all in its looks: The sauce over the fish was too anemic to be satisfying, and the pasta too dry. I left the tomato rose on the plate because it was too pretty to eat.

T.J.'s does not serve dessert. The server pointed to an ice cream parlor next door, T.J.'s Mom's Ice Cream, a cute little building with blue and white tile floors and tidy counters holding dozens of flavors of ice cream. We ordered a slice of brownie ($1.50), which was acceptable but not anything special, and a homemade cannoli ($1.50). The cannoli took "best dish of the day" honors. It was clearly handmade, crunchy, fat with a light, fluffy filling, dripped with chocolate sprinkles, and bursting with vitality. Now, that's Italian!

Contact Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.

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