Don't get me wrong — I love Christmas. Thanksgiving is another favorite, and my birthday is usually a pretty sweet time. But there is nothing I look forward to more, every single year, than opening day of the National Football League.
It's a Thursday night, about an hour before the Colts and Saints kick off the season, and I'm not really feeling the vibe at downtown St. Pete's Midtown Sundries, the only sports bar in St. Pete's downtown core. Sure, there are televisions in every sightline and many of them feature ESPN or NFL Network coverage, but it's not like the place is anywhere near full. We even have to tell the waiter to turn the big TV at the front of the dining room to something other than
Law and Order SVU after the U.S. Open coverage ends.
But one look at Midtown's menu assuages some of my concern. I can't remember when I've seen such a comprehensive list of the past three decades' worth of casual bar food. The appetizers read like an historical chronicle of the rise of TGIFriday's. It's the right menu for football.
But there's a problem with food that's as common as a John Madden nonsequitur. Because it's trucking in extremely familiar fare, Midtown's food either has to be dead-on accurate or updated in a way that improves on the original without losing the charm. Sadly, Midtown Sundries' appetizers seem to lose out in both ways.
Admittedly, potato skins ($6.95) are tricky. With so many ingredients, it's ... oh, wait. Not counting the potato, which is merely a vehicle for the toppings, there are only three things necessary to complete this dish: cheese, bacon and scallions. Midtown Sundries forgoes the scallions, which leaves nothing to mediate the unrelenting heft of pork and dairy.
Wings ($6.25) have the opposite problem. Here, the little chicken parts are fried and sauced, which sounds nice and familiar, but then they're dropped onto the grill for a few seconds. The resulting dark stripes down one side of each wing and tiny drumstick are pretty, but they represent seriously charred sugar from the spicy sauce. Pretty, but burned.
Nachos ($7.75) are better, the chips still crisp and the cheese melted, with moist hunks of well-seasoned chicken and most of an iceberg-and-tomato salad piled on top. Those greens, and the cool crunch they provide, provide a great contrast to the cheese and tortilla. Battered grouper nuggets ($7.25) are like mini fish-and-chips, minus the chips, with an odd blast of oregano in the batter that's intriguing, if a bit distracting. Simple touches to accent simple food. Sometimes it works.
And simple is what people at Midtown Sundries are looking for. In the almost nine years it's been open, the place has always kept a more neighborly vibe than much of downtown St. Pete's always burgeoning fine-dining scene. It's a safe and unassuming spot for both the dress-shirt crowd and the blue-collar holdouts still living nearby.
This esthetic also informs the entrée portion of the menu. Sundries is behind the times in bar salad prep, with offerings that basically consist of unembellished greens topped by your choice of protein. Burgers ($6.50) are well seasoned, with the usual toppings, as are the standard slew of chicken sandwiches.
You'll need muscular choppers to cut through the tough beef in Midtown's steak sandwich ($8.95), but the pork chops ($9.95) are tender and juicy. So is barbecued chicken ($14.95), striped by marks from the same hot grill that burned the wings.
Ribs ($14.95) are a little dry and profoundly porky, and if you're more used to the things they do to this blessed meat in the Northeast and Midwest, you'll appreciate the straightforward chewy style. Anyone used to real barbecue will take a bite and yearn for a smoker.
By the time we finish, the pre-game is just getting underway, and the place still hasn't filled up. Maybe it's because it's a Thursday game, but I think the staff was expecting something more. According to our server, people have been calling all day to ask when the game starts. Perhaps tellingly, they've also been asking what channel it's on.
According to manager Chuck Kott (son of owner Charles Kott), Sunday is a different story. "We see almost two-and-a-half times an increase in business this time of year," he says. Devil Rays? "Any time they play the Yankees or Red Sox we get business, but football is a godsend."
Kott explains that the core of Midtown Sundries' clientele is still the downtown lunch crowd, but that the 24/7 residential business is improving. When the ultra-chic mixed-use building across the street is finished, not to mention the half-dozen water-view high-rises sprouting nearer the bay, Midtown Sundries will undoubtedly draw clientele from those million-dollar units, as well as their business trade. Everyone likes nachos.