400 Beach Seafood and Tap House
400 Beach Dr., St. Petersburg, 727-896-2400
An estimated 2,000 people reportedly showed up for the opening celebration at 400 Beach, suggesting that this new restaurant on Beach Drive in St. Pete was destined to become a hip, upscale mecca for movers and shakers, not for the hoi polloi. But the latest project of Parkshore Grill’s Steve Westphal — housed in a bayfront spot briefly infamous as the aborted home of a restaurant from lying Food Network chef Robert Irvine — isn’t that kind of place. A few weeks after the opening, on a typical weekday night, there are young kids bouncing in booths, strollers parked next to outdoor tables, and a wide gamut of St. Pete residents drinking beer and downing fish in a spot that is suprisingly more mid-range than chic.
The biggest surprise is the price: dinner entrees range from $12 to $30 with most firmly in the mid-teens. When it comes to the decor and the drinks, the surprises are a tad less happy.
Keeping with the refined seafood shack feeling that Westphal was going for, 400 Beach is rife with decorative fish. They swim through faux aquariums projected on flat-panel televisions and surface in dozens of artworks by local artisans, surrounded by the muted sea greens and shimmering glass tiles of a decorator’s undersea palette. The effect is nice enough, but when taken as a whole it has the vibe of a hotel restaurant: a bit generic, and a bit bland.
Thankfully, the floor-to-ceiling windows lining the front make for a fine distraction, with views across Beach Drive to the powder-puff-pink Vinoy and the sparkling waters of Tampa Bay. And there’s so much outdoor seating on the wide sidewalk, you need never step inside the place to begin with.
400 Beach’s food adds to either the blandness of the decor or the excitement of the view, depending on the dish. The menu — devised by Tyson Grant (from Westphal’s Parkshore) — covers a huge range of sea-going cookery. There’s a sizable raw bar, with oysters from a half-dozen different spawning grounds, simply steamed shellfish and seafood cocktails. There’s a small selection of sushi and rolls, some seafood baskets featuring fish shack favorites, and a big array of fish preparations.
Crab cakes here are beautiful cylinders covered in crackling breading, concealing big crab hunks bound together with a hint of goat cheese and herb. That bounty of crab gets lost in the mouth amidst fried crust and seasonings, but the cakes are tasty and the texture is perfect. That skill with frying extends to the calamari — which features big sections of flat octopus along with the rings and tentacles — and 400 Beach’s own version of Bonefish Grill’s bang bang shrimp, the wee curled shellfish coated in a subtly spicy mayo.
Pulled pork sliders are fairly standard and pleasantly messy, topped by crunchy slaw and built on doughy rolls that are soggy with sauce and juice before they even hit the table. One of 400 Beach’s special sushi rolls — topped by artistic slices of avocado and stuffed with yellowfin — is assembled well enough, but the cooked “dynamite” fish piled in the center of the plate as an accompaniment is a featureless gray mass barely seasoned by tepid sri racha aioli and a smattering of tempura flakes.
Entrees tend to veer away from some of the more exciting ideas inherent in the rest of the menu. Short ribs seem too fancy by far, with three distinct planks of beef angled against three piles of mashed potatoes, all covered in a thick red gravy. The rib meat is tender enough but incredibly dry, with no relief coming from the liquid salt lick masquerading as sauce. A haddock special cooked “en papillote” (steamed in a bag) with bok choy is a fine piece of fish, but pallid in both appearance and flavor, easily overshadowed by the risotto on the side. Tacos hold well-seasoned hunks of fish piled in decent corn tortillas with lettuce, mango salsa and aioli, non-traditional but with plenty of punch. Great thick-cut fries, too.
The food may have highs as well as lows, but the beer list is decidedly sub-par. When I talked with Steve Westphal about his new place, he wanted to emphasize the 30-plus taps and the big selection of wines by the glass. Fine, but when there are only a couple of items on the draught list that aren’t typical big-box macro-brews, more isn’t necessarily better. Stick with the wine list, which offers a better — if not extensive — selection of interesting sips.
But even with the problems — many of which are minor and many of which will likely be worked out in the restaurant’s first six months — 400 Beach is exactly what it promises: a mid-range fish house with a great view, that just happens to be in one of St. Pete’s chicest dining areas.
(Photos by jamesostrand.com.)