Two if by sea: Max and Sam’s seafood shines

That means shrimp cocktail made with massive crustaceans and a zingy cocktail sauce, simply seared tuna served with sushi fixings, and mussels steamed in a variety of liquids. Best of the starters, however, are the steak tips, which are coated in a crust of cheese and topped with chunky chimichurri that’s a little too shy with the garlic.

Sadly, the focus of the menu has that killer combination of high price and competent but unexciting quality. Max and Sam’s steaks are, well, fine. Cooked to the right temperature, seasoned well enough, with a moderate crust. But at $36 for a ribeye and $30 for a NY strip, the meat itself needs to be more impressive than the mediocre flesh on the plate here.

That makes the seafood shine, especially nicely seared, giant sea scallops that are best when separated from the odd spiced lime sauce that accompanies them, or basic grilled fish, seared crusty but still steamy moist in the center.

Thing is, Max and Sam’s food has more competition than its bar. Although Tampa is the steakhouse capital of the region, St. Pete has plenty of beefy bistros that serve up steaks that are just as good, or better, at similar or lower prices.

But that’s why Max and Sam’s is a bar and grille. You’ll come for the beautiful bar, convivial piano room, and the kind of nightly show that’s become a rare, old-fashioned treat in the stodgy and straightforward bar scene of Pinellas. Rare, and well-done.

The meat of the matter, however, seems like simply a convenience for people who want their food and drink and entertainment all in one tidy package.

Max and Sam’s Bar and  Grille

2 1/2 stars

1700 Park St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-360-6525

“Bar and grille” can mean oh so many things, depending on the business behind the moniker. For some, the food is the focus, with the lounge or bar area little more than an added incentive for people who want something more than a dining room as a dinner setting, or for some pre-prandial cocktails. For others, like Max and Sam’s, the bar is the thing that draws people in.

Max and Sam’s developed a following out on St. Pete Beach over the past three years, in a cozy little place complete with piano bar and neighborhood vibe. The restaurant’s new location in Jungle Prada, however, is bigger, prettier and loaded with décor that maximizes the speakeasy image the restaurant tries to cultivate. It helps that the building was constructed in the 1920s — something the owners took advantage of with dark leather couches, art deco poster panels and plenty of rich wood that’s balanced by lighter elements that put a Florida spin on the clubby aura. And, of course, there’s the piano bar.

On weekends, a piano man tickles the ivories for a host of subdued revelers who drink and request ballads and take to the small dance floor, spinning away to the standards. It’s the kind of atmosphere that is tailor-made for creating regulars, where both the other customers and the bartenders learn your favorite drink and musical preferences within hours of taking a seat. Norm!

There’s food, sure, a full menu based on steakhouse classics that fits the elegant throwback vibe of the place. And though the bar is the focus at Max and Sam’s, the food can hold its own well enough to fortify visitors before a night of low-key dancing in back.

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