Confession time: Last week I got lei'd at Liquor Lloyd's Beach House. I don't quite know how it happened. I began the evening a staid restaurant reviewer, primed and ready to evaluate, annotate and calculate the Caribbean cuisine at the little nightclub doing double duty as a restaurant. By the end of the evening, I was garnished with plastic flower garlands and cheeky stickers, singing along to Toots and the Maytals' "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and sorely tempted to stick around for the evening's planned Jell-O wrestling. Yes, Jell-O wrestling. But only after 10. Other evenings bring "best thong" competitions, local DJs or team wet T-shirt contests for the late-night crowd. At mealtime, the Beach House is a basic neighborhood pub with a Caribbean twist, but when 10 o'clock rolls around, beefy guys in black "SECURITY" T-shirts roll out the velvet ropes and start charging a cover. (But the kitchen doesn't close until 2 a.m., so it's a great spot for late-night munchies.) The atmosphere is a little bit Spring Break at Myrtle Beach and a whole lot British Virgin Islands, but the restaurant is situated well above the high-water mark — in Brandon. The dichotomy might not work in, say, downtown St. Pete, but locals seem to love the way Liquor Lloyd's is "bringing the beach to Brandon."
For the past six months, the new owners have been upping the Caribbean feel of the former Brandon Brew House to reflect their love of (and, in some cases, residence in) the Virgin Islands. However, all the tiki-style grass huts in the world do not hide the restaurant's neighborhood-bar roots. In some ways, the marriage of styles reminded me of the muddled makeover in the bar room of Clancy's of New Orleans in Clearwater, where traditional Irish pub elements have been spattered with Mardi Gras beads and befeathered masks.
At the Brandon Beach House, the dart machines, pool tables and neon beer signs have been updated with everything from beach chairs and inflatable sharks to a decommissioned boat. Giant television screens every few feet simultaneously display sporting events, newscasts and The Simpsons reruns through a wreath of tiki-style grass coverings (you've never seen Dale Earnhart, Jr. until you've seen him framed by foliage). Still, beneath all the island accouterments, the glossy wood paneling and deep-green ceiling of the original décor never quite let you forget you are seated at an inland bar rather than a St. Thomas jerk joint. And it is these little cracks in the tropical facade that add to the Beach House's charm. We don't need Disney-style "Imagineering" at every turn. The cute, slightly cheesy furnishings feel more genuine than any pricey, plastic makeover.
Besides, the folks at the Beach House are having too much fun embracing the bar-cum-restaurant possibilities. All the menus at the restaurant are shaped like bamboo-handled fans (and come in handy after a bit of rump-shakin' leaves you overheated), and specialty libations share equal fan space with solid foods. I brought Sailor Boy along with me to verify authenticity. He's spent several summers drifting through the Virgin Islands, and knows when he's getting jerk, and when he's getting jerked around.
The tropical flavor permeated every aspect of the pub-food standards served at the Beach House, though there seemed to be a bit of confusion about where exactly the restaurant was getting its inspiration. Though half of the offerings seem to have a direct link to the Caribbean, the others had a Pacific Rim feel. For instance, most of the burgers possessed a Hawaiian sensibility (though the Big Kahuna three-quarter-pounder was Hawaii by way of Pulp Fiction). The appetizers split down the middle, with traditional tastes sitting comfortably alongside transoceanic island flavors. The pub-classic buffalo wings were called "hot lava wings" at the Beach House, and proved only a middling (and shockingly mild) example of the spicy greasefest we all know. We were much better off with the island versions. One kind was served in a Jamaican jerk sauce with raspberry coulis, but the real standout in finger-food appetizers were the Tahitian-style wings, breaded, fried and coated with a sweet teriyaki and served with cool, mild Wasabi-cucumber dip. (All wings were $6.75/dozen.)
Another Caribbean delight, the cannibal ribs ($13.95), were a delicious example of island cuisine, but I have a sneaking suspicion that folks in Brandon are more accustomed to smoky Southern barbecue flavors than to the sweet, blackened, baked-in-molasses taste found in the Beach House's rack of traditional, Caribbean-style baby backs. I also liked the jerk-style chicken, which is served as an entrée, in a wrap, or on top of a caesar salad (my choice for the evening; $7.95).
Of course, at any pub, the real proof of quality is in the drinks, and Liquor Lloyd's Beach House can hold its own against beach bars throughout the tropics. Naturally, they specialize in traditional island favorites like Painkillers ($5.84) and Bushwhackers ($6.31). After trying both at the Beach House, Sailor Boy proclaimed the Bushwhacker's frozen blend of Kahlua, Amaretto, Irish cream, hazelnut liqueur and rum to be the superior cocktail, but, between you and me, he's a bit of a Painkiller snob. He only likes his with Pusser's, the official rum of the British Royal Navy, and the Beach House made it with two-and-a-half ounces of Cruzan Black Strap rum instead. Other ingredients included Grand Marnier, orange juice, Coco Lopez and — though official Painkiller recipes call for a sprinkling of nutmeg on top — a dash of nutmeg stirred into the mix. But the attention to island favorites scored major points with Sailor Boy, as well as a bonus for not using pre-packaged mixes.
I ordered the Coco Loco ($6.54), and was rewarded with the best Piña Colada I have ever had the pleasure of consuming. By forgoing the usual, overly sweet bar mixes for fresh coconut milk, coconut-infused rum, cream of coconut and a surplus of lime juice, the Beach House's perfect concoction of sweet/tart creaminess was an instant tutorial about why the cocktail is popular in the first place. The Coco Loco was served in the very coconut shell from whence the bartender harvested the milk, and adorned with tiny umbrellas, sailboats and pinwheels. It's a party in a nutshell — and after drinking a few, you actually think that joke is funny.
Anyone ordering one of the specialty "South Seas Cocktails" is treated to the kind of celebration usually reserved for children on their birthdays. The toys that came with my drink were only the tip of the coral reef. We also received leis, stickers and beatific grins from the waitresses who served them to us. "My boss says you can keep the coconut, too," our server whispered.
Just what I always wanted. And easier to obtain than a Jell-O wrestling trophy.
Freelance writer Diana Peterfreund dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. She may be contacted at [email protected] weeklyplanet.com. Restaurants are chosen for review at the discretion of the writer, and are not related to advertising.