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Saturday, Oct 20, 2018
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Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber restaurant in Clearwater Beach is popular for a reason

Bob Heilman's Beachcomber, a famed institution in Clearwater Beach, is one of those fabled restaurants that define a town.

It's a legendary landmark, a spot that has been open seemingly forever. It's always filled to capacity with local politicians and business leaders, making their deals over what was once known as the two-martini lunch.

It also was a place I'd never been.

Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley's review of the Beachcomber in October of this year is what piqued my interest. The restaurant has been open since 1948, so it was far from the first review of the place. But the overview truly piqued my interest in the establishment.

I had never reviewed Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber. But a place that opened in 1948 (its precursor, a Heilman’s restaurant in Lorain, Ohio, dated to 1910) and has outlived hundreds of restaurants in Clearwater and neighboring beach communities, seen trends come and go, witnessed generations of Tampa Bay date nights — surely it was doing a whole lot right to stay in the game? It is.

With family commitments delaying our Thanksgiving dinner from Thursday until Sunday this year, my wife and decided the Beachcomber sounded like just the ticket for Turkey Day. We made reservations for the evening of Thanksgiving, when the Beachcomber serves a limited prix fixe menu.

(Here's a news peg for you: They are doing the same for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, but keep in mind that the reservation time is approximate. The line stretched out the door on Thanksgiving, and it took about 20-30 minutes for us to be seated, which we had been warned to expect.)

Given the Beachcomber's pedigree, we decided to make a theme night of it, with I donning a vintage flecked blazer and skinny tie, and she in a mid-60s floral trapeze dress that would have suited Betty Francis.

Bartender Matthew Mescato, of Tarpon Springs, makes a Manhattan for a customer at Bob Heilman's Beachcomber. [Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times]
Bartender Matthew Mescato, of Tarpon Springs, makes a Manhattan for a customer at Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber. [Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times]
There’s no dress code demanding such measures, but we fit right in with the decor, filled with Brutalist trim and barrel chairs, the wall art so old that it was back in style again. We were surrounded by families nestled in tufted leather booths and drank Manhattans at the bar, backed by midcentury modern stained glass. It was fabulous.

Reiley's description of the food is spot-on, from the fried chicken down to the relish tray. Oh, the relish tray.

I’ll let Ruth Gray explain: “A footed relish tray is brought to your table after you sit down. This holds applesauce, cottage cheese, watermelon pickle (mine was corn relish) and beets; it is a fine way to begin a meal.” That relish tray is a Rorschach of sorts. Longtime Heilman’s fans embrace it, demand it, slather the relishes on the house-made muffins and banana bread and sliced white bread. Heilman newbies are suspicious, prod at it, make inquiries and, finally, ignore it summarily. “That darn relish tray,” Robert E. Heilman Jr. said by phone. “I can’t get rid of it.”

Even as newbies, we didn't ignore it, but did pore over the selections warily. Our server informed us there were no rules governing how it should be consumed, so we experimented and found it to be … unique. Clearly the relish tray was an oddity exclusive to the Beachcomber, an essential player in the dining experience.

The Beachcomber Relish Tray includes cottage cheese with fresh chives, apple butter, beet relish and corn relish. [Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times]
The Beachcomber Relish Tray includes cottage cheese with fresh chives, apple butter, beet relish and corn relish. [Douglas R. Clifford | Tampa Bay Times]
As for the food, it’s as solid and dependable as the establishment that serves it.

You’ve seen this food before. There are no foams or spherified sauces. There is no Asian fusion or Instagram-ready verticality to the food. It is akin to what we used to call Continental fare — upscale American that draws heavily from the classical French sauce canon, served courteously by waiters who know their stuff — but it does not feel tired or hackneyed.

That explains it perfectly. We chose the fried chicken and the lobster tails (a full-sized pair of them!), which came with a pound of mashed potatoes, plus haricots verts and other accompaniments.

The verdict: It was well-prepared food that was cooked properly, with generous portions, served by a wait staff that never once made us feel rushed. And not feeling rushed is especially important for a beach restaurant.

That's what made the Beachcomber a solid destination. It was a grounded experience, proficient, skilled and dependable. There were no pretensions about it. It was, in a word, good.

After a two-hour dinner, we went back to the bar for a digestif, and spoke to some of the wait staff, who were just starting to throttle down after one of the busiest days of the year (Christmas Day is the busiest, one server said). One had worked there for a quarter century, another for "just" 11 years. The rookie had been there for less than three years.

People come here from all over, they said. Some are tourists at the beach for the holidays, some are people they see every single week. In a beach town where businesses are constantly changing and redefining themselves, the occasion and authenticity of the Beachcomber experience draws them in.

I'm happy to say that it drew us in, too.

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