“Table by the fish tank?”
Why not? Fish is what we’re here for. And besides, fish tanks can mesmerize our two young boys while my wife and I try to have an actual adult conversation.
As you’d guess from the name, seafood is the star at Robbi’s Reef, a mammoth 185-seat, 6,950-square-foot restaurant that towers over the fake pond next to Venice’s Patriots Park. Randy and Tessa Whitledge bought the restaurant from original owners Marcus and Robbi Sierra in 2014, back when it housed just 69 seats in a different location. The Whitledges moved the restaurant to its current quarters last year, adding landlubber fare like smoked brisket and pulled pork.
The new location has a slick vibe, with a trio of flatscreen TVs that are generating cheers from the Packers fans and jeers from the Cowboys fans in the house tonight. That big fish tank we were promised sits right in the middle of the complex’s first dining room; the water pulsates with aquamarine light and many-hued fish dart back and forth. On the walls, kayaks jostle for space with paddles and life jackets and framed pics of fishermen showing off enormous catches. From racks near the front, the restaurant sells branded T-shirts, hats and hoodies, while in the market section, glistening filets of red snapper, salmon and hogfish sit on ice alongside stone crab claws, scallops and yet-to-be-shucked oysters. Those oysters hail from Texas waters, our waitress tells us, and a dozen ($15) disappear in a flash. They’re not as robust and plump as Apalachicola varieties, but they’re still plenty briny and amenable to horseradish.
Combining seafood and barbecue sounds a bit off, akin to basketball star Michael Jordan convincing himself he could play pro baseball, but our server promises the meat coming out of the big smoker out back is topnotch. The ideal way to give it a try is with the “country combo” ($15), which lets you pick two types of meat and a pair of sides. The strips of brisket are tender and flavorful, lacking the crispy black outer edges of the best stuff and light on smoke, but still good. A heap of pulled chicken features juicy meat and more firewood char.
Robbi’s subtle touch extends to the shrimp. Although the blackening seasoning on the shrimp dinner ($16) falls short of spicy, the texture of the shrimp is superb: meaty but never chewy. In a shock-twist ending, the meal’s biggest disappointment comes from the fresh fish. A plate of Gulf-caught hogfish ($34.99) is enormous, but the fish, ordered grilled, comes to the table with no grill marks, a sign that suggests either a cold grill or that it was never grilled at all. A waste for these juicy, fresh filets.
All too soon, the fish tank loses its power to mesmerize the kids and they begin to fidget. Robbi’s is casual enough that we haven’t yet earned a disapproving stare. The restaurant is boisterous without ever growing loud. The soundtrack is heavy on ’80s yacht rock, and up at the bar, a handful of women root for their team, fending off glares from the guy in the opposite team’s jersey down the way. The service swings between thoughtful (crayons are always appreciated) and forgetful (no thank-you at the end of the meal), but the food comes out in a jiffy and the sweet tea keeps flowing. Did my spouse and I get to have an adult conversation? Not really, but we came close. Sometimes, that’s the best we can hope for.
900 Venetia Bay Blvd., Venice
Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday,
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Happy hour 2-6 p.m. daily