Burger of the Bay
They say when you’re in Rome, well you know the rest. In Tampa Bay, the grouper sandwich is a must. This delicious white fish will cost you a fin and a tail outside of the Gulf, but here it’s a local luxury.
Philly has its cheese steak, Kansas City has barbeque and we’ve got the hamburger of Tampa Bay: the grouper sandwich. This area original is a local favorite and will cost you a tail and a fin outside of the Gulf, but here it’s a luxury.
It’s a brisk Wednesday morning in November and Frenchy’s on Clearwater Beach is slowly unraveling. Space heaters, melting away the 40-something-degree chill, hum over the sound of broom bristles scrapping remnants of last night’s dinner off the floor.
I’m about a half hour early for my interview with Frenchy himself and Lorie offers me a drink.
“No thanks,” I reply.
“How about a water, tea or pop?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
She’s worked at the original café on Baymont Street nearly 20 years. Amid the worn wooden walls, ferns, Tiffany-style lighting, giant grouper and other kitschy Florida decorations, she’s upheld the courteous and friendly Frenchy’s spirit.
My eyes catch the original menu from 1981. Boiled shrimp, clams and oysters. Easy enough.
Oddly, though, the framed menu on the wall doesn’t have the “hamburger of Tampa Bay:” a grouper sandwich. The thought of Frenchy’s without its famous fish sandwich seems unbelievable.
Nowadays, nearly every restaurant in Tampa Bay serves the white and hearty fish; whether fried, grilled, blackened or whatever. Still, some say the grouper sandwich never truly arrived in these parts until Frenchy’s put it on their menu and many diehards go as far to say that Frenchy himself invented it.
As I continue browsing around the restaurant, I notice a sun-stained newspaper review hanging above the menu with the headline “Gumbo Great and Grouper Super.” I briefly read the article that declares Frenchy’s – not Frenchie’s as it incorrectly appears in the phone book – is “not much to look at” but serves great Florida staples. The article is dated before I was born.
I glance at the clock. It’s about five minutes to 10 a.m. and a casually dressed man in a sand-colored straw fedora, gray sweater and jeans walks through the door. “Am I meeting you?” he inquires.
“Are you Mr. Preston?”
“Frenchy,” he answers with a smile and a handshake.
In order to tell the story behind Tampa Bay’s famed grouper sandwich, you must first detour to Quebec City where Frenchy’s story begins. Mike “Frenchy” Preston (he says he’ll answer to both) was born in the capital of the Canadian province, speaking both English and the native French language growing up. When he was 12, his family moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. That’s where Preston would get the playful moniker he is now famous for.
“I would speak French with my mom so the kids just naturally called me Frenchy and the nickname just stuck,” he says.
When Frenchy was 21, he moved to Clearwater Beach with close friends Scotty and Pete. The three knew of a run-down, vacant Italian restaurant for sale on Baymont Street. Having spent the past several years of his life working as just about everything in the restaurant business, Frenchy thought they were ready to flip the pit into a classic Florida hangout.
“Everybody said I was crazy because it was on a side street,” he says. “We tried to change it where the allure was, you know, this cool little place on the side street. There’s that psyche of a little place around the corner that’s really good. And that’s what we became.”
The idea was simple: make a funky place that caters to the locals as well as tourists by serving fresh shrimp, clams, oysters and cold beers with a well-stocked jukebox. So in 1981, the three took whatever money they could scrape together and spent a few months remodeling the building. Almost 28 years later, the place has hardly changed.
Noticeably absent from the original menu is the mouth-watering, “world’s famous” grouper sandwich. If anything has put Frenchy’s on the map over the years, it’s the Clearwater Beach location and grouper sandwich.
The idea seems relatively straightforward. You take a piece of grouper fresh off the boat, fry, grill or blacken it, slap on a slice of American cheese and top it off with tomato, lettuce and homemade tarter sauce. Then, you cram it all on a toasty onion bun. The finished product is self-indulgence with a side of homemade chips or coleslaw and a pickle.
Frenchy admits there were grouper sandwiches before his, such as the Hurricane in St. Petersburg. He even remembers a place right down the road to the Baymont location that sold “a bland piece of fish on a white bun that was just… blah.”
Since the inception of his savory sandwich there have been many imitators, but few match the kick-in-the-taste-bud-feeling of biting into a Frenchy’s grouper sandwich. And to think, it all started because several customers wanted some kind of fish sandwich.
“At the time we were getting requests for it so I bought this counter top fryer, which was literally this big,” he says motioning with only three feet of arm length, “and we started making them out of that. My thing was I always used good ingredients. Homemade tarter sauce, grilled onion bun; we’ve always been a cut above and we never charged extra. It’s been our No. 1 notoriety since.”
Frenchy says the 10,000 pounds of stone crab they put out during the restaurant’s annual weekend festival is a huge draw for seafood lovers, in addition to the fan favorites fish spread and She Crab soup. Frenchy’s has even updated the grouper sandwich by adding a buffalo and a Rueben version. But what’s the best way to enjoy the sandwich, according to its creator?
“If I’m taking somebody for the first time: the original at the original,” he said.
What separates Frenchy’s from the competition isn’t just the secret breading and homemade tarter sauce, it’s the always fresh and never disputed grouper that comes from boats owned by the company.
You see, when the gang first started the restaurant, they also opened a fish house right down the road. Today, they have between eight and 10 boats in the Gulf of Mexico bringing in seafood exclusively for the restaurants.
“We liked the idea of having the best and freshest product and we wanted to be able to know our product right from the time it was caught, until we served it,” he says.
Real grouper is quite a touchy subject in Tampa Bay. Within the past five years, a local newspaper reported some area restaurants weren’t serving grouper but tilapia and other knock-off, cheaper fish. With the grouper population struggling to rebound from the high demand and high volume of fishing, the price has skyrocketed, causing many to unknowingly buy the non-grouper fish or just sell a different species under the grouper name. Either way, the mess really sticks in the craw of those who sell the real deal.
“Real, fresh grouper you can’t get for $5. You’re paying $8 to $10 a pound, the numbers don’t lie. So we knew it. But what really upset me, I mean it was obvious with some prices, but we had some people charging $20-25 a plate and putting tilapia on there or something. That’s just highway robbery.”
Needless to say, the reports never cited Frenchy’s for any faux grouper.
With more than three-quarters of the U.S. catch coming from Florida’s Gulf, the state is widely considered the national capital of grouper. And while it’s served in most Florida restaurants – though recent price gauges have caused many establishments to take it off the menu – the delicacy is a bit harder and more expensive to come by.
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, the average dockside price per pound for grouper has increased more than 36 percent since 1997. Internationally, consumers can spend up to $25-30 a pound for grouper, which has 162 species with 20 listed as threatened by the World Conservation Union. And when tastier choices like black, red or gag are involved, the price only escalates.
By noon, it’s warmed up a bit and Frenchy wants to show me each restaurant as it prepares for the lunch crowd. He personally drives me to each location in his Lexus, though from his laid back demeanor and casual style it seems he’d be just as comfortable behind the wheel of a VW bus.
Over the years, Frenchy’s has become a mini-franchise. A few years after they opened the original restaurant, the Saltwater Café sprouted up down the road. Saltwater opened in 1989 because he were facing numerous hoops through which he would have to jump to expand the original by 20 seats or so. As a result, he decided to just open a separate, family-oriented restaurant with dock access.
The expansions wouldn’t stop there. In 1991, the Rockaway Grill location became a Mecca for shirtless, shoeless and sunburnt souls looking for a bite to eat on the beach. More recently, Frenchy’s expanded to the what he calls the “more tourist-side of Clearwater Beach” with the South Beach Café, bringing the grand total to four restaurants, a fish house and gift shop. Not bad for a few guys looking to turn a profit on a run-down location.
“Everything we’ve taken has just been a mess,” he declares. “But that’s the challenge and that’s the ambiance of Frenchy’s. We don’t have an architect that sits there and draws it all up, makes it perfect. Our imperfections are what give us character.”
That’s the allure of Frenchy’s. You won’t be wowed by fancy presentation or expensive décor, and it’s a place where all types of people mingle, from beach bums to high society. That same unassuming, yet loaded-with-character quality is what’s propelled something as simple as a grouper sandwich to become such an inherent slice of Tampa Bay culture.
As we walk through the gift shop, I ask Frenchy if it’s weird to look at T-shirts, shot glasses and key chains bearing his nickname. “A little weird, yeah,” he responds. As he passes the magnets and wind chimes, he talks about the thousands of people from across the world that have came to Clearwater Beach and eaten at his restaurant.
He imagines many of them return home and tell their friends and family about how this cool place served them something called a grouper sandwich, all of them bearing souvenirs with the name of a kid once teased for speaking French in Michigan.
“But that’s the character of Frenchy’s. And that’s what we’re all about here. Character.”
Frenchy’s signature grouper sandwich may not look fancy, but you’ll know luxury when you taste it.
Fork: Traditionalists say grouper is best grilled but the sweet white fish can be blackened or fried, too.
Pan: Current grouper prices are about $8-10 a pound in the Bay area, so if you’re paying well under that price for a piece of fish labeled as grouper, odds are it’s not real.
Mike “Frenchy” Preston, the proprietor of the Clearwater Beach restaurant, has assembled the perfect dining combination: great seafood, cheap beer and a well-stocked jukebox steps from one of the world’s most famous beaches. His four beach-side locations may not wow you with décor or presentation, but the luxury of eating one of the most delicious fish in the ocean gives Frenchy’s a high-class appeal. “Our imperfections are what give us character,” he said.
Frenchy’s uses its own boats to catch everything on the menu. The boats go into the Gulf of Mexico for 5 to 7 days at a time.
There are 162 species of grouper but the good eating comes from black, red and gag breeds.