UNIVERSITY PARK -- Half Shell Seafood House opens its doors today in Manatee County featuring a new look and more food and hopefully more diners.
Formerly the Half Shell Oyster House on Sarasota's Main Street, the Mississippi-based restaurant decided to pack it up and bring its New Orleans flair to Manatee County. Employees and their families filled the dining room Saturday night for a test run before today's grand opening at 5231 University Parkway, inside the former Red Elephant Pizza.
The new name reflects Half Shell's offerings beyond oysters as well as new items to the menu including king crabs, snow crabs, lobster and a full selection of steamers, general manager Jerry Stennett said.
"We didn't want a family of six driving by and two of them like oysters and four of them not and think we're just an oyster house," said Stennett, a Manatee County resident and Gulfport, Miss., native. "As you can see, we're a lot more."
The restaurant will be open for lunch and dinner, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and is open until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays. Sunday hours are from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The reflection of more than just oysters can be seen in the new items. One of the new dishes is steamed mussels featuring Prince Edward Island mussels steamed with basil, garlic, shallots, white wine, Per
nod and cream. Another new dish is the seafood stuffed portabellas, with mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, lump crab meat, minced chipotle and roasted bell peppers and spinach.
"We put a lot of work into the food. It's all made from scratch, and we want to make it a family dining restaurant," Stennett said.
But if it's oysters you want, don't worry. Half Shell has plenty. Diners can gaze at a raw bar near the entrance where workers shuck fresh oysters before them, adding to the ambience, while witnessing the skill and patience needed to crack open an oyster.
"It can be challenging," Stennett said. "Some of them are easy to open, and some of them are extremely difficult to get into. You have to be patient and strong, and know where to get the knife."
Susan Perez, a native of Hawaii, took her turn shucking the oysters during Saturday's test run, and true as Stennett's words, the first one she picked up wouldn't seem to give.
"You know what the record for opening an oyster is? Three seconds," she said, laughing. Amazingly, the record is much faster than that when averaged. A Toronto man shucked 38 oysters in a minute, according to Guinness World Records.
While the shucking might not be at blazing speeds, the restaurant hopes people will give the oysters a try.
"If you've never had oysters and you're afraid of raw, I would definitely recommend the chargrilled or the Oysters Orleans," Stennett said. "The chargrilled is a buttery, garlic, white wine sauce that we make in house, and we baste them as we cook them over an open flame. The Orleans is a Creole butter. It's a traditional New Orleans style of barbecue."
The 152-seat dining room also received an update in the new space, plus offers 22 seats outside. A contemporary French Quarter theme is carried throughout to help attract a younger crowd compared to the Sarasota space that featured darker tones and elegant chandeliers. The most noticeable feature are the hand painted brick treatments and mural by artist Michelle Held -- especially the one of jazz great Louis Armstrong on the back wall, bursting with color.
The cajun roots can be traced to Half Shell's original location in Gulfport, Miss. The restaurant has other Mississippi locations in Biloxi and Hattiesburg, with the University Park restaurant being its only restaurant outside of Mississippi. The Sarasota location, 1991 Main St., opened in December 2011. Today's opening will mark a two-and-a-half week turnaround since the Sarasota location closed, and Saturday's event gave employees a chance to both refresh their skills and try some of the new menu items.
The restaurant brought all 27 of its employees from downtown to the new location and trained additional staff to bring the team to 68.
Alina Alekseyeva joined her husband, kitchen prep worker Tony Vazquez, for the dinner Saturday and said she loves the changes.
"The decorations that they did is really nice, and I've seen the menu, and the food looks really, really good," she said.
While on Main Street Sarasota, the lunch business was steady throughout the year, but dinner business would significantly tail off, leaving mainly a happy hour crowd for the evenings, Stennett said. The increased traffic count on University Parkway compared to Sarasota's Main Street by the Regal Hollywood 20 movie theater should help that, he said.
Plus, the new Mall at University Town Center by Interstate 75 that will open in October 2014 is expected to give an added boost to traffic along the corridor, making the move even more enticing, he said.
Half Shell is following a trend of other Sarasota County restaurants either leaving or expanding to Manatee County this year, with some eyeing growth due to the mall as well. Indian restaurant Tandoor Fine Indian Cuisine moved from Sarasota, while Valentino Pizzeria Trattoria opened a new location and Sarasota Main Street restaurant El Greco opened up a sister restaurant, Apollonia Mediterranean Grill, all in the Benderson-owned Shoppes at University Town Center.
For information, visit halfshellseafoodhouse.com.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.