As a food columnist, it’s tempting to fill one’s dance card with every highbrow restaurant in town. Mea culpa—power corrupts. To mount a pithy defense, few casual restaurants offer food worthy of the pen. That price point is overrun with franchises and reconstituted foods that only can promise trans fats and regret.
Fortunately, such a lackluster approach is not up to the pirate code. Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque and Pirate Bar in Stillwater delivers delectable appetizers, signature cocktails, delicious sandwiches, and generous entrées not found elsewhere for the price. It’s not surprising that the restaurant has received enthusiastic local patronage since it opened on May 29.
But when business partners Tim McKee and Josh Thoma (both formerly of La Belle Vie) first proposed the concept, Chef Shawn Smalley thought they were joking.
As Smalley recounts, “I had a pirate-themed wedding, but when Tim first approached me with this idea—that we’d open Smalley’s Pirate Bar in Stillwater—I laughed, and said…yeah. I had no idea that’s what we’d actually name the place.”
The team soon realized that the concept was seaworthy, and took a scouting trip to Jamaica in search of the best jerk chicken. Finding their prize far from the usual tourist traps, in true pirate form, they boozed up the cooks, and sweet-talked their way into the kitchen. After spending four days cooking side-by-side with them, the trio returned with new techniques and a 200-year-old family recipe.
Despite the restaurant’s kitschy name, McKee, Thoma, and Smalley did not run amok with the decor. With the exception of some rum casks, a skull-headed parrot, and a few token Jolly Rogers, the space is quite clean-cut. While impulse control is laudable, I would have preferred they let out their sails a bit. If you’ve got a freak flag, I say, fly it. Then again, I still think Casa Bonita’s wacky gorilla-suited diving show is worth a road trip, even if the tacos aren’t.
The food at Smalley’s, however, does not depend on a tricked-out atmosphere to produce satisfaction.
The barbequed shrimp appetizer ($9.50) conjures up lovely memories of New Orleans all on its own, with a rich, subtle sauce. If your eye is drifting away from jerk chicken as an entrée, try the wings as an appetizer ($9.50). Our server cautioned us that they pack some heat, but I found them to be quite mild. A variety of homemade sauces will help spice things up, and if you’re feeling in need of a real thrashing, try a dab of the Scotchies sauce, made with Scotch bonnet peppers. The restaurant serves complimentary roasted hot peppers with salt and lime.
Along with your appetizers, sampling one—or four—of the pirate bar’s signature cocktails is a must. The rum list is extensive and ever-growing. Try a few top-shelf selections with the Walk the Plank trio, or bolt a Kill Devil, a 120-proof shot that leaves one with a lovely caramel finish. The Blackbeard Mojito, which adds blackberries to the popular base, and the Dread Smalley, with muddled lime and a hint of fresh red chili peppers, were also table favorites. If one is in the mood for a bit of island flair, indulge in the Caribbean Cosmo, a charmingly fruity combination of mango and passion fruit. Long Island Ice Tea fans will appreciate the Buccaneer, which conceals its heavy firepower with guava.
Yes, they attempted to get the food columnist good and loaded…but can you blame them? If that’s what got the Smalley’s team into the Jamaican kitchen, all I can say is bravo—now, get me another drink.
Though the menu is a focused one, my dining party was sated with the broad selection of entrées, sides, and sandwiches. As I mentioned previously, the jerk chicken (a half-chicken is $10.50) is certainly a must-try in some form, but the fork-tender ribs (a third-slab for $12.50) are noteworthy as well. The pulled chicken sandwich with bacon ($9) was difficult to eat except with knife and fork, but tasty.
Accompanying side dishes are impressive. Vegetable selections at many casual restaurants come out a soggy afterthought, but the curried veggies at Smalley’s were very tasty, retaining an appetizing crispness in the middle. I also would recommend the rice and beans, which receives the full island treatment with coconut flakes, and the unexpectedly American mac and cheese. No, it’s not Caribbean pirate fare per se, but pirates aren’t really known for respecting boundaries, are they?
If by some stretch of human endurance you still have room for dessert, neither the coconut flan nor the key lime pie (both $7) disappoint.
Additionally, nonalcoholic beverages do the sweet trick, including the refreshing white grapefruit cherry soda and the zestier red berry tea lemonade.
Smalley’s Caribbean Barbecue and Pirate Bar
423 S. Main St., Stillwater.