Inside the Manhattan Casino, Callaloo and Pipo's are in soft-opening mode

Here's what St. Pete diners need to know before chowing down.

click to enlarge The Callaloo Group's Ramon Hernandez and Vincent Jackson in the dining room of Pipo's and Callaloo. - Alexandria Jones
Alexandria Jones
The Callaloo Group's Ramon Hernandez and Vincent Jackson in the dining room of Pipo's and Callaloo.

For decades, the iconic Manhattan Casino was a cultural landmark in the African-American community of St. Petersburg known as The Deuces. The 15,000-square-foot venue at 642 22nd St. S. closed in the late ’60s and reopened with soul food joint Sylvia’s from 2011 to 2016, but is now experiencing a resurgence with two ground-floor restaurants, Callaloo and Pipo’s Cafe, which are in soft-opening mode.

Leading the culinary duo at the city-owned Manhattan Casino is the Callaloo Group — made up of president Ramon Hernandez, vice president Vincent Jackson, director of development Mario Farias, and executive chef Gary Moran. The partners banded together when Farias approached Hernandez and Jackson about launching an eatery in early 2017.

“Ramon is well-established in the community with Pipo’s and was looking at expansion for a couple years. I was looking at this building for another retail project and redeveloping the area,” Jackson said. “Mario reached out to me and Ramon, seeing if he [could] put a team together for a concept mixing my community engagement and development desires with their food and beverage services.”

By this time, Farias and Moran, the chef who opened South Tampa’s late Wimauma in 2011, had known each other for six years when the idea for the new restaurant project surfaced. With an extensive knowledge of multiple cuisines, Moran oversees both Pipo’s and Callaloo, where he’s set to implement fresh techniques in the kitchen.

“His cuisine is broad, so it’s not just Southern,” Hernandez said. “We’re doing caterings upstairs, so if we get requests for other foods like Chinese or Italian food, we can make it for them.”

The Callaloo Group submitted their Manhattan Casino proposal to the city of St. Pete last year in late June. After learning their concept beat out two other bids in August, the partners hit the ground running on development. Callaloo plans to celebrate with a huge grand opening next month, during which the restaurant’s first brunch dishes will roll out.

While Callaloo features sit-down lunch and dinner, to-go orders are the focus of Pipo’s. The full-service bar downstairs — dubbed Blue Note — also pours specialty cocktails, beer and wine.

What else do diners need to know before chowing down?

1) Here, history and community are key.

As the Callaloo Group puts it, the Manhattan Casino is a great fit for them. The partners intend to host a regular bill of live music and special events, paying homage to the landmark where legendary musicians like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald performed.

“This building represents history. It created jobs for the locals and serves various civic events all the way down to schools,” Jackson said. “We knew we wanted to build a concept to serve this community, but could also be a beacon of what it stands for.”

The venue’s artwork, curated by Gallerie 909 owner Carla Bristol, was sourced from local artists. Bristol is hanging historical pieces of art in the stairway leading up to the upstairs event hall, too.

2) Though Callaloo shares a dining room with Pipo’s, the restaurant has its own identity.

Callaloo, the restaurant, is named for callaloo, the dish of wild greens found in the Caribbean. Though each island puts its own twist on the food staple, patrons needn’t worry — callaloo is found all over chef Moran’s menu, including as an accompaniment to entrees like country-style steak and fried catfish.

“We knew the name was important to the community to pay homage to the Southern fare,” according to Jackson.

Hernandez added: “Callaloo came from Africa through the slaves. Every island has a callaloo dish, but they could use other greens like spinach, kale or turnips, depending on what grows there.”

The 7,000-square-foot Callaloo marries traditional Southern cuisine with Caribbean eats such as crab and callaloo stew. The partners refer to their fusion as Floribbean, meaning the food stays true to its Florida roots with the addition of some island flavor.

3) Pipo’s is the same cafe, yet on a smaller scale. Well, sort of.

Weighing in at 300 square feet, this latest Pipo’s retains the longtime lineup of Cuban classics offered at the two other locations. However, there are a couple of differences: a takeout-driven approach and more vegan options.

“It’s going to be more choices,” Hernandez said. “We’ve been experimenting with things like quinoa and picadillos with onions and olives. We’re leaning towards the newer generation.

“Keep the same traditional family flavors but give it a twist.”

4) Yes, they do catering.

Hernandez and front-of-house management are in charge of any off-site catering requests that come in. Catering orders for the Manhattan Casino’s event hall, meanwhile, are left to event coordinator Deborah Figgs-Sanders. 

An online calendar expedites the process by showing prospective bookers what dates are open.

“For anything upstairs, we have a list of fees and charges for the space depending on what time, what day and what kind of event. There’s a range affordable for everyone. We encourage using the catering we offer, but you can bring outside caterers as well,” said Hernandez.

5) You can make a weekend out of the duo’s formal debut.

Starting at 3 p.m. April 6, Mayor Rick Kriseman kicks off the grand opening festivities with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. A mix of live tunes from local musicians follows on April 7, and the inaugural brunch service is scheduled for April 8.

Callaloo operates 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday (the bar closes at midnight), and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Pipo’s is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. And remember, it’s strictly to-go.

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