Just the beginning: The evolution of downtown St. Pete's dining scene

The city's culinary emergence and growth over the last decade, plus what's next.

click to enlarge Robert Sanderson on Beach Drive, home to his eateries BellaBrava and Stillwaters Tavern. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
Robert Sanderson on Beach Drive, home to his eateries BellaBrava and Stillwaters Tavern.

A renaissance. Booming. Lively. Revitalization. An elevation of talent. If you talk to locals close to downtown St. Pete’s culinary scene, they’ll likely use some variation on the above to describe what’s happened there over the past 10 years.

As one restaurant owner put it, sleepy little St. Pete has morphed into one of the hottest destinations in the Southeast.

What’s caused the dining sphere to experience this, we’ll say it, explosion? Restaurant openings and an increased sophistication among diners — a topic touched on during a Food for Thought panel discussion last month — have something to do with it. But so do changes to downtown St. Pete’s overall structural makeup.

CL interviewed restaurateurs, chefs and others connected to the city’s dining scene in order to track a brief history of its evolution through the last decade — from Beach Drive to the EDGE District to Central Avenue’s Western expansion.

click to enlarge Just the beginning: The evolution of downtown St. Pete's dining scene - Julio Ramos
Julio Ramos
Just the beginning: The evolution of downtown St. Pete's dining scene
Once upon a time, the downtown dining menu was sparse. Stalwarts like The Garden, Grand Finale, Ovo Cafe and Chateau France were joined in the early ’00s by newcomers like Cafe Alma, but things were still pretty quiet in 2005 when BellaBrava opened in Ovo’s former location on the 500 block of Central (now home to Acropolis Greek Taverna).

According to BellaBrava partner Robert Sanderson, the scene remained quiet through the restaurant’s first five years. The only place on Beach Drive was The Moon Under Water, and while downtown saw one or two new eateries open during that period, it was nothing like now, where debuts seem to take place every month.

“There were very few restaurants,” Sanderson said. “We opened and were swamped almost immediately.”

Other downtown staples sprouted up in 2005, including Ceviche and Z Grille, which launched in the space occupied by Crowley’s on Central. As Z Grille co-owner Jennifer Gross tells it, the 200 block was quiet, too, except for The Independent and the “high end” Redwoods. Z Grille passed as casual during the day, with chef and co-owner Zack Gross serving more polished dishes in the evening.

Considered a pioneer in the dining scene (and not just because of its fancy deviled eggs), Z Grille expanded to its digs at the bottom of Signature Place three years later, and then:

“Everything else has just blown up around us,” Jennifer said.

Rick Parsons, who established the Ricky P’s brand with his wife Lisa at a Saturday Morning Market booth, said the scene’s “first big boom” happened along Beach Drive between 2005 and 2010, mainly due to the rise of high-level condos and apartments. St. Pete had always attracted younger people to concerts and events near Straub Park and the Vinoy Basin, he said. But once the city landed condos on the water, people began trading the suburbs for simpler lives and a smaller footprint.

“I think that’s helped created an urban lifestyle, and then, naturally, restaurants are going to start to bloom with a customer base right outside their door,” Parsons said.

Steve Westphal’s Parkshore Grill debuted on Beach Drive in 2006, followed by 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House, Cassis American Brasserie, Tryst Gastro Lounge, The Birchwood. Drawn by the condo crowd, Sanderson moved BellaBrava to Beach in 2010 and, earlier this year, opened a second restaurant, Stillwaters Tavern, a few doors down.

The upshot: Beach became St. Pete’s first bona fide restaurant row, allowing downtown dwellers to hop from block to block for food from Central to Fifth Avenue NE without getting into a car. (Visitors, however, have to struggle to find a parking place — the price of success.)

click to enlarge At Signature Place, Z Grille is one of the dining scene's downtown stalwarts. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
At Signature Place, Z Grille is one of the dining scene's downtown stalwarts.

But the boom
isn’t just about Beach Drive.

Almost four years ago, Thuy Le opened downtown’s first Vietnamese spot, La V, on Central’s 400 block. In a neighborhood that had just a few existing mom-and-pop joints and was a ghost town on Sundays, Le said she started noticing “the explosions” — more walking traffic, bars, restaurants, boutiques — a year after La V opened, adding that newer projects like Locale Market at the Sundial have also benefited the scene.

Andy Salyards, owner of the Grand Central District’s 2-year-old Urban Brew and BBQ, shared similar thoughts. When companies such as Locale’s Mina Group and Hofbrauhaus “view St. Pete as a viable investment, it brings legitimacy to the market,” he said.

Salyards, who will expand his mini-empire to four food spots when he opens Urban Creamery next to the State Theatre, has contributed to a more home-grown tradition: turning gas stations in the Grand Central District into restaurants. The Queens Head led the way in 2009, and Casita Taqueria, Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria and Salyards’ Urban Comfort followed, helping turn “automotive alley” into “restaurant alley.”

Keep Saint Petersburg Local founder Olga Bof regards developments like these as being just as important as Beach Drive in defining St. Pete’s renaissance. She points to the restoration of Central’s 600 Block in 2010, after then-City Council Chair Leslie Curran persuaded the Crislip Arcade complex landlord to fill the storefronts with creative businesses.

“That’s the creative class, and that’s what changes cities. When the creative class starts to get entrenched and is given opportunities like that and comes together, that’s what it’s all about,” Bof said. “I think that played a huge role because now it’s like, ‘Let’s come up Central.’ When you think of St. Pete, and you think of what you’re proud of, is really when you start to walk up Central and see these boutiques, and now it’s food and dining. And that doesn’t have to be high end or fancy.”

And the expansion keeps marching farther west. Four years ago, Ferg’s Sports Bar and Ricky P’s were about the only food and drink destinations in what is known as the EDGE District, said Parsons, who launched his 150-seat restaurant in the former home of Savannah’s Cafe in 2012. Now Engine No. 9, Bodega on Central, Brooklyn South, Red Mesa Mercado, Kings Street Food Counter and more are giving him some culinary company. And a similar phenomenon is taking place in Grand Central. Where there were once just a few places, there’s Nitally’s, The Burg Bar & Grill, Taco Bus and Old Key West Bar & Grill (formerly Beak’s), plus all those restaurants in old garages.

“We’re running out of space on Beach Drive. It’s kind of forcing people to move upward to Central Avenue,” Le says.

Paul Hsu, a partner with Erika Ly and Sandra Ly-Flores in Alésia, observed “a lot of reshuffling [of interest] towards Beach Drive” when Alésia opened at the 7000 block of Central in 2011. There wasn’t much going on in West Central then except for O’Bistro, which premiered in 1994. But the tide’s turning: D’Mexican Restaurant and Craft Kafe opened in the area recently, and Kevin Lane of freeFall Theatre is slated to open a restaurant in the former Christian Science Reading Room on the theater’s property called, aptly enough, the Reading Room. (freeFall could be regarded as a driver of development in the West Central area, with its patrons needing places to eat pre- and post-show.)

The growth is also spreading north and south. Fourth Street North is a scene unto itself, from Souzou to Noble Crust and fresh additions almost daily. Red Mesa Cantina, Station House (in the old Cafe Alma building), the Avenue eat/drink and Rococo Steak have enlivened the blocks just south of Central. El Gallo Grande is an outpost on Third Street South. And in Midtown, destinations like Sylvia’s, Chief’s Creole Cafe and Deuces BBQ are bringing new interest to 22nd Street South.

click to enlarge Patrons on the outdoor patio of Alésia, located on the 7000 block of Central. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Patrons on the outdoor patio of Alésia, located on the 7000 block of Central.

Really, there seems
nowhere to go but up.

“It’s pretty culinary cutting-edge now, and every year it just keeps getting sharper and sharper,” Westphal said. “It’s going to be fascinating to watch the growth.”

So what’s next?

That’ll depend on the Tampa Bay Rays’ will-they-or-won’t-they move, say some.

Other observers want a deeper foray into ethnic cuisines like Ethiopian, Moroccan and Latino.

Restaurants such as The Mill open up the possibilities of new restaurants in unlikely spaces, as with Ted Dorsey’s spot on the ground floor of a nondescript office building.

Zack Gross wouldn’t advise people to do it, but he’d like to see additional chef-owned and -driven concepts like Il Ritorno and Brick & Mortar.

And Robert Sanderson has talked with Mayor Rick Kriseman about promoting St. Pete not just as a city of the arts but as “a foodie town.”

Will we see a plateau to all this growth anytime soon?

“If you’re in the business, you really know the dining scene is becoming more knowledgeable, sophisticated and can support more restaurants coming in,” Sanderson said. “Whether you get to a saturation point, I don’t know if anybody has the answers.”

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