Mulch love: The Reading Room set to spread the garden gospel in west St. Pete

Sustainability will drive a new garden-inspired, wood-fired restaurant next to freeFall Theatre.

click to enlarge The Reading Room partners Kevin Lane, Kevin Damphouse, JP Palombo and Lauren Macellaro. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
The Reading Room partners Kevin Lane, Kevin Damphouse, JP Palombo and Lauren Macellaro.

In west St. Petersburg, in a building that once housed a Christian Science Reading Room, a new restaurant plans to spread the garden gospel.

With 1,400 square feet of raised garden beds and a focus on sustainable, responsibly sourced ingredients, the Reading Room has sprouted next to freeFall Theatre. freeFall co-founder Kevin Lane, his husband Kevin Damphouse, and partners JP Palombo and Lauren Macellaro will debut their dream restaurant — garden-inspired and wood-fired — at 6001 Central Ave., the original Reading Room of the Second Church of Christ Scientist.

"I want to kind of spread the garden gospel, if you will, and let people be around gardening and fresh food," says Lane, whose passion is all-around self-sustainability. "[I've found] an excellent chef who shares my ideals with sustainability and can really make this thing as significant as freeFall has been for the community. And I think together they're such a winning combination."

Macellaro is that chef.

Originally from New York, Macellaro (who worked at Seminole Heights' Rooster & the Till for about a year as her relationship with the Kevins developed) has recruited 60 percent of the Reading Room's staff from her previous stomping grounds of Asheville, North Carolina, including two former colleagues: sous chef Jenna Gabrielian and Margo Paraska, who will help manage the on-site garden as well as handle fermentations, vinegar and bread. The kitchen's making everything it can in-house and by hand, with lots of love.

Asheville is where Macellaro learned to listen to the seasons and what's around her. She'll translate her simple, less-ingredients-on-the-plate-the-better cooking style into the restaurant's New American bill of fare (think burrata with overnight wood-fired roasted tomatoes, basil, house-made bread toasted in olive oil and garlic), which will change as seasonally as possible — maybe eight to 10 times year. She has three menus written so far.

"I like changing it up, but also I have a lot of respect for perfecting things through technique so throwing things together every week doesn’t work," she says, adding that local will be used when possible. "We have a bigger commitment to things that are sustainable, taste really good and come from farms that have that same mentality about treating their animals and products the same way."

The chef says it's unrealistic to sustain a restaurant with a garden of the Reading Room's size, but that incorporating fresh flowers, herbs, roots and one or two crops into the food is definitely doable. Damphouse, who just moved here from Canada, lists what they're ramping up to replant for the upcoming growing season.

A bunch of tomatoes. Some ginger and peas. There's already eggplant going. Tons of edible flowers. Swiss chard. Okra's coming to an end (summer was a trial period of sorts for the garden). An abundance of different colored beets, which they hope to carry at all times if the weather allows (the restaurant's logo is a beet).

Their miracle grow is an all-natural, organic fertilizer with no pesticides or herbicides.

"The fertilizer has 90 minerals in it so the plant decides what it needs and when it needs it. It's gonna replenish the soil, and it's good for the micro-organisms. The more of these minerals the plants can take up, the richer the color and nutrients. So hopefully people will feel good after eating here as well," Damphouse says.

Though a little concerned about Florida's weather, he says monitoring the beds frequently and making adjustments when necessary won't be a problem.

Palombo, who's working at Beach Drive's Stillwaters Tavern for another month or so, is ensuring the full herb garden's seasonal bounty gets showcased behind the bar, too. A beer and wine license has allowed her to mix up low ABV cocktails mostly driven by wine and vermouth.

One drink that will likely become a signature because of its crowd-pleasing qualities is the All Things Rosé, a dry rosé cocktail of fresh citrus, lavender syrup, Lillet Rosé and Peychaud's bitters. Another is called Slippery Slopes, which Palombo says keeps your taste buds guessing with fresh ginger beer and cream soda, Carpano Antica Vermouth and orange bitters.

"They are extremely delicious, light. You don't feel gross after you drink [them]. You feel that happy buzz," she says.

A progressive wine list will accompany four wines and four beers on tap, as well as non-boozy beverages like fresh lemonades and teas made with cane sugar. Mimosa flights during brunch and beertails — a reflection of Palombo's time in Asheville, where she worked for Lexington Avenue Brewery before going on to develop Wicked Weed Brewing's cocktail program — are also planned.

The 2,000-square-foot Reading Room is a separate entity from freeFall, which opened in 2011 in what used to be the Second Church of Christ Scientist's church and Sunday school. (Downtown St. Pete's Palladium was also a Christian Science church at one time.) But according to Lane, the long-term plan was always to morph the church's Reading Room into a restaurant because a) freeFall provides a built-in clientele and b) west St. Pete could use more dining options.

When diners walk in, the kitchen and a "chef's tasting bar" will be on their right, with the 50-seat dining room and bar to their left. Looking straight ahead, they'll also see a viewing window that features two beehives, which speak to the restaurant's focus on natural ingredients. While elements of the decor will hint at the old Reading Room, there won't be any bookshelves. Instead, Lane describes the interior as modern-and-clean meets inviting-and-warm. He puts it simply: "It's gonna be a place where you're gonna wanna be."

Same goes for outside, where a patio will take shape once the team figures out what the kitchen can put out and how many customers the restaurant can attract. Lane envisions a large outdoor space where quality food and drink are enjoyed with loved ones, creating one big buzzing venue.

If the restaurant draws a late-night crowd, they'll stay open, moving the kitchen to an after-hours snack menu served from the bar. Shows at freeFall get out around 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The construction phase of any restaurant is unpredictable, but the gang is shooting for a November opening.

"We're excited. It's time. It's time to get the party started," Palombo says. "It's all happened really organically, nothing was forced. Everything's been a learning experience and just really mind-blowing at the same time."

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