In downtown St. Petersburg, I now can find an early-morning nosh, an incredible cup of coffee and a pleasant atmosphere filled with my kind of people. Sure, they're at three different places, each with a different piece of the puzzle, and require a fair amount of walking, but I'm not griping ... too much. Instead, I've worked out the perfect day to fulfill my ideal coffee-shop experience.
It's got to start at Surreal Bowl* early in the morning. We've written about this place a couple of times in the Planet — even though the place is only a few months old — because the concept is like breakfast crack to anyone born after 1950. They sell cereal, straight from the supermarket shelves, loaded with processed sugar and artificial flavoring, just like when I was a kid.
You get two scoops in every bowl, mixed or matched from over 30 different blasts from the past, as well as one of a couple dozen toppings to add a nontraditional touch. Fruity Pebbles, meet Count Chocula. Frankenberry, meet Boo Berry. Wheat Chex, meet Rice Chex. Sprinkle it all with Gummi Bears or crushed Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
Owners Lara and Tim Newman have decked out the place in retro plastic and melamine furnishings — most of them picked up from neighboring kitsch and antique stores along this section of Central Avenue — and lined the walls with paintings from local artists. Sit near the back and you can mindlessly watch old-timey cartoons while milk runs down your chin.
Surreal's coffee isn't anything special, and espressos are made on a tiny countertop machine that is inconsistent at best. So do what I do: When you finish your bowl, order a small cup of joe and pour that sweet, multi-colored, leftover milk into the cup. It makes anything taste good.
Around lunchtime, I mosey down to First Street for an afternoon pick-me-up at Latitude 23.5. I first tried Latitude's coffee while working on a story about Chris Keesecker, master roaster and early pioneer in the Gulf Coast java scene. The experience spoiled me for coffee.
Ever since that first taste, I ceased visiting Tampa Bay barristas — except for an emergency caffeine fix — saving myself for occasional visits to the land of Latitude down in Sarasota, where there are three locations. Suffice it to say, I was psyched when they extended their mini-chain to downtown St. Pete.
Beyond the coffee, there's not much to Latitude. The small courtyard out back and innocuous eggplant-colored interior décor is pleasant enough, if a bit generic, and the free wi-fi is great, but the place closes at 6 p.m. and earlier on weekends. For the hungry, Latitude has passable panini, acceptable baked goods made in-house, and adequate salads, just good enough to offer another lunch outlet to busy downtown worker bees.
But the coffee, man, the coffee is unequivocally worth a pilgrimage to downtown. There are 10 different varieties ready for consumption at any particular time — including a few decaf, one or two flavored, and a couple organic and free-trade varieties, like the Mexican Chiapas I now down by the bucketful. More are available in bean form, prepared 30 miles away at Keesecker's roasting palace in Sarasota, using beans imported specially by Latitude. There are even separate grinders earmarked for organic, decaf and full caff to reduce cross-contamination for picky customers.
Latitude is a caffeine paradise, with the best cup o' joe in town every day of the week. But it's not a great hangout. For that, I need the Globe.
The Globe Coffee Lounge is an institution, but a young one. Just a couple of weeks ago, the place celebrated its seventh birthday with a Music 4 Peace weekend loaded with local talent — the Ken Spivey Band, Ronny Elliott, Chucky Luv and about a dozen other groups — with speechifying and rabble-rousing between acts. Peace, love and rock 'n' roll, fueled by caffeine. It's that kind of place.
At any particular time, day or night, the Globe is filled with aging hipsters and emo kids, the pierced and the punk, the tattooed and tattered, carefree college kids, goths, ghouls and grandmas, queens, lesbians and closeted Christians, homeless dudes and housewives with babes in tow, plus dozens of other folk who can't be pigeonholed by themselves or The Man. And, more often that not, you can include me in their number if I'm in downtown St. Pete after dark.
You see, the downtown explosion has been going on for, what, almost a decade now? It's like revitalization on a Soviet 10-year plan. Case in point, newcomers Surreal Bowl and Latitude 23.5 close by sunset, if not earlier now that we've hit daylight savings. One is a hep joint and the other is a thoroughly commercial enterprise, but neither believes it pays to serve anyone but the work-a-day crowd. There still isn't enough faith in the downtown scene.
The Globe has had that faith from the start. It's been open until 1 or 2 a.m. since it started, and is run hands-on by owner and WMNF host JoEllen Schilke (Art In Your Ear, 11 a.m. Fri.). It has the right aura, haphazard and chaotic and jammed with more character than design. It's also one of the only places in St. Pete where you can actually feel the community. Go ahead, feel it. No matter your mood or latent agoraphobia, you'll find yourself talking with the staff, with the people at the table next you, with some guy waiting for nachos.
If you want to nest, though, there's free wi-fi and good music on the stereo. The coffee is nothing to get excited about, typical java poured from a commercial Pyrex coffee pot, but the Globe does have good food. It's more home cooking than restaurant quality, like eating nachos and veggie burgers at a friend's kitchen table with a bottle of beer pulled from the fridge.
Just last week at the Globe, some girl tried to convince me she knew the secret to winning tic-tac-toe. She was obviously too young to have seen Wargames ("the only way to win is not to play," babe) so I let her give it a try. There aren't any secret techniques, of course, but right up until she put her third X down on paper, she was completely convinced she would figure it out. When she couldn't, she just shrugged prettily and sashayed out the door, wishing me a good night, her limitless confidence undamaged by this minor setback.
That's the kind of people you'll find at the Globe. That's why the Globe is where I end my day.
The Surreal Bowl is now closed.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.