They Only Come Out at Night

Late Nite Eats Part I — St. Petersburg

click to enlarge LOUNGE LIZARDS: The Globe draws a mixed crowd - of regulars, from tweedy academics to punk rockers. - LISA MAURIELLO
LISA MAURIELLO
LOUNGE LIZARDS: The Globe draws a mixed crowd of regulars, from tweedy academics to punk rockers.

Frank Sinatra immortalized New York in song as "a city that never sleeps," but if you're a denizen of St. Petersburg, you settle for "a city that just catnaps."

I guess I was surprised to find crowds roaming downtown St. Petersburg into the wee hours. And I was shocked to find truly elegant gourmet fare served in a fashionable, formal setting until 1 a.m.; a terrific hot turkey sandwich available 24/7; and spinach and Mozzarella tortellini peeking from marinara, served till 3:30 a.m. amid the arty party crowd at a popular late-night coffee lounge.

While scarfing pizza at 1:30 a.m. at jammed, open-air tables downtown, a startling thought occurred to me: Has St. Pete become A Real City while we weren't looking?

Criteria for A Real City:

1. Food available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no chain restaurants need apply.

2. Variety of choices all night or close to it, primo burgers to Bouillabaisse.

3. Street life, meaning downtown residents; diners throwing up in the bushes, necking (not living) on park benches, walking to clubs and restaurants.

4. Fancy breakfast at dawn.

5. Mass transit runs all night, which people use all night.

St. Pete has all but No. 5. Not so bad!

Here are a few finds from my late-night excursions to St. Pete:

Café Alma
An elegant restaurant, complete with linen tablecloths and sparkling water goblets, excellent service and confident, gourmet fare, open till 1 a.m. on the weekends. The little bistro, owned by Dwight Watkins III, is tucked beneath the street in a pretty space sided with glass doors and exposed brick.

We liked its 35-item wine list, many vintages available by the glass. And we liked every dish we ordered, maybe because respected chef Christian Briner was in the kitchen.

We began with Boullabaisse-Moroccan fish soup ($9), chunky with seafood and mussels, its delicate broth so steamy on a cold night. Next came a fancy appetizer sampler ($10) featuring smoked eggplant hummus, citrus hummus, artichoke hearts sautéed with grainy mustard and garnished with shaved Parmesan and Prosciutto — served with citrus, olives, feta tomato oil and flatbread.

My entrée, chicken tagine ($14), was an unusually colorful and tasty dish: braised chicken thighs stewed with apricots, green and black olives, pistachios, whole cloves of garlic, saffron and minty couscous. The couscous was soupier than versions I've eaten in Morocco, but not fatally so; I thought it delectable. Also on the menu were pasta, angel hair with pesto, chevre and fresh tomato ($10); a decent rendition of Caesar salad ($5), pretty greens garnished with fresh Roquefort and crisped walnuts; and a truly awesome dessert, chocolate flourless tort ($6) set atop a wave of mango creme.

If you want to make sure you get a table on weekends, make reservations.

St. Pete Diner
Real Cities boast a homey diner open 24/7. The St. Pete Diner certainly fills the bill, as it provides all the basic culinary amenities: modest, slightly gritty quarters, a friendly, welcoming staff any hour of the day or night, breakfast 'round the clock, hot coffee and lots of it.

Owned by Michael and Marie Michael, who also act as chef and chief server, it has been open three years. I thought the diner's best dish was roast turkey ($7.25), which entailed fat slices of real, freshly baked turkey breast set atop a big ball of gooey stuffing, sided with real mashed potatoes, the whole mess flooded with gravy. Pretty good!

The big menu lists lots of other possibilities, such as salad, burgers, steaks, Italian dishes, fried and broiled seafood and every kind of sandwich you could imagine. Breakfast options include two eggs, any style, with pancakes, bacon, ham or sausage (links or patties) ($4.25); biscuit with sausage gravy and home fries ($4.35); omelets; extra-thick French toast ($3.65) — add $1.75 if you want strawberries and whipped cream on top.

Skip dessert — some of the cakes looked as if they had been purchased at Sam's Club.

The Globe Coffee Lounge
Funky art and quirky collectables enliven a comfy dining room punctuated with big, fluffy sofas and reading chairs, where poets can dream, read or write; couples chat for hours or play board games into the morning hours; and people decked out in black leather and chains hang in a big group outside, smoking.

The Globe's owner, the irrepressible JoEllen Schilke, has operated the coffee lounge for five years, drawing a mixed crowd of regulars, from tweedy professorial types to punk rockers. She serves coffee and light dishes till 3:30 a.m. on Saturdays, so you can go dancing or clubbing late, then drop in for sweets and cappuccino when you get tired of shakin' that ass.

A popular dish is the Caprese sandwich ($5.50), an Italian affair made with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato, set on foccacia and then grilled to a crisp brown; it was heated to a crunchy, gooey perfection that went down nice with icy raspberry tea ($1.50). Or try spinach and mozzarella tortellini with marinara ($3.50). Also on the menu are nachos, veggie burger and "Mexican brownies."

We would have liked one of the fancy coffees, like caramel cappuccino ($3, regular) or dark espresso ($1.75, regular), but the coffee machine was broken the night we were there.

Joey Brooklyn's Famous Pizza Kitchen
Just a few tables warmed and scented by pizza ovens, and a few more thrown together outside for larger groups. The place is chirpy in red-and-white-checked tablecloths. Located right around the corner from Jannus Landing, it's handy for music lovers wandering the streets late at night, or for those who hit a late movie and want a quick bite afterward.

Open till 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, it does a brisk business right up until closing.

The pizza is handmade and fresh, but not spectacular. Its crust is thin and crisp, but it needed a more tomatoey sauce, more seasoning, and more cheese. My advice? Order every pizza with extra sauce and cheese, plus your choice of any of 15 other toppings. Plain cheese pizza by the slice sells for $1.95; each extra topping costs 45 cents. Or try the "deluxe pizza special," a create-your-own six-topping pie (14-inch costs $13.95; 18-inch, $16.95; and Sicilian style, $19.95.

The restaurant also serves dinner platters like eggplant Parmesan ($8.50), chicken Caesar sandwiches ($6.50) and antipasto salad ($6.25).

Café Alma, 260 First Ave. S., Suite 100 (727-502-5002, www.cafealma.biz). Call for hours.

St. Pete Diner Family Restaurant, 1101 34th St. N. (727-323-4200). Open 24/7.

The Globe Coffee Lounge, 532 First Ave. N. (727-898-5282, www.globecoffeelounge.com). Call for hours.

Joey Brooklyn's Famous Pizza Kitchen, 210 First Ave. N. (727-822-6757). Call for hours.

Food critic Sara Kennedy dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. Contact her at 813-248-8888, ext. 116, or [email protected]. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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