The Roads Best Traveled

Main Drags

Today's average sprawling metropolis has not one main drag but many, each with its own culture, its own state of mind. The Bay area, with its myriad towns and neighborhoods, has even more. This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but it contains the ones I know and love the best. So crank up the radio, roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair (to steal a line from you-know-who).

Let's do some summer cruising.

Nebraska Avenue, Tampa: Long before there was a Tampa, this was probably a footpath from the fresh water springs around what is now called Sulphur Springs to Hillsborough Bay. The main road into Tampa from points north for more than a century, Nebraska Avenue was called The Great White Way by stagecoach drivers because of its snowy sand. Later, it brought tin can tourists to the resort at Sulphur Springs for vacation. Their once quaint campgrounds and motels are now seedy trailer parks and flophouses. It's mainly known now as a good place to score hookers and crack, but there are still some things not to be missed: Art's Swap Shop (9608 N. Nebraska) has a wide array of trash and treasure from new river kayaks to oddball odds and ends. Shell's Feed and Seed (9513 N. Nebraska) is the only place in town that sells arugula seeds, iguana feed and baby chicks under one roof.

Howard Avenue, Tampa: The place to see and be seen for self-conscious scenesters, Howard Avenue nonetheless has two of the best restaurants in town (Bern's at 1208 S. Howard and SideBerns at 1002 S. Howard) and several other worthy places to eat. Hit Squaresville (508 S. Howard) for fab retro fashion and furnishings at reasonable prices. If you start to gag on all the silicone, SUV and cell phone action on the strip, duck into Hugo's Spanish Restaurant (931 S. Howard), where South Howard is still South Howard and will never be SoHo, and you can still get Cuban cafe con leche instead of a latte. Or you could just head north until you get out of the hipster zone and stop at Fourth of July Cafe (1611 N. Howard), where they still speak Spanglish and talk politics instead of designer shoes.

Seventh Avenue, Ybor City: What can I tell you that you don't already know? The heart of a once-vivacious Latin city done in first by anti-unionism, then by urban renewal, and finally by real estate speculation and a mayor who was really a developer at heart. Now it's just a beautiful corpse, but it's still the only part of Tampa with an architectural presence and authentic sense of place. La Terrazza (1727 E. Seventh) is by far the best place to eat, and Tropicana (1822 E. Seventh) is one of the last places in Ybor where you can still get Cuban toast and cafe con leche. The flamenco show at the Columbia (2117 E. Seventh) is not to be missed; neither is the calamari. King Corona (1523 E. Seventh) is my favorite place to buy a cigar, have a glass of port and a bite to eat and watch the parade go by.

N. Armenia Avenue, Tampa: This is Tampa's main drag for nuevo Latinos as well as recent immigrants from Asia. The markets and restaurants are filled with goods, food and entrepreneurs from such far-flung places as Columbia, Peru, Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico. The food is cheap and plentiful; the people are nice; and you can find everything from pinatas to whole squid and bok choy. Plus, there are Latin dance clubs where everyone from toddlers to grandmas are shaking it to a clave beat. La Tampena (aka Maura Barrios) recommends Paracas (3602 N. Armenia, next to Cacciatore Italian market) and El Palladium (5305 N. Armenia) for dancing, and I just saw a new one called Coco Bongo, which sounds like fun. (Check out La Tampena's other recommendations on her Best of the Bay page at Stop at La Casona (5709 N. Armenia) for upscale Puerto Rican chow in a charming environment, Pho 99 (7212 N. Armenia) for fresh, inexpensive Vietnamese, and China Yuan at Evershine Square (8502 N. Armenia) for excellent Cantonese fare. While you're there, walk across the parking lot to Din Ho Asian market for good deals on fresh exotic seafood and vegetables, plus great gifts — and try out Costa Verde Peruvian Rotisserie's $5 lunch.

Central Avenue, St. Petersburg: People of all sizes, shapes, colors and ages stroll and cruise this quintessential main drag. Pedestrian-friendly, with galleries, boutiques, outdoor cafes, human-scale buildings, and independent businesses where shopkeepers still sweep the shady sidewalks out front and know each other and a good many of the customers by name. Central Avenue retains the best of its past and is fast becoming something of a mecca for Gen-Xers, new urbanists, mid-century modernists and others with a taste for gracious urban living and retro architecture, furnishing and fashion. With all that and nightclubs such as the State Theatre, Hampton House of Jazz and the Caribbean American Culture Club, it is hands down the most happening main drag in the Bay area. Other stuff not to miss: Uhuru Antiques and Collectibles, Creative Clay, Cafe Bohemia, Central City Bean (in the gorgeous historic Snell Arcade building at Fourth Street), Florida Craftsmen, Karl's Gourmet Kookies (addictive chocolate chip cookies), Treasures of Morocco, Haslam's, Cool Stuff, the totally fabulous retro World Liquors sign at 16th Street and the green oasis that is Jene's Tropicals at 70th street. You can take Central Avenue west all the way to Treasure Island, where you'll find our next main drag:

Gulf Boulevard, Pinellas County: This is the main drag for the beach from Pass-a-Grille to Clearwater beaches. My favorite stretch is on Treasure Island, with its fabulous (and endangered) '50s retro neon signs, sleek profiles, boomerang shapes and plastic colors. Don't miss the beachside sidewalk that goes behind the deep-sea-blue public-access pavilion and snack bar at 112th Avenue, Florida's unique and cozy answer to the New Jersey boardwalk. Head south from Treasure Island to see the fab Don Cesar and what's left of the old Florida beach bum shacks. Head north to see what it's all going to look like if the locals don't manage to exert some control over runaway development. It starts at Madeira Beach and gets progressively uglier until you hit the grand finale of bland, bloated, high-rise beach beehives on Sand Key and Clearwater Beach.