ST. PETERSBURG — It was a different time. The Dow Jones closed above 14,000. Plans for downtown St. Petersburg were sky high, with condo projects like the Sage, Signature Place, Ovation, Bayway Lofts and Condos, and Grand Bohemian promising to change the landscape. In some circles, proof positive that downtown was poised to hit the big time was when Food Network's Robert Irvine announced he was coming to open two restaurants, dubiously named Ooze and Schmooze. It was 2007, and now, two years later, some of those ambitions have come to pass while others have withered (Irvine's, spectacularly). • Despite hard times, and maybe because of them, downtown restaurants have undergone a remarkable period of flux. According to Urbanspoon.com, more than 100 restaurants crowd the area between Eighth Street N east to Tampa Bay, and between Second Avenue S and Fourth Avenue N. They're all within walking distance of each other, the waterfront and downtown's many cultural allures, and covering a range of cuisines and price points.
The past 18 months have seen an unprecedented number of closures and openings ) in the downtown core. India Grill opens today at its new location on Central Avenue. Irish pub Paddy Burkes opened in July at First Avenue and Fourth Street S, and Diner 437, with its acclaimed chef Domenica Macchia, opened on Central Avenue in June, a few doors from where India Grill is now. But the most ambitious newcomer opens Friday (Thursday by invitation) at the site of the ill-fated Irvine ventures. Restaurateur Steve Westphal, chef Tyson Grant, both of Parkshore Grill, and chef Sean Squires, formerly of Island Way Grill in Clearwater, open 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House, a whopping 9,000 square feet, with ample private dining space and a tap room with 24 draft beers. A sneak peek at the menu reveals Key West shrimp scampi, New England lobster bake and San Francisco cioppino. As Westphal says, "sustainable seafood from the four corners of the country."
What will this gargantuan newcomer — 300 seats to start, with more on the horizon — mean for diners and other downtown restaurants? With Tampa Bay's densest concentration of independent restaurants (Tampa's South Howard and Gulfport's Beach Drive, two other restaurant-dense locales, don't come close), can downtown support so many new ones?
Having observed the shifting restaurant terrain here and in other cities for almost 20 years, I think the answer is yes.
Not how many, what kind
Although basic arithmetic reveals that the past 18 months have brought more restaurant seats to downtown St. Petersburg (and as Zack Gross, chef/owner of the dynamic Z Grille says, more "quality seats," with sophisticated newcomers like Red Mesa Cantina leading the way), the better question might not be are there too many, but do we have the right kind. Whereas burgers and burritos proliferate, downtown is woefully underserved by exotic ethnic cuisines (beyond a couple of Thai restaurants, where's the rest of Southeast Asia? And no full-service Chinese?). And, yes, there does seem to be a dearth of seafood restaurants.
With more than 30 years in the business, from his early days as a busboy at the Wine Cellar in North Redington Beach to recent years as owner of a series of sports bars and beach restaurants, Westphal has always been adept at reading the tea leaves. His next project after 400 Beach Seafood is the terminal food concession at downtown's Albert Whitted Airport.
"Three years ago, I was asking myself, 'Where's the American steakhouse?' We didn't have any. So I thought we could do our hometown version of that with Parkshore. Then I looked around downtown and another big hole was seafood, or a tap house with craft beer," he says.
In several discussions, he was careful to draw distinctions between these two restaurants that are within a napkin toss of each other on Beach Drive NE, seeing them as complementary, not in competition. Parkshore Grill is his flagship, higher-end restaurant, focusing on steaks and deep-pockets red wines; 400 Beach Seafood hovers at a more modest price point (entrees around $15). More affordable food for a more cost-conscious time.
Playing the field
Donna Fletcher has worked downtown for 20 years, at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Morean Arts Center and currently as the volunteer coordinator at the Florida Holocaust Museum. She dines out downtown two or three times a week and eagerly anticipates 400 Beach Seafood.
"People who work downtown want to patronize the businesses of people who live and work here, to have a relationship with the independent business owners. Downtown has had a renaissance from a food standpoint. It was like a food wilderness here with too many fries, burgers and Caesar salads. It's been years since we've had so many new places to go."
But, Fletcher adds, "At the end of the day, its success or failure will be about food quality and price."
Regular downtown diners are curious, and 400 Beach Seafood is likely to command enough attention to draw diners from Hillsborough County, north Pinellas County and beyond. Still, with disposable incomes cinched tight by protracted economic woes, customers' enthusiasm for this big newcomer could mean fewer dollars in the pocket of other downtown restaurateurs.
Strength in numbers
Gross, whose Z Grille is at the base of the Signature Place condominiums, doesn't think 400 Beach Seafood will affect his business. Nonetheless, he's less sanguine about the current climate. He sees it still as a volatile time for downtown restaurants, with whole nights of business potentially lost because of bad weather or consumer whim.
"I know how busy I am," he says of Z Grille, one of the hottest openings of 2008, "but by no means am I printing money down here."
Mike Harting, new co-owner of Bella Brava on Central Avenue, is more confident. He has begun efforts to start a downtown St. Petersburg restaurant association. Its initial agenda is lobbying the city's mayoral candidates about two big concerns: the homeless issue and overly stringent parking meters. Still, he has other long-term goals for the association. He hopes to work cooperatively with downtown restaurants on purchasing (the only way to compete with chain restaurants' vast economies of scale) but also to work together to attract people from all over Tampa Bay.
"I think that the more attention you bring to downtown, whether that's American Stage or Steve Westphal's new restaurant, the busier Bella Brava will be," he says.
In his opinion, the more restaurants work together to promote downtown as a destination, the bigger the overall pie. And as to whether the 300-seat 400 Beach Seafood will take business away from its nearby 150-seat sibling, Harting has a striking example from his own 15 years of experience with Outback. Adding a Carrabba's next door to an Outback serves to increase business at the Outback.
Certainly diners will have the final word, but for now Westphal's optimism is buoying.
"We expect this new restaurant to bring more people to Beach Drive and downtown. People are moving in every day in these condos — Ovation is going to fill up, Signature is going to fill up. What gives downtown its eclectic flair is a host of talented independent restaurants. I don't think downtown is overbuilt, but I'm sure there are plenty of people scratching their heads and saying, 'What is he doing?' "
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.