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At home at St. Petersburg's Banyan Coffee and Tea

ST. PETERSBURG — Robinson Crusoe made his home in a banyan tree. The hideout of one of the loneliest characters in all of literature hardly seems a fitting symbol for St. Petersburg's newest coffeehouse. Really, Banyan Coffee and Tea has all the charm and warmth of a longtime crowd pleaser, the kind of gathering place beloved by mothers of toddlers in strollers, by tea sippers and paperback lingerers, by those rich in the luxury of free time and in need of a comfy seat. One can picture poetry readings in the narrow, cozy room, or imagine a cheery accumulation of odds and ends over time (a stack of much-loved board games, maybe a hand-drawn thank-you from elementary schoolers).

But for now, owner Erica Allums and her small staff are offering excellent coffee, roasted by St. Petersburg's own Kahwa Coffee Roasting, a handful of sandwiches and baked goods, and a bit of uplift to this stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N. Uplift specifics: The happiest of all crockery, Fiestaware in the full range of colors lines the shelves behind Allums, who may compliment your outfit while plating a still-warm scone with real whipped cream ($1.50). Behind you, one single diner leans over to the single next to her to discuss the deliciousness of the day's Portuguese kale soup ($2.50 a cup; $3.50 a bowl), beans and sausage and corned beef crowding the rich broth.

Allums is dreaming of opening Friday and Saturday nights one of these days, and she might add beer and wine and some more desserts. I look forward to those changes, but as it stands the neighborhood is enriched by Banyan's thick-cut, house-roasted turkey breast with cranberry chutney, havarti and mixed greens sandwich on multigrain bread ($7), a drippy-ripe tomato and slather of mayo adding just the right moisture to the assemblage. Or the house-roasted pork loin tucked with white cheddar and caramelized onions into Cuban bread ($7) and then pressed crunchy and warm, or a similar treatment brought to bear on fat portobellos and goat cheese with a tangle of pickled red onion ($7).

At breakfast, St. Pete Bagels are tempting, but that same pressed Cuban bread, offered with a filling of crisp bacon, soft-yolked egg and molten cheese (one of the area's true bargains at $3.50, certainly enough to serve two sturdy breakfast appetites), is the better choice. Scones are crisp-edged, crumbly and homemade looking, one day's batch of apricot batter just undersweet enough to need a dab of whipped cream or a slather of butter and jam.

The rest of the display case is crowded with brownies, chocolate chip cookies and little puff-pastry squares dabbed with raspberry jam (all $1 to $2); while none is going to set new standards in decadent delectability, there's a wholesome, homey quality to all the goods that just adds to Banyan's charisma.

With expanded hours and a little menu growth, this new coffeehouse at the site of the former St. Pete's Finest could manage to nab exactly that title.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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Banyan Coffee and Tea

689 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg

(727) 896-6100

Cuisine: Coffeehouse

Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday

Details: MC, V; no reservations; no liquor

Prices: $3-$7

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★ Service: ★★★

Atmosphere: ★★★

Overall: ★★ 1/2

Thursday in Weekend: Leafy Greens Cafe in North Redington Beach

Key: Extraordinary ★★★★

Excellent ★★★ Good ★★ Fair ★

At home at St. Petersburg's Banyan Coffee and Tea 09/16/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 20, 2008 10:22pm]
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