A whole new crop of downtown St. Petersburg restaurants has opened just in time for the annual earsplitting drama of the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Cassis (170 Beach Drive), a French-continental newcomer at the bottom of the Ovation building, won't quite make it in time (expect an opening April 5), but a raft of other brand-new concepts has opened recently. There's an interesting trend afoot: Almost all of these restaurants are the efforts of existing St. Petersburg restaurateurs, many of them realizing that a protracted economic tailspin means there are good lease deals to be had. For diners, it's an opportunity to sample new flavors and ideas overseen by seasoned restaurant pros. — Laura Reiley, Times food critic
The Zurritos space was renovated and relaunched as Crowley's (269 Central Ave.; (727) 821-1111; 11 a.m.-midnight Sun.-Wed., until 2 a.m. Thurs.-Sat.) on March 4 by the Crowley family. Parents Dennis and Alice are veterans in the business (Dennis was with Outback for 22 years, Steak & Ale for 11 years before that); son Nicholas is in charge of the kitchen, daughter Denyse oversees the bar, and son Matthew mans the front of the house. It's an Irish pub, complete with corned beef and cabbage, shepherd's pie and Irish stew.
Kahwa Coffee Roasting started roasting beans here in 2005, expanding with a cafe in 2008 and a second Kahwa Cafe(204 Second Ave. S; (727) 821-1942; 6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Sat. and Sun.), which opened Feb. 6 next to the UPS store in the site of the short-lived Milky Way Cafe. Coffee drinks are expertly made, and salads are sophisticated and fresh-tasting, if a little small. I wish the daily quiche were warmed, but the short menu is a welcome new lunch option for downtown workers. The stylish space offers dog-friendly outdoor seating and free WiFi.
CENTRAL CAFE & ORGANICS
Mickey Paleologos, owner of Central Cafe & Organics (243 Central Ave.; (727) 824-0881) hasn't opened a new place, but he has paired with local foodie Rita Fabula to do something new in his little courtyard. On March 11, they launched Fabula's, a dinnertime small-plate concept featuring a revolving menu of fresh, local and seasonal foods, things like pancetta-larded day boat scallops with tarragon cream sauce or filet mignon with fresh asparagus and crabmeat in a cognac black pepper sauce. Dishes are $6 to $15. Hours are 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Practically right next door, longtime Fortunato's owner Charles Marco has just launched something fresh as well. Pairing up with Moroccan chef Karim Nouri, most recently of Carino's in St. Pete Beach, he opened Fez (261 Central Ave.; (727) 821-4719; 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday) on Feb. 26. He has overhauled a space that has served as the spillover lunchroom for Fortunato's, moving a bar and adding dramatic decor evocative of Morocco. Nouri is turning out clay-pot tagines (most around $15) and a range of couscous dishes and kebabs, and on Friday nights a belly dancer adds to the excitement.
GREEN CHILI INDIAN BISTRO
Green Chili Indian Bistro (310 Central Ave.; (727) 898-2783; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.) expands Monday into the space next door to open Raga Dining. The idea: Keep the existing Green Chili space for quick Bombay-style combos and small meals for sit-down or takeout (meals under $6), then offer a full buffet ($8.49 for lunch) in the pretty Raga space as well as a more elaborate a la carte menu with Madhu and Naresh Sharma's signature deft use of unusual Indian spices.
Nola Cafe (300 Beach Drive N, Suite 128; (727) 498-8978; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. daily) had its soft opening near the end of last year, when Rumen Gavrilov bought the franchise rights from the owner of Nola on W Platt in Tampa. Gavrilov is a longtime restaurant pro, having done banquet management at the Vinoy and the Hilton in St. Petersburg. His new venture offers Louisiana classics not unlike the newish Ricky P's on Fourth Street N. Red beans and rice, chicken gumbo and crawfish etouffee nurture with their spice and heat; and fans have waxed enthusiastic thus far about the house beignets (three per order for $2.85; puffy, quick-fried balls of dough dusted with powdered sugar).
It has been a long time since so many new signs went up along downtown streets. Let's hope this is an indication of robust recovery in months to come.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.