It's the food your grandmother would have made, had she been an extremely tattooed, handsome bohemian guy with a passion for Florida native plants and "upcycling" old furniture and kitschy housewares. Hard to imagine, right? C.F. Hawkins is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, all right. He worked for L'Oreal for 22 years before showing up in St. Petersburg and making himself a bucket list that included "Start a cafe." He got together with Marina Williams, owner of Art Pool Gallery, and began excavating the courtyard of her gallery-cum-secondhand store-cum-gathering place. Planters spill over with flowering Florida plants, mix-and-match tables and chairs assembled like animals at a watering hole on the savanna.
In November, they annexed the J.B. Automotive Repair shop to house Evan Williams' vinyl collection, more of Marina's merchandise and Hawkins' adorable new cafe. Crowded with birdcage chandeliers, doily tablecloths and some receptacles that surely look like chamber pots, the Café at Art Pool Gallery has a cheery chalkboard menu and roll-up garage doors that make the whole space indoor-outdoor.
Just across the street from Haslam's Book Store, it has a kind of funky, improvised charm that feels just right. Most of the ordering counter is made of recycled and found objects, and the "kitchen" has the limitations of no grill, no hood and no open flame. These strictures certainly circumscribe what Hawkins can whip up. But the resulting menu is dripping in quirky charm. When was the last time you had a classic PB and J (for, wait for it, $2.95) or egg salad sandwich ($5.50), soft white bread triangles yielding in your hands in a way that feels entirely nostalgic. There's a pimento cheese sandwich ($6, a Southern staple, Hawkins drew on his South Carolina roots) and a very respectable BLT ($5.95). Every sandwich gets a little cup of fruit of the day (I hit fresh pineapple a couple of times).
After the egg salad comes the pudding cup, in this case an espresso-kicked chocolate pudding topped with a puff of whipped cream ($2). Or perhaps the tres leches-like wet coconut cake ($3), a grandma recipe for sure, with a dense, custardy texture and more whipped cream.
But then grandma gets a little frisky on another section of the menu. The salads lean toward the current and the vegan. There's a cold lentil salad ($5.95) with a sweet-tangy dressing and flurry of green peppers, celery, carrot, cranberry and walnut; and another Southwest spin ($5.95) that pairs corn with black beans, more peppers, cilantro and jalapenos. Still another cold salad features peanut-sauced noodles studded with carrots, scallions and cilantro ($5.95). All healthy and robustly flavorful.
Add to this a list of craft beers and espresso drinks and events like open-mike night or an air-guitar contest, and you've got the makings of a regular St. Petersburg hangout. In the mornings, Hawkins, a one-man band who does most of the order-taking and serving himself, makes a mean bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich ($6.50). For now there's no dinner on offer at the cafe. As this part of Central Avenue continues to see an influx of new independent restaurants and bars, perhaps Hawkins and Williams will see their way clear to rolling up the garage doors for a little dinner alfresco by the (Art) Pool.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter at @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.