Think of all the things people eat on camping trips — s'mores, freeze-dried stews, trail mix. These things are eaten with great gusto, which proves one simple point: Everything tastes good when eaten outside. Downtown St. Petersburg's got more than its share of outdoor dining spots. Here are some of our faves.
Along Beach Drive
Outside tables at Parkshore Grill offer a view of the bustling downtown revival and namesake park. Inside, a curving bar is flanked by a glass-encased wine closet that doubles as a design feature and includes some fine, moderately priced California cabernets and pinot noirs. Plates emerge from the open kitchen as finely crafted American cuisine with a twist. Think beef Wellington, grilled lamb chops, lobster pasta, or pan-seared scallops, only this version is sweet and tender, circling a mound of sauteed baby spinach with the rich smokiness of Southern greens. 300 Beach Drive NE, (727) 896-9463.
Since 1996, The Moon Under Water's calling card has been a loose and ethnically diverse array of pub grub, all able accompaniments to a delicious, foam-capped black and tan. The signature dish is chicken tikka masala (said to be "Britain's true national dish"), and even Moon Under Water's walls are deep red tinged a slight curry color, against which assorted flags and Brit-obilia pop. The regular chicken curry is something of a party, arriving with a hot metal bowl of saffron-hued basmati, another of dusky curry, a crisp, peppery pappadam, an oblong of warm naan, and if you're in the mood to splurge a few bucks extra, little bowls of mango chutney, onion pickle and cuke-spiked yogurt. 332 Beach Drive NE, (727) 896-6160.
Then, of course, comes the gelato. More sidewalk tables abound at Paciugo, its gelato denser, softer, creamier than American ice cream. Made with milk, not cream, gelato has about 70 percent less fat than many ice creams. Opened at the end of 2006, Paciugo (pa-CHU-go) offers 32 to 34 flavors each day. In a small cup you can mix three flavors together. Consider pairing the intense chocolate fondant with a bit of lush hazelnut (the most popular flavor in Italy) and then tie them together with a third selection of gianduja (that's chocolate and hazelnut together, like Nutella). 300 Beach Drive NE, (727) 209-0298.
On the other hand, there's the bustling front porch of Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant. Its namesake cocktail of citrus-marinated fish is only one item on the biggest spread of hot and cold tapas. Crowds and food are fast and fun: olives, quail, sherried chicken livers and albondigas. 10 Beach Drive NE, (727) 209-2302.
Along Central Avenue
Around the corner from dinner-only Ceviche is its younger sibling, Pincho y Pincho, which offers Spanish-style breakfast, lunch and dinner in a teeny, casual bistro. It seems plucked right off the streets of Barcelona, an any-time-of-the-day hangout where you can linger over a big bowl of milky coffee or wrestle with an open-face ham and manchego sandwich while watching pedestrians amble by. It's not good for groups, but a tiny table crammed with tapas and a pitcher of sangria seems the height of romance para dos. Breakfast may be its biggest gift to downtown. 95 Central Ave., (727) 209-2302.
A little further west and the second-story balcony of BellaBrava beckons, not to mention its new, affordable bar menu (meatball sliders, Italian-style wings and three kinds of addictive fries). Only a few years old, BellaBrava continues to reinvent itself, adding new suave lunch items (piadina, a sandwich hailing from Romagna that's like a flatbread mated with a calzone), gussying up the lovely dining room and maintaining enough buzz to keep the bar and dining room hopping. 515 Central Ave., (727) 895-5515.
Red Mesa Cantina was launched at the site of DeSanto in the gloriously reinvented McNulty Station at the start of this year. It inherited a great courtyard patio, a cool nightclub upstairs (Push Ultra Lounge) and the most drool-worthy exhibition kitchen in St. Petersburg. Dance a little, drink a little, then head down for a roast duck soft taco — fluffs of goat cheese and dabs of red chili jelly, with grilled pineapple offering a perfect fruity counterpoint for the confit-like duck. The menu is divided into ceviches, a raft of soft tacos (all cheap and on housemade corn tortillas), soups and salads, a few sandwiches, a pile of miscellaneous appetizers and a short list of mid-priced but sophisticated entrees. 128 Third St. S, (727) 896-8226.
Cafe Alma is the grand dame of hip downtown dining, opened all the way back in 2002. During the day the menu is fairly American (with a wallet-friendly $9 salad-entree-drink combo that downtown workers should take a look at), and at night it skews a little more to the Italian side than it once did. The management has instituted a whole bunch of special promotions (prime rib Mondays, two-for-one night Wednesdays, ladies' night Fridays, a Bloody Mary bar at brunch). But it's not all that stuff that has people still coming in the door (well, maybe the Bloody Mary bar). Cafe Alma still feels like the kind of warm, intimate place you'd like to settle into for a while. Dogs are welcome on the patio outside and indoors it's dark like a German rathskeller, with a warren of curtained-off cubbies and a strange preponderance of iffy pugilist art. 260 First Ave. S, (727) 502-5002.
The low thrum of engines, the plumes of smoke and screech of tires — none of this fits seamlessly with Marchand's at the Renaissance Vinoy. Too fancy. But its more casual cousin, Alfresco's, is ideal, outdoors and with a lively Floribbean menu. This small and casual spot is a bit hard to find back by the pool, but when you do, you'll appreciate the solicitous service and the opportunity for a little spring breeze to rustle your menu. A longtime favorite is the sweet potato fries that come with wraps and sandwiches. But if you're being good, there's always fresh fruit. 501 Fifth Ave. NE, (727) 894-1000.
Sidewalk tables have begun to amass at Zack and Jennifer Gross' new Z Grille at the bottom of Signature Place. Zack was nominated for a prestigious James Beard award — a rarity for chefs in these parts — largely on the basis of his oversized personality and serious culinary panache. The edgy decor is dominated by a 10-foot bamboo halfpipe with artwork from local tattoo artist Evil Don. It's playful yet still sophisticated, and that's the way the food is, too. Think Dr Pepper fried ribs, deviled eggs that come revved up with crab meat or avocado and bacon or a bacon-lettuce-avocado-seared-sea-scallop-tomato composed salad called the B.L.A.S.T. Chef Zack's flavors are assertive but suave: A fan of chipotle barbecue pork tenderloin gets overshadowed by its lush jalapeno goat cheese creamed corn. The wine list features a number of splurgy by-the-glass offerings, most from California, that pair beautifully with the menu. 104 Second St. S, (727) 822-9600.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.
IndyCar and ALMS events get under way at the St. Pete waterfront with drifting exhibitions, qualifying and daily air shows Friday through Sunday, with the big race at 2:45 p.m. Sunday. There's also the Bright House Networks Speed Zone, with a Ferris wheel and kids' activities. Go to gpstpete.com for a schedule.
Tickets: Three days with Saturday and Sunday reserved: upper rows, adult $110, junior (12 and younger) $80; lower rows, adult $85, junior $55; Sunday reserved seat: adult $60-$80, junior $35-$55; General admission: three days, adult $45, junior $20; Friday or Saturday, adult $25, junior $10; Sunday, adult $40, junior $15. Gates open 8 a.m. each day. Call (866) 448-7849 for tickets or visit the trackside box office at First Street and First Avenue S.