ST. PETERSBURG — Diners will get a big helping of Southern comfort, spoon bread pudding plus a jolt of Tabasco from an ambitious plan to bring at least three new Southern and Creole restaurants downtown.
The restaurants will be opened this year by a partnership between Craig "Chappy" Chapman, a corporate chef for Bonefish Grill and Hops Restaurant and Brewery, and the Hamilton family, longtime St. Petersburg property owners.
Chapman started cooking at age 12 in Richmond, Va., with a chef for a father. He came to Tampa decades ago with the Tobacco Company Restaurant and then joined Tim Curci at Hops and Bonefish Grill.
Now, at 47, he gets a chance to serve some of his favorite Southern foods but with sharp technique and authenticity.
"Real grits, not instant. I'm very food-driven. I want to see quality in the kitchen and the way it looks, from the exterior to the back dock," he said.
He and his partners have acquired space from two existing Central Avenue restaurants, including Redwoods, a downtown gourmet pioneer. They plan their largest restaurants in the new high-rise at 400 Beach Drive, the same building, though not the same space, where Food Network chef Robert Irvine planned to open Ooze and Schmooze until his celebrity recently collapsed in a resume-padding scandal.
The Hamiltons — Dr. John Hamilton, his son John Jr. and daughter Susan Hamilton Churuti — are excited about teaming with Chapman, who has worked in the Tampa area for 15 years, said Bob Churuti, Susan's husband.
When Chapman met the Hamiltons to look at the 400 Beach space in January, he was introduced by a businessman who had his own failed dealings, unknown to them.
Thomas Coelho, whom Chapman said he met through a mutual friend, left the group this past weekend after being told that a St. Petersburg Times background check revealed a trail of scandal, controversy and criminal charges.
Coelho's problems included a failed plan for a major comedy club in New Haven, Conn., and subsequent debts, a larceny conviction in California and probation violation, a jilted effort to buy Sarasota News & Books, and a tangled real estate deal on Anna Maria Island awaiting trial in federal court.
"He said he was sorry he hadn't told us about his problems," Bob Churuti said Tuesday. "He resigned."
Churuti and Chapman said the first restaurant will open in four to six weeks in the 400 block of Central Avenue and plans for the others will move ahead rapidly.
The plans are ambitious, but despite a national slowdown in restaurant sales and lingering embarrassment over Ooze and Schmooze, downtown St. Petersburg is in a dining renaissance.
A hip import of Latin-Asian fusion from Sarasota, the Table Restaurant and Mesa Lounge, opens this week in the Alexander Building, 535 Central Ave. The flashy De Santo Latin Bistro and Push Ultra Lounge, which opened three months ago, is upgrading its cooking with help from Jeannie Pierola, formerly of Bern's Steak House in Tampa. Zack Gross of Z-Grille will move an upscale version of his California-Mexican menu to space in the Signature tower under construction near Progress Energy Park at Al Lang Field.
Chapman's colleagues say he can easily add several new places to the downtown scene. He has started more than a hundred restaurants for Bonefish and Hops, while creating recipes and keeping a sharp eye on quality at each restaurant.
"We're going to be neighbors again," said Tony Harahan, who worked with Chapman at Bonefish and has himself become a partner in Cafe Alma, a popular Mediterranean spot downtown.
"Craig has a passion for food and commitment for quality," said Chris Arreola, Bonefish vice president.
Chapman's first venture will be Grillside Central, opening in the former site of Tedesco's in four to six weeks. The upscale Southern menu will start with traditional breakfast as well as eggs Benedict, rarebits and shrimp Newburg from $4 to $15. Lunches and dinners will include grilled meat loaf, pork chops and market fish with varying classic sides of black-eyed peas, rice and roast cabbage at dinner prices from $12 to $25.
The next restaurant to open in early summer will be a New Orleans restaurant in the space now occupied by Redwoods and its former sushi bar, tentatively called Chappy's Creole Soul.
Then Chapman and the Hamiltons will turn their attention to 400 Beach Drive and 8,600 square feet on the south side of the building. The space could house one or more concepts, Southern and upscale, possibly under different names.
"They have the talent, the energy and the backing to do it," says Emmanuel Roux, a French entrepreneur who started the Garden 15 years ago and then took over nearby Redwoods. Roux called Chapman "a talented chef doubled with very practical skills."