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Clearwater's downtown eateries are coming and going

Chef Joe Siminski prepares dishes for the lunch crowd at Rio Mexican Grille, which recently opened.

BILL SERNE | Times

Chef Joe Siminski prepares dishes for the lunch crowd at Rio Mexican Grille, which recently opened.

CLEARWATER — Along downtown's struggling main street, restaurants suddenly are coming and going at a breakneck pace.

Even as new ones are opening in anticipation of a downtown renaissance, others have run out of money and shut their doors for good.

The newcomers are clustered in the 500 block of Cleveland Street, which has a new high-end Mexican restaurant as well as a branch of a frozen yogurt chain that has attracted a steady following in Tampa. A Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robbins franchise will appear soon.

However, in the blocks just to the east and west of that, time has run out for places such as the Rabbit Hole Cafe, La Rose Subs & Salads, and Tangerine Mediterranean.

Along this street of empty storefronts, the city aims to make the Cleveland Street District a gathering place where people will socialize, shop and dine at sidewalk cafes.

That's a tall order. But the city recently finished a $10-million makeover of the street's landscaping and it intends to hold special events to draw people downtown. To recruit businesses, it recently decided to start handing out grants to pay for work on buildings' interiors — up to $35,000 for retail shops and up to $50,000 for restaurants. No grants have been awarded yet.

"We're targeting sit-down restaurants that are open for lunch and dinner," said Geri Campos Lopez, Clearwater's economic development director. "Our focus is, what are those elements that we need to create a destination downtown? It was clear that we needed to focus on restaurants first and then the retail options for Cleveland Street."

What's opening

Rio Grande Mexican Grille, 528 Cleveland: It "officially" opened just last week, but it had a soft opening before that and has been quietly serving customers for a couple of weeks.

Owner Brian Beck, 49, is from Denver and wants to replicate the success upscale Mexican restaurants have had in that city's revitalized downtown.

"We don't want to be a cheesy Mexican place with sombreros and combo meals," he said. The menu offers high-end cuisine with Spanish flavors; marinated steak instead of ground beef; mahi-mahi in the fish tacos; and scallops and lobster.

They tore out a drop ceiling and fixed up an old pressed-tin ceiling high above it, so the place is airy and spacious at 5,000 square feet.

"I think we're on the ground floor of something big," chef Joe Siminski said of downtown.

Caliyogurt, 519 Cleveland: This local chain has been getting high marks at its South Tampa store for its creamy frozen yogurt, especially its green tea flavor. Its Clearwater location had a grand opening in late August. It's a "green" store with organic paint on the walls, recycled wood countertops and recycled glass in the floor tiles.

"Business has kind of slowed down, but I think it's going to be fine," said owner Phillip Park.

Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robbins, 534 Cleveland: It will go in the old telephone building that's being refurbished on the northwest corner of Cleveland Street and Garden Avenue.

Building owner Jon Heneghan gutted the three-story structure, which once housed a telephone operations center, and peeled away a 60-year-old facade to reveal the original red brick fronting from 1914.

The doughnut-and-ice-cream shop should open by early November, said franchisee Vik Patel, who owns 13 other locations in Pinellas County.

Greektown Grille, 1230 Cleveland: Seven blocks from the other new arrivals, this family-owned restaurant opened in early August with a large menu of traditional Greek dishes and live music on weekends.

Cafe Supreme, at Cleveland and Myrtle streets: This Canadian chain, somewhat similar to a Panera Bread, is slated to open a location in November across the street from Walgreens.

Closing down

On the flip side, the combination of a weak economy and a lack of business downtown has recently proved to be the death knell for several other eateries.

Rabbit Hole Cafe, 425 Cleveland: Until last week, a sandwich-board sign on the sidewalk outside it advertised "100 percent organic food." Now the place is empty.

La Rose Subs & Salads, 421 Cleveland: Signs in the window talk of Angus beef burgers and fruit smoothies, but it shut down a couple of weeks ago.

Jack's Downtown Deli, in Clearwater Tower: Currently closed because of construction on its doorstep, it hopes to reopen within weeks.

Tangerine Mediterranean, 635 Cleveland: It closed a couple of weeks ago. Among the things owner Ali Seghrouchni complained about were the parking meters outside his door.

"It didn't work out, man. A lot of overhead, not enough cash flow," he said. "At nighttime, it's like a ghost town here."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater's downtown eateries are coming and going 10/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 9:43pm]
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