ST. PETERSBURG — What makes a city?
The tourist magnets and secret dives. The scenery and shops and things to do.
And, of course, the food.
But ask many local restaurateurs, and you'll find that 2009 was not champagne and caviar and customers galore. It was a fight to stay alive in a downtown climate that saw many restaurants changing hands, and in some cases, shutting doors altogether.
There is no consensus for the struggle other than that ubiquitous "economy" word. Every restaurant owner has his own list of woes, ranging from parking to management to an anemic tourist season. To the intangible.
But almost everyone shares a sentiment — a hope, at least.
This year can only go up.
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Longtimers remember the bustling winter season full of Northerners. The locals who sought the quirkiness of downtown over the convenience of chains. The customers who didn't mind walking.
Not so now.
In 2009, downtown restaurants including Pacific Wave, Zurritos, Diner 437, Grille 121, the Table and Zapata's have closed. Many others remain in flux.
"It has been the most challenging year that we've known," said Emmanuel Roux, who in December sold his Garden restaurant, a Central Avenue jazz destination he had owned for 16 years. "We had days during what was supposed to be 'the season' that were comparable to the dead of the summer."
Central Avenue, former hub of activity downtown, has bled slowly. On one end, Jannus Landing's business problems have sucked away hungry concertgoers.
"There were enough good shows in every different genre," said Zack Gross, who operated Zurritos on Central for five years before folding it into his restaurant Z Grille on Second Street. "There were also parents that were there. There were shows where 30- to 40-year-olds go out to dinner."
Zurritos packed a work crowd at lunch. When he closed in September, afternoon business was better than ever. But dinner was a ghost town, and he couldn't renegotiate the rent, he said.
The popular Bella Brava remains on Central not far from an area pocked with boarded storefronts. Next door, the Table couldn't make it. It reopened as St. Pete Brasserie in November.
There was no home for the swanky Miami vibe and high prices here, said owner Andrew "Wilko" Wilkins, who took over in September. Most entrees are less than $15 at the Brasserie, a French concept Wilkins thinks will resonate.
"My plan was always to do the Brasserie," Wilkins said. "I don't think St. Pete was ready for a foofy restaurant, as I put it."
At Diner 437, customers lauded reasonable prices on things like fries cooked in duck fat and lobster BLTs, said owner Greg Pugh. But it wasn't enough. Dinner was slow. People coming from games and events passed other options before finding his diner. Diner 437 closed in December.
"As a lunch environment, it worked very well," said Pugh, who also owns Ringside Cafe on Fourth Street. "With the expenses, that's not enough to keep a restaurant like that going."
Parking didn't help, he said.
Some shudder at the topic. Limited spaces and meters drive away business and add extra hardship on employees, they say.
"Here's the thing," said Jim Connell, who owns Chappy's Louisiana Kitchen on Central. "It continually comes back to being the same issue. People will not come down here for a two-hour experience of dining and risk a $25 ticket."
It's a frustration at Primi Urban Cafe, an Italian bistro near Williams Park. "I have my customers that sometimes drive around, around, around, around, in order to get a parking space," said Saverio Macaluso, who bought the restaurant from Arno and Irene Von Waltsleben in November. "They struggle with it."
To others, that's not the real problem.
"Parking to me is a non-issue," said Roux. "What is important is to have interesting places. If you have interesting places, people will always find a way to park. … There is a direct correlation of interesting cities and difficult parking."
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It's not all gloom and doom.
Business rules along Beach Drive, where city leaders have pushed development. The homeless problem there pales next to the rest of the city. Some business owners look to Beach Drive with ire, saying it's easy to succeed there.
But rent there is also higher, points out Steve Westphal, owner of the popular Parkshore Grill. Westphal also became part-owner of 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House in October.
"Yes, the downtown surge this time could be credited to the buildout on Beach Drive," he said. "Collectively as a whole, there's a synergy that dominates. … We've got five blocks on the waterfront. Five blocks where the town comes to the shore, and that's what we're trying to capitalize on."
Red Mesa Cantina opened at the start of 2009 to replace the defunct DeSanto Latin American Bistro on Third Street beneath Push Ultra Lounge. It's flourishing, said owner Peter Veytia. He owned Adobo Grill in Baywalk for five years, so he knows the downtown climate.
"The expectations are hard to determine," he said. "A new business, a new location, the economic times of which everyone is aware. One thing that really helped us is knowing that we designed a concept to be unique and yet casual."
Nearby, Z Grille feeds off that energy. Gross caters to loyals and a steady stream of new customers, hoping the Signature Place condos above his restaurant will fill up in 2010 and help even more.
"You still have great nights and great events that still happen," he said. "It's turning a corner, and I think the strong will survive."
Times food critic Laura Reiley contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.