ST. PETERSBURG — Buya Ramen, the much-anticipated new kid on the 900 block of downtown St. Petersburg, opened its doors at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, and we stopped in to check it out.
Throughout the evening, the 2,500-square-foot space, with its exposed original architecture and shou sugi ban (Japanese charred wood) walls, was comfortably full. People mingled at the bar while others dined at booths and tables on the other side of a slatted wood screen.
On the menu are items like wagyu brisket and crispy duck ramen bowls made with tonkotsu broth, pork belly buns and seaweed salad, and craft cocktails featuring Japanese whisky. Bowls are served with wooden chopsticks and ladles to slurp up the broth, and Mai Tais come in chilled Tiki glasses. Bowls range between $14 and $18, while small plates are between $8-$12.
On the walls are murals made by artist Michael Vahl — at the front of the restaurant, a bantam rooster and a bull; on the right, a ramen fight in a bathhouse, based on an 1868 painting by Toyohara Kunichika. Old St. Petersburg hex tiles from the 1920s make up the floor.
Owner Mike Sponaugle and business partner Brian Wojtowicz are behind the restaurant, which focuses on Japanese izakaya-style dining. (Think Japanese gastropub.) The menu features ramen bowls as well as small plate items like baby bok choy.
Sponaugle, who has opened similar restaurants in Miami, deliberately limited the opening-day crowd to reservations of 100 people in order to avoid overwhelming his staff and customers. (As of Wednesday evening, the next available table was for Saturday.)
"It's really about everybody getting here, having the right experience," he said.
On opening night, the vibe in the restaurant seemed to convey just that. The music was upbeat while couples slurped down noodles and cocktails adorned with purple flowers in intimate booths. At the bar, people drank whisky and ordered mixed drinks like the Geisha, made with Reyka vodka and Thai basil, or the Kyusai, made with Toki Japanese whisky and ginger honey.
People without reservations came through the doors seeking tables, too.
Buya is part of a growing ramen trend in the area, which also includes Mango Tree in downtown St. Pete and Ichicoro in Tampa.
"It's been overwhelmingly positive," Sponaugle said about the response Buya has received so far. "The city's embraced us and I can tell you we're happy to be here."
Buya is located at 911 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. You can make reservations at buyaramen.com.