A revolution is under way in the downtown St. Petersburg dining scene. The Tampa Bay craft beer craze is catching fire big time, and by the end of the year diners will see a throng of new names and faces.
For much of the past couple of years, growth on Beach Drive has been explosive, its restaurants consistently among Pinellas County's toughest reservations to nab. But now the rest of downtown, centered on that long stretch of Central Avenue, is reinventing itself. There are some good reasons: New apartment projects like Beacon 430 and Modera Prime 235 will likely bring greater resident — and diner — density downtown, as would rumored corporate projects like the new worldwide headquarters near Tropicana Field that Jabil Circuit is considering.
Perhaps more important than the many construction projects on the horizon is this factor fueling Central Avenue's restaurant revival: critical mass. Restaurants beget restaurants, and right now there's a whole lot of begetting.
"It's a big tourist area and one with a lot of different demographics all melded together," says Kevin West, operations manager for the SoHo Sushi group, summing up the appeal of downtown St. Petersburg right now for restaurateurs. "There's also a lot of residential going in, especially when compared to downtown Tampa."
In September, it was announced that Sushi Inc., sister restaurant to Tampa's popular SoHo Sushi, will take over Ratchada's at 270 First Ave N. Set to open at the end of October with lunch specials, an extensive sushi menu and a full bar, Sushi Inc. was a long time coming.
"We've been looking for a while, specifically downtown because of the life and energy downtown," West said.
St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran says this energy is no accident.
"A couple of years back we started the Central Avenue Revitalization Plan," she explains. "Our aim was not to look at Central Avenue as the divider of the city north and south, but more as a zipper that brings the city together. Each area has something different: The 600 block is the Central Arts District, then there's the EDGE (Entertainment, Dining, Galleries, Etc.) District, Grand Central and then West Central farther out."
The key to robust growth in these areas is the right balance of retail, restaurants and bars, Curran said. It is this balance, coupled with the Central Avenue Trolley, that will increasingly draw pedestrians west from Beach Drive.
Joe Orsino, chief executive officer of Caledon Concept Partners, is familiar with the allures of the Beach Drive area: The company's Ceviché launched there in 2005. Caledon will debut Rococo Steak at the end of October, having sunk $3 million in the historic YWCA building at 655 Second Ave. S because, as he says, "Downtown can't grow in the other direction — there's water there."
Orsino thinks the time is ripe for an upscale, contemporary steak house, partly because downtown doesn't have an iconic steak house.
"Would I do a national steak house chain in downtown St. Pete? No. St. Pete is an artistic, forward-thinking community, one that supports local. We saw this as an opportunity to operate a restaurant and a type of cuisine that didn't exist. The local scene is changing; it's becoming more cosmopolitan. We've seen tremendous growth, with people open to new ideas."
Jeff Martin, founder of the Brass Tap, will launch a new location next door to Rococo Steak at 653 Second Ave. S, its opening date to coincide with the steak house's. Why does this First Avenue corridor make sense for him?
"We've got 50 locations signed up for the future. This will be No. 11. We're trying to be a part of that craft beer culture down here," Martin says. "We all do something a little differently, so we all work together and are friends."
It's a lot of friends at this point: Adding to downtown's World of Beer, Ale and the Witch and other craft beer bars, in the past few weeks Green Bench Brewing opened right off of First Avenue N at 1133 Baum Ave. N, and Doug Dozark's Cycle Brewing, based at Peg's Cantina in Gulfport for several years, opened in mid August at 534 Central Ave. These last two don't offer food, but aim to work synergistically with nearby restaurants.
This is a model that has been increasingly popular, soon to be replicated by St. Petersburg Brewing, which opens at 538 and 544 First Ave. N in mid to late November (around the same time Bella Brava co-owner Mike Harting debuts his 3 Daughters Brewery tasting room in the Grand Central District). Co-owner Tom Williams will work with Papa Angelo's Pizza, because "craft beer with craft pizza is a knockout punch."
Why are downtown St. Pete and its environs suddenly so irresistible to new restaurants and bars?
"My dad lives at 400 Beach Drive. The traffic and parking down there are pretty tough, and it's very upscale," Williams said. "When people look for an easy place to go they'll think of the First Street corridor and Central Avenue. And I'm really excited about Mirror Lake and getting people walking around here. When we first moved here our friends in South Tampa said, why are you moving to St. Pete? Now those same friends say they're thinking of moving to St. Pete."
John Cullen, who with partner Zoie Torres will open the Amsterdam, a European-inspired beer and wine bar at 1049 Central Ave. at the end of this month, thinks some of this flurry of newcomers is about the business tenor of Central Avenue.
"All of the business owners here share a camaraderie and a common goal. Everyone seems to mesh and work together and there's a sense of family," he says, stressing that these newcomers are small independents.
To wit, the EDGE District, which runs between First Avenues N and S from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street to 16th Street, is poised to welcome even more. A ground floor of the Fusion 1560 apartment building across from Tropicana Field will soon house the Flying Pig Tap House (craft beer with 50 taps) and a Celtic bar called the Bearded Thistle opens at 48 King St. N.
Bill Helwig started his Moscato's in a microscopic storefront on Fourth Street N, moving to a larger space at 449 Central Ave. a couple of years ago. Success has meant growing pains: By the end of the year Moscato's will move into the Kress Building, which most recently (but fleetingly) held Banana Joe's and Margarita Mama's. Going from 55 seats to 130, Helwig is obviously bullish about the future of Central Avenue. (Also planned for the space is a salon.)
"Beach Drive is nice, but I think Central is going to be better. These changes are going to bring more people down here. It will help bring the pedestrians from Beach Drive because there will be more to see."
With Ratchada becoming Sushi Inc. and Green Chili Indian Bistro recently transformed into the Lemon Grass, downtown has begun to see a number of new faces. At Central Avenue Oyster Bar the name is the same, but it's under new ownership. Josh Cameron hails from the remote town of Dubbo near the Outback in Australia.
"I did a road trip with three lads from back home and we saw about 40 states," he says. "St. Pete was one we landed in and had a lot more fun than expected. I had a soft spot for St. Pete. So when I thought of buying a bar in the States I circled a few of my favorite spots and got the ball rolling."
While Cameron reinvents this longtimer, others are circling and looking to get in on the action: The Tilted Kilt, the Scottish-themed "breastaurant," is said to be looking at downtown spaces, Red Mesa is contemplating an additional location closer to Tropicana Field and Greg Pugh of Ringside Cafe is looking at relocating downtown
With all this fierce new competition, there are bound to be fatalities. The Lobby and Garden, part of the old Detroit Hotel complex and one of St. Petersburg's oldest restaurants, closed last week. And the St. Pete Brasserie has called it quits after four years. Despite announcing its closure at the end of September, owner Justin Chamoun was still optimistic about the area, citing the new breweries and projects like Rococo Steak as proof of a vital future for Central Avenue.
"It's primed and will start to get attention."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.