Monday, January 15, 2018
Restaurants

Make it a staycation: Where to eat and play around St. Pete Beach

ST. PETE BEACH — The first time I heard the word "staycation" I rolled my eyes just slightly. I suppose the rolling was even fiercer, nearly enough to cause ocular sprain, when I heard the terms "mancation" (really, dudes, you do it differently?) and "babymoon." That's when an expecting mom needs a romantic getaway, maybe even jewelry, to soft-focus the particulars of what is about to transpire.

But back to staycation. You're taking off work, clearing the docket entirely, and the best you can come up with is staying home? Why not tackle that stack of ironing that's piled up or roll all the household loose change? Woo, staycation!

And then it happened to me.

It was a significant birthday, the kind for which an appropriate candle count would constitute a troubling fire hazard. My posse, a trio with impressive graduate degrees and senses of humor best described as "salty," pooled their funds and plotted a beach weekend. A local beach weekend.

FRIDAY

Our room at the Sirata Beach Resort (5300 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; toll-free 1-844-993-9878), two double beds but with easy access to ice, was going to be tight. We had each packed for any eventuality, a trait common to our gender I'm told, with enough bathing suits to stock a mall kiosk. We negotiated who was bunking with whom, no one admitting to snoring or other unsavory nocturnal habits, enjoyed a quick pickletini happy hour in the room (a good reposado tequila, a big splash of fancy pickle juice and one fat dill swizzler), and then it was off to dinner.

Newcomer Island Grille & Raw Bar (1110 Pinellas Bayway S, Suite 206, Tierra Verde; (727) 767-0020) fit the bill: indoor-outdoor seating, water views, heavy on the seafood, with good happy hour specials and live music nightly. It's a family affair (Colleen and Bob Mueller, Lauren DiMarco, Bill and Karen Cassels, Chris and Tina Grady), opened in August at the site of what was the Tierra Verde Marina Resort — a savvy move, because there's already a brand new marina and a dry-dock there, with a big pool being built and a Marriott hotel concept going in next year. For now, though, the draw is the fun-loving vibe and chef Jeremy Peterson's seafood-centric menu.

I opted for the chilled sampler: six raw oysters, four shrimp cocktail and smoked salmon fish spread for $18, although I saw the chargrilled oysters and baked options ambling by the table, so I know what I'm getting next time, preferably on a Tuesday when oysters are 75 cents, oh, and before 6 p.m., so I'll get the happy hour two-for-one drinks, too. Nothing wrong with a little frugality when it's not my birthday staycation.

Feeling the need to impress upon the youth of today the many splendors of dancing like it's 1989, we hit the long strip of beach bars known as the "Miracle Mile" and stopped off at Jimmy B's Beach Bar (6200 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 367-1902). There's a lot going on here, with three separate bar areas and indoor-outdoor seating, televisions everywhere and a band area with dance floor where, if you stomp just right, say to Tom Petty's American Girl, you can knock the drinks right off the tables.

Wings, burgers, flatbreads — you've seen this menu before. What you need to know is that the signature drink is called the Wet Spot, equally embarrassing to order and to drink: a pina colada with a drizzle of blueberry liqueur, topped with a floof of whipped cream. File under bad ideas: Beachy drinks are offered in a 36-ounce size for $23.95. After bidding the band, Mikey and the Thieves, an exuberant farewell, we slid out the back to the outdoor deck with its long boardwalk down to the beach. Beach walk, and good night.

 

SATURDAY

A little-known fact: Hollandaise sauce functions as an analeptic, stimulating the central nervous system when you're sick, sad or hungover.

Actually, I made that up, but it's no accident that eggs Benedict is tops for brunch dreaminess. Sea Turtle Restaurant (4599 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 367-1727) offers seven varieties, from the Reuben, complete with sauerkraut and corned beef, to prime rib, most $8.50. I opted for the traditional, and what makes Sea Turtle float above the others is the quantity of the hollandaise. A tureen's worth, no hyperbole.

Co-owner Diane Scott is English, which explains the full English breakfast ($15), a rib-sticker that includes grilled tomatoes, baked beans, sauteed mushrooms and a whole lot of other things Americans never think to eat in the morning. Also on offer are Scotch eggs, $4, a most Instagram-worthy oddity composed of hardboiled eggs wrapped in loose sausage, breaded and fried. Sea Turtle is small and comfortable, the servers quick to refill coffee (although, strangely, our waitress got in a fight with someone as she was taking our order, departing out the back door never to return).

Not taking that as any kind of exegesis of our worthiness as customers, we moved on for some beach time, renting the cabana-two chaises-table-umbrella combo at the Sirata that seems perennially to be on sale, marked back from $200 to $100.

Barring sunscreen reapplication, all went still.

(Several hours later)

Someone said rum runner. Someone else said Bloody Mary. But since the Sirata's beach bar is in fact called Rum Runners Bar & Grille, it seemed our hands were tied: light rum, dark rum, banana liqueur, blackberry brandy with a 151 float ($7.75). More time elapsed, and then it was time to shower, change and head out in search of dinner.

I hadn't spent nearly enough time at 1200 ChopHouse (5007 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 367-1300) since it debuted in 2013, the downside of always chasing what's new. Dan Casey's tiny steak house in many ways is an anomaly in the face of so many high-profile 300-seaters. Not sure why steak houses tend to be mammoth, but this charmer (style points for the faux cowhide wallpaper), the kitchen overseen by pro Chris Burghart, proves that intimate feels just right when you're in the mood for New York strip or filet mignon. Of course, you've got to get a table first, as it's no reservations and even in the off-season weekend evenings can be zooish. A bottle of malbec aided us in cooling our jets on the recently expanded patio.

Whereas most steak houses are strictly a la carte, at the ChopHouse you get a very appealing mixed green salad with blue cheese, walnuts, dried cranberries and cubes of Granny Smith, as well as dinner rolls and a choice of baked or mashed potato with your entree. The 2.5-pound tomahawk ribeye is clearly the shock-and-awe favorite on social media, but our tastes ran to the more demure, the 7-ounce filet a nice size and ringing in at a very reasonable $24.95, leaving us spry enough for a little more beachside walking and slumber party shenanigans.


SUNDAY

An early-morning rainy 5-mile run along Gulf Boulevard segued into a hot yoga class at Nava Yoga Studio (5901 Sun Blvd., Suite 120, Tierra Verde; (727) 592-1999; single class $15). Okay, it was advertised as warm flow, but I was right in front of the heater, so I'm calling it hot yoga. A zillion chaturangas and a full bucket of sweat entitled us to brunch, big time.

Yes, there's the Frog Pond for sturdy egg-centric fare, and the fancy spread of the Bellini brunch buffet at the Palm Court Italian Grill at the TradeWinds ($38.95), but I had my heart set on sfogliatelle. Invented in a monastery in Salerno in the 1600s, this is a pastry that resembles stacked leaves, crisp and delicate and filled with an orange-flavored ricotta. The version at La Casa Del Pane (7110 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 367-8322) will make you weep with its perfection ($3.20), as will the lobster claw, a similar stacked-leaf confection filled with sweetened whipped cream ($3.99).

Order at the counter and find a seat, preferably at the long communal table which allows for serendipitous moments like this one: Two elderly gents with a standing date on Sundays to bust out of their assisted living facilities to meet for lunch were kibbitzing over a gorgeous pizza. How's the pizza here? I asked. Great, they said, have a slice. Oh, no, I couldn't (she said, fully intending to depend upon the kindness of strangers). Not only did they share their 'za, they were wildly and flatteringly inaccurate in guessing our ages.

Italian-inflected egg sandwiches, cappuccinos and perfect pastries behind us, we aimed to eke the last staycation hours from the day, lolling in the hot tub and poolside at the Sirata, our skin going alternately pruney and lobstery as we balanced Kindles and magazines, largely unread. And then, with no TSA PreCheck and no hefting things into the overhead bin, just a bridge ride, I was home. I think for my next major birthday I wouldn't mind a little 'cation that stays.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.


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