The people who seem to win at Monopoly don't get distracted by Baltic Avenue, the Short Line or whatever their thimble falls on. They buy up a block and start crowding it with houses and hotels. This is how they crush their enemies and form a fat stack of orange $500 bills.
We do not know if Stephen Schrutt is a titan at Monopoly, but we do know that he has undertaken a similar strategy. Five years ago he opened the burger-centric Avenue, his anchor on First Avenue S. Then he turned his sights to Kings Street Food Counter, a hipster-retro diner in the 900 block of Central (okay, maybe he got a little Baltic Avenue with this one, but still a good place). Then, several weeks ago, after an epically long renovation, he unveiled Proper Kitchen & Cocktails right next door to the Avenue. And any day he opens Park & Rec in the space that until recently was World of Beer. That's essentially three restaurants in a row, each with its own discrete identity.
So when you want a Raging Bull or Gunslinger burger, you head for the Avenue. Feeling like some fried green tomatoes or smoky pulled pork? It's Proper. And when your hankering is for Skee-Ball or Hoop Fever, amble on down to Park & Rec.
In so many ways, Proper makes sense. Downtown St. Petersburg has long been somewhat underserved with barbecue. There's Andy Salyards' Urban Brew & BBQ, fleetingly there was Witches BBQ Den and soon there will be Dr. BBQ's at 1101 First Ave. S, but otherwise, downtown has been less barbecue-intensive than some parts of Tampa.
Proper takes over the space that began life as Wood Fired Pizza and then for a microsecond was a fusion pizza joint called POW. It was an albatross of a space, too much covered deck and unequipped with gas or an oven hood. Historically, First Avenue S hasn't had the pedestrian draw of Central Avenue one block to the north, but Schrutt's strategy seems savvy. The trappings of Proper are like the pig-centric foodie meccas in cities like Atlanta or Charleston: lots of reclaimed wood, open space and air redolent of porcine slow-cooking.
Schrutt hired executive chef Joaquin Alcocer, an instructor from the Art Institute of Tampa who's originally from Houston, and executive sous chef A.J. Lambden, most recently from nearby Cassis. Based on a couple of recent visits, they have a sophisticated setup for proteins, but sides need some eagle-eyeing. Dinner prices seem right in line with what the market can bear in this densely competitive arena, but lunches are going to be a hard sell at around $14. There's also a smart cocktail list (why didn't I think of lush pink hibiscus ice cubes in a brawny tequila cocktail?) with a slight Southern inflection.
Proper has one of the most generous cheese and charcuterie boards around right now ($18), the best item of which is pliable but tooth-resistant house-cured jerky. They are experimenting with house-made pickles, but as of yet they are punishingly tart, not complementary with the nice range of meats and cheeses. Braised greens (family-style sides are $7) also have a not-altogether-welcome bracing acidity, and the house-made baked beans need to be looser. (I know that's a gross food word, but these beans were too thick and pasty. Even a little water would have loosened them up.)
But those are all my complaints. My favorite salad brought this curiosity: smoky baby turnips, which accompanied mixed greens, a big sprinkling of chewy-nutty farro, corn, herbs and a subtle citrus vinaigrette ($12). Gorgeous. Another hit was a salad showcasing grilled watermelon accessorized with maybe a touch too many feta cubes, but lots of great candied pecans and corn bread croutons ($10).
Enough with the vegetables and salad — let's talk meat. What emanates from essentially a second kitchen out by the custom smoker is quite solid, from a heap of pecan- and oak-smoked pulled pork ($16) served with a choice of classic, gold or sweet/spicy sauce, a wedge of corn bread and a ramekin of workhorse slaw; to smoked chicken that becomes the base for a puff-pastry topped old-timey pot pie ($14). (I don't know how this is possible, but the potatoes in it were crunchily undercooked — no big deal, but odd.) And if you feel like going smoke-free, there's a generous grilled pork tomahawk chop ($28) that rides atop braised cabbage and a nice stone fruit compote, the coolest part of that dish a little hillock of crispy poblano straws.
Schrutt has banked on this stretch of First Avenue S becoming a dining-drinking-entertainment destination. Already Proper, with its friendly staff and contemporary Southern idiom, has come correct.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.