Make us your home page

Review: Birchwood restaurant, lounge create buzz in downtown St. Pete


There in the dining room is a man with a cowboy hat and the silky tresses. It's Beverly Hills celebrity stylist José Eber with a table of HSN folks. Glance out the front door to the line for the elevator to the Canopy Rooftop Lounge. Looks like maybe 70 people waiting, most of the women in kicky summer dresses and towering heels. • It's official: The long-awaited Birchwood has opened and it's the biggest scene in St. Petersburg. Wander from the white-curtained cabanas to the edge of the rooftop with its sweeping views of Tampa Bay and Straub Park and you'll hear people all saying the same thing: "Why doesn't every place on Beach Drive have a rooftop bar?"

While nearby restaurateurs are mulling that question, it's time to take a look at the new inn's dining options. The main attraction is the ground-floor 225-seat fine-dining Birch & Vine, open for lunch and dinner. The Canopy's offerings are less ambitious (but fun), more in support of the bar menu. Hotel owner Chuck Prather made some smart hires for his team: Robert Snow (17 years with Roy's) as general manager, Jason Cline (a Johnson & Wales grad most recently at Tampa's Bin 27 Bistro) as executive chef and Todd McNulty (also of Roy's, and Z Grille) as beverage director.

Still, it needs to be said up front that servers and supporting staff aren't adequately trained yet. Ask one for an entree suggestion and you're likely to get, "I haven't tried any yet." And when it's busy (which it is most of the time), there's a certain chicken-without-head quality to service.

It's common: Spend a zillion dollars launching a new property and at a certain point you have to open the doors to get a revenue stream flowing, whether everything is ready or not. Cline has already done a fair number of menu tweaks since Day One, and the restaurants are still grappling with computer problems and other logistical details. But all signs point to the Birchwood's restaurants being great additions to the downtown dining scene.

The menu at Birch & Vine is ambitious, with lots of culinary buzzwords: There's compressed watermelon, there's sous vide, there's pork belly. Cline has a smoker that's just getting up and running, but a dedicated sous vide station is turning out some great dishes already, from butter-poached lobster on a bed of truffled grits with a swirl of vanilla rum butter and a frizzle of fried leek ($18) to a lovely dish of orange miso sous vide scallops, with more truffled grits, little cubes of crisp pork belly, a vibrant veggie succotash and a pouf of micro basil ($29). The double-duty grits is interesting — many restaurants have sauces, sides and starches that serve multiple functions on a menu, but you have to be judicious about it. Right now Cline might be too reliant on crispy pork belly and distinctive sauces like a chocolate-cherry demiglace. But that's a quibble for a menu that contains so many good ideas, many of them novel in Pinellas County.

Crispy fried Blue Point oysters ($12) get nestled back into shells that have been filled with little scoops of chorizo-chipotle polenta. Nice (although I didn't detect any promised aioli or "citron micros"). A thick disc of pan-seared foie gras ($16) is married with a spoonful of star-anise-fragrant blueberry compote, a dribble of balsamic reduction, Parmesan crisps and a Gorgonzola fritter. Salty/tangy with sweet/fruity and the buttery richness of the liver worked elegantly.

Without calling a lot of attention to it, Cline is sourcing locally, from Watercress Farms watercress and local Jack's Catch brand crab and spices from the Savory Spice Shop right around the corner, to fresh dayboat fish that the chef is now able to identify by boat name. Waiter training is essential to convey this good stuff to customers.

The best thing on both the lunch menu and the Canopy menu is the braised pork belly Cuban ($12), a pressed baguette barely corralling luscious meats, Gruyere, and grain mustard vinaigrette housemade pickles. Still, the thing that charmed me most about the Canopy offerings was the potato menu. Fries, tots, skins, hash — this is essence of bar food, eh? Salty, heavy spud loveliness to soak up the booze.

And at both Birch & Vine and the Canopy, drink options are easy to get enthusiastic about, from distinctive house cocktails (the Sunset in Rio contains Absolut Hibiskus, acai liqueur, fresh lime and a spritz of ginger beer; an unusual margarita marries blended avocado with jalapeno-infused tequila), to a short list of world-beat wines in a broad range of varietals.

But if I'm being honest here, it's not me mentioning the Murphy Goode claret or the Erath pinot that's going to log-jam the elevator line to the Canopy Rooftop Lounge. The Birchwood is red-hot because it's got BLT. Not that kind (although it does have a good one with chicken). The kind I mean is a formula for success: Buzz, Location and Talent.

Laura Reiley can be reached at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.


Birch & Vine

The Birchwood, 340 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg

(727) 896-1080;

Cuisine: New American

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., limited menu between 3 and 5 p.m., dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily

Details: AmEx, V, MC, Disc; reservations recommended for indoor dining; full bar

Prices: Lunch $6-$16; dinner appetizers $7-$19, entrees $14-$36, desserts $6-$8

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★★ Service: ★★

Atmosphere: ★★★

Overall: ★★★

Review: Birchwood restaurant, lounge create buzz in downtown St. Pete 06/18/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 1:15pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Glen Campbell's wife Kim discusses challenges, guilt caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, others face

    Life Times

    If there's one thing Kim Campbell would change about caregiving for Alzheimer's patients, it's the attitude so many of us have toward transferring a loved one from home to a long-term care facility. According to Campbell, it's often the most kind, loving decision you can make. It's not a sign of failure, but one of …

    Kim Campbell, wife of country music legend Glen Campbell, is acknowledged by those attending the free event where she shared the story of her personal journey with Alzheimer???‚??„?s disease and the struggles she faced caring for her husband on Friday (5/26/17) at the Suncoast Hospice's Empath Health Service Center in Clearwater. Empath Choices for Care, a member of Empath Health, and Arden Courts Memory Care hosted the free event where Kim shared her story to help others understand the early stages, how the disease changes lives, the challenges families face and the role of caregiver.
  2. What happened when I took my dad to a Pitbull concert

    Music & Concerts

    TAMPA — "So, you know how you like Pitbull?" I asked my dad. "We can see him."

    Selfie of Divya Kumar and Anand Kumar at Pitbull/Enrique Iglesias concert.
  3. Tampa City Council votes to accept travel invitation from Cuban ambassador


    The invitation came to Tampa City Council chairwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin in a June 9 letter from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.

    The Tampa City Council voted 6-0, with Frank Reddick out of the room, to respond to a travel invitation from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.
  4. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 25


    St. Pete Pride Festival: The daytime festival covers Central Avenue's Grand Central District with more than 350 vendors, multiple stages, live music, art and food. 9 a.m., Grand Central District, 2429 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Free. (727) 342-0084.

    Kristen Whalen poses for a photo before the start of the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg last year. It's that time of year again, so check with us for your planning purposes. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times (2016)]
  5. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 24


    St. Pete Pride Block Party and Night Parade: St. Pete Pride's popular parade moves to downtown St. Petersburg's scenic waterfront. The block party brings DJs, food and drinks starting at 2 p.m. The parade steps off at Fifth Ave NE and Bayshore at 7 p.m. with fireworks at 9:45 p.m. 2 p.m., North Straub Park, Fifth …

    Thousands line the streets of Central Ave. during the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg.  [Saturday, June 25, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]