It's like that old quote about not being able to define porn but knowing it when you see it: You walk into some brand new restaurants and feel certain that pros are behind it; others that they're the wobbly projects of amateurs. It's not any one thing, but the cumulative effect is unequivocal. I stopped by Everything Dolce last year in the spot that once housed Cafe Bohemia and thought, "Oh, honeys, this is never going to fly." A couple of weeks ago I wandered onto the beer garden of the new Kings Street Food Counter, which opened on Halloween in Dolce's place, and thought, "Stephen Schrutt knows what he's doing."
The space has been totally reinvented as a 21st century diner — lots of winky nostalgia, gorgeously painted a color I'm calling minted celery, with matching subway tile and archetypal round diner stools. Outdoors there is a shipping container that has been welded into a cool open bar (all local craft beers on tap), pet-friendly Astroturf and white metal-edged communal tables fitted with rustic wooden slats. The patio is fronted by rolling wooden doors that can be closed to the street, there are huge red sun umbrellas that can be angled for maximum shade, and for now there are outdoor air-conditioners that keep things reasonable. (It's November. Enough with the 85 degrees!) A zany Vitale Brothers mural outside is echoed by retro graphic wall art in the charming dining room.
But I need to set aside my enthusiasm for the adorable decor to tell you a few things.
Like, on the weekends Kings Street is serving food until 4 a.m. Also, they have a whole poutine menu and the best corn dog I've had in recent memory. And for dessert, it would be unwise to forgo the flaky, crispy cronut topped with molten deep chocolate ganache and a flurry of really good bacon chunks. (You may have to, like I did, enlist the assistance of strangers to finish the thing, but it's always nice to make new friends.)
I sat, trying not to sing along to Boston's More Than a Feeling, and scrutinized the menu. It's weird: a few stunt breakfast-all-day options (tacos with scrambled eggs, an egg sandwich on a cronut), four styles of poutine, a few salads, extravagant milkshakes, 10 grilled cheeses and 16 hot dog styles. In short, this is like no 1950s-era diner menu ever. But it works.
It is the vision of someone who is paying attention to what St. Pete hipster-foodies are grooving on in 2015: a smart beer list (wines are a little perfunctory), glass-bottle old-timey sodas, Kahwa coffee, over-the-top milkshake combinations. Does chicken curry poutine play nicely with fancy Gorgonzola and caramelized onion grilled cheese? Why not.
The weakest link thus far, especially if you read the Yelp reviews, is slow service. (But I call foul on a Yelp reviewer who slams a new restaurant for having an hour wait. Wear your big-boy pants; that's the price of patronizing a hot new restaurant.) On two lunch visits the proceedings were indeed overly slow for those on a time budget, but on both visits servers could not have been sweeter. And general manager Pete Boland has the breezy assurance of a longtime restaurant professional.
Now, what to order. The aforementioned corn dog ($7.50) comes blistering hot and enrobed in a sweet, crunchy wafflish batter, a ramekin of grainy mustard adjacent and a small cuke and tomatoey salad, very puckery, a nice foil. (All dishes come in brown cardboard to-go containers with plastic silverware.) The Blue Pig Grilled Cheese ($10) is a lovely marriage of sharp cheddar, zingy black pepper bacon and a swoosh of blueberry jam. These sandwiches are crunchy, not too fat and without so much filling that things squish out.
The basic poutine, Double Denim ($6.50, named for, you know, the Canadian tuxedo), features creamy-bouncy Wisconsin cheese curds, a pale but flavorful gravy and crinkly fries I would have liked to have seen crispier and better seasoned. The poutines seem suitable as a shared app (or perhaps a postrevelry late-nighter). I also really enjoyed the Mex-I-Can salad ($8) with crisp romaine, swaths of avo, softly roasted jalapeno rounds (fruity, not super fiery), fluffs of queso fresco, a few cherry tomato halves and five or six fat, crunchy chicharrones (it would be easier to eat them if they were broken up a little smaller), the best dressing for this salad the excellent smoked bacon ranch.
Schrutt has been wise to snap up this space in the increasingly desirable EDGE District, but also to focus on foods that bring something new to the area and don't compete with his other restaurant, the Avenue (and possibly with his third, which may go into the POW space). Kings Street is named for Schrutt's own canine, but fancy hot dogs within a rogue throw of the ballpark seems like a royal idea indeed.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.