ST. PETERSBURG — Zack Gross has joked about closing before, as part of his ongoing April Fool's pranks. But Sunday afternoon, it was for real. Z Grille, one of downtown St. Petersburg's earliest and most long-standing ambitious independent restaurants, has closed.
He didn't want fanfare, he didn't want a throng of diners coming to pay their respects. Nonetheless, ex-employees found their way to the bottom floor of Signature Place on Saturday and Sunday, as did a who's who of Tampa Bay chefs and restaurant folks. David Benstock of Il Ritorno, Greg and Michelle Baker of the Refinery and Fodder & Shine, Brad Dixon of Bern's Steak House, Jason Ruhe of Brick and Mortar, Chris Fernandez of the Red Mesa group — they all came to clink glasses with Gross and his wife-partner Jennifer, and maybe grab a last plate of Dr. Pepper ribs or deviled eggs.
Z Grille's space at Second Street and First Avenue South has been for sale since September, without a buyer emerging for either the Z Grille concept or the space. Even in the face of financial uncertainty (the Grosses have a lease until 2029), they have decided to call it quits, putting their house on the market with the intention of relocating to Upland, Calif., near Los Angeles.
"We decided we couldn't make it work any longer under the current circumstances. We could have stayed open and struggled more. I'm burned out," Gross said. "My relationships are more important than that place."
So, what happened? While new big-ticket projects like Doc Ford's at St. Petersburg's Pier are being discussed and Mayor Rick Kriseman speaks of studies showing room for more growth in the dining sector, one of downtown's iconic restaurants couldn't make it. The reasons are complicated.
Some may be location: Gross, who was a James Beard semifinalist in 2009, points to two nearby closed restaurants, Station House and the Rowdies Den (which will reopen soon as Ford's Garage), as impediments to foot traffic. Then add in residual scaffolding at Signature Place from improperly installed stucco, and Gross suspects would-be diners didn't know his restaurant was open. It's not Beach Drive, it's not the booming Central Avenue corridor in the EDGE District or Grand Central. Maybe Z Grille was in no man's land.
Gross thinks what really doomed Z Grille was saturation.
"It's true. I'm doing way less money than I was doing before. You've got 20 different options now. There's another 300-seat restaurant going in at the new (Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement), and the Hyatt Place will have restaurants, too," Gross said.
Then, in his characteristic blunt style, he added: "There's a ton of mediocre things going in and a tremendous amount of money had by people with no real skills. It's like I'm the f---ing (Tampa Bay) Rays. I can't compete with these people."
Still, in the world of restaurants, Z Grille has had a long run. It opened in its original Central Avenue location in 2005. Gross relocated to Signature Place in 2008, and took a more upscale approach. It wasn't quite fine dining, but it wasn't a casual stop-in place, either. In 2015, Gross shifted the menu from shock-and-awe, put-an-egg-on-it indulgences to healthier food. The next year, he shifted again, this time to more affordable options.
It has outlived several dozen of the more than 100 restaurants crowding the area between Eighth Street N east to Tampa Bay, and between Second Avenue S and Fourth Avenue N.
Here's a sampling of the defunct: A slew of restaurants at what is now Sundial (Bambu, Grill 121, etc.), Buona Vita, Diner 437, The Garden, Green Chili Indian Bistro, Hammerheads, L'Olivier, Patanegra, Paddy Burkes, St. Pete Brasserie, Yummy Mama, Zapata's. And the future of other enormous projects like Hofbrauhaus St. Petersburg seem wobbly.
On Sunday afternoon, Z Grille joined the list. After selling out of food, the Grosses turned out the lights and put a sign on the door: "On vacation."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.