There's no road map for aging gracefully. You can fight it tooth and nail with plastic surgeons and fast sports cars. Or embrace it, happy all that tumult of youth is over. But some middle ground is trickier, with the inevitable nibbling at the margins.
So it is with restaurants. Assuming a restaurant makes it into its third or fourth year (itself a feat in this unforgiving business), a hip young newcomer has to figure out what it's going to be for the long haul. Catherine and Dwight Watkins opened Cafe Alma in December 2002, and immediately it was heralded in reviews as a fine dining restaurant that "blends the underground hipster culture with the chic atmosphere of a European cafe." Settled into the basement of the old red-brick McNulty Station building, it was routinely described as "funky" and pegged as something one might find in New York.
The Watkins sold Alma ("soul" in Spanish) in March to Scott Vogel and Tony Harahan, who kept the name, concept and much of the existing staff. I visited for lunch, brunch and dinner recently and found its soul still intact, but sliding elegantly from young upstart to longtime downtown stalwart.
This isn't accomplished by staying the same. They've tinkered. The kitchen no longer does all the Mediterannean/Middle Eastern preserved lemons, dates and walnuts that had people excited for a while. During the day the menu seems more American (with a wallet-friendly $9 salad-entree-drink combo that downtown workers should take a look at), and at night it skews a little more to the Italian side than it once did. The management has instituted a whole bunch of special promotions (prime rib Mondays, two-for-one night Wednesdays, ladies' night Fridays, a Bloody Mary bar at brunch).
But it's not all that stuff that has people still coming in the door (well, maybe the Bloody Mary bar, but I'll get to that). Cafe Alma still feels like the kind of warm, intimate place you'd like to settle into for a while. Dogs are welcome on the patio outside (dog owners plied with tabletop hand sanitizer), and indoors it's dark like a German rathskeller, with a warren of curtained-off cubbies and a strange preponderance of iffy pugilist art.
People wander in for brunch unshaven and in hair-hiding baseball caps, and they also come in all dressed up for someone's birthday party after church. At dinner it's post-theater two-tops, and later come little groups of revelers intent on rustling up a good time. Servers and managers at Alma know their customers, know their menus and know what they're doing.
The kitchen is less infallible, mostly on target but missing occasionally. At brunch, the range of Benedicts (the Alma Blue sitting on perfect lump crab cakes in lieu of muffins, $15, or the Blackstone with bacon and tomato on crunchy baguette, $11) is better than the omelets, which are never fluffy ($9-$10). At brunch the star is that Bloody Mary bar: Even virgin, the range of condiments, hot sauces and garnishes, from pickled green beans to olives, make this a flavor hootenanny.
At lunch, the Alma gyro ($9) is punchy with onion and pepperoncini (your office mates may shoot you glances in the afternoon), the grilled chicken club ($9) is a jaw-stretching pile of deliciousness, and the salad Nicoise ($11) would have been a star were it not for a sticky-as-maple-syrup balsamic reduction that didn't do the tuna, hard-cooked egg or olives any favors.
At dinner, the house salad ($6.50) is dominated by dried oregano but otherwise pleasant; the trio of hummus ($9.50) a much more deft balance of flavors. One evening's grilled ribeye ($24) had a lot going for it, from crisp-skinned roasted potatoes to its sultry ancho chile marinade.
Desserts could use a little more attention. There's an excellent housemade creme brulee ($5), but a trio of tiny cups brought a strawberry sludge that we couldn't quite fathom, paired with benign chocolate and vanilla custards. Cheesecakes and tiramisu are not made in-house, and none is memorable.
Alma still offers an interesting wine selection at a range of price points, and cocktails are elegantly crafted. All this said, what Vogel, Harahan and staff seem to illustrate eloquently is that, in difficult times, a restaurant has to be willing to put on its work boots - in the case of Alma, boots that continue to have soul.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.
260 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5-10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, until midnight Thursday through Saturday, brunch 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Details: Amex, MC, V; reservations suggested; full bar
Prices: Brunch $9-$14; lunch $7-$12; dinner $19-$29
Rating out of four stars:
Food: ** Service: *** Atmosphere: ***
Thursday in Weekend: Curriez in Seminole
Key: Extraordinary ****
Excellent *** Good ** Fair *