Dining out during a pandemic is one thing. Dining out at a brand new tourist destination during a pandemic is quite another.
This week, with the opening of the new St. Pete Pier, I had my work cut out for me. The goal: to dine at all five of the Pier’s restaurants in one day. The reality: long waits, crowds and the natural mishaps you’d expect from restaurants within the first few days of their opening, including a power outage that stretched our one-day visit into two.
On the first day, a Times photographer and I came prepared: masked and slathered up with plenty of hand sanitizer, but not enough sunscreen. (We paid for that mistake later.) The massive, 26-acre attraction is really something to behold. Though visitors were required to reserve a ticket and time slot to enter during the first week, the crowds have been steady and large — eager to explore the city’s $92 million project, now years in the making.
Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille
We started at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille, author Randy Wayne White’s sprawling Caribbean-themed sports bar and restaurant, where the decor feels like a mashup of a Bass Pro Shops and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, with replicas of trophy fish hanging on the walls, a neon-lit Live Bait sign in the dining room and retractable garage doors that open up to airy views of Tampa Bay.
Still not really comfortable dining indoors and wary of the lunchtime crowds, we grabbed a shaded table outside on the shell-covered patio, which sits on the southern end of the Pier’s overlook, right on the seawall. Chalk it up to some combination of the shade from the umbrella, the breeze coming off the bay and a cooling raspberry lemonade mojito ($8.95), but sitting outside, even in the midday sun, was actually quite pleasant.
The menu here reads seafood-forward with a Caribbean twist, from crunchy-fried calamari served with cocktail sauce ($12.95) and the Captiva crab cakes ($12.95), which come sidling a crisp jicama slaw and a key lime butter sauce, to a creative snapper dish ($24.95) enveloped in masa harina and a banana leaf and topped with an ancho chili puree. I was curious about how the grouper sandwich ($10.95) would fare, prepared here with a panko lime crust, and it didn’t disappoint. The fish is lightly breaded, seared and baked, then served on a roll with slaw and remoulade.
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The restaurant’s signature dish, the Yucatan Shrimp ($15.95 for a half pound), is worth every ounce of hype. The steamed peel-and-eat shrimp arrive swimming in a crimson slick of butter, heavy with garlic and a faint heat delivered from Colombian chiles. Key lime juice and a toss of cilantro finish the dish, which comes framed by two crusty halves of French bread, perfect for dunking into the rich, addictive sauce.
Spa Beach Bistro
Next up we walked over to Spa Beach Bistro, an outdoor cafe that sits in a shady pavilion, flanked by Spa Beach on one side and the splash pad on the other. There’s not a lot on the menu, which is anchored by a design-your-own pizza theme and some extras like chicken tenders, french fries and ice cream. Read: This is where you’ll likely end up with the kids.
We grabbed one of the tables with umbrellas overlooking the splash pad (we had to act fast, as the spot was filling up quickly with families) and ordered one of the make-your-own pizzas (chicken, mushrooms and arugula) and eggplant fries ($7.99).
The pizzas, which are $9.99 for three toppings and $11.99 for six toppings, come on either flour or cauliflower crusts with the option of a garlic butter spread as a base and either regular or spicy sauce. The choose-your-own-adventure model made popular at places like Chipotle works well here, but despite the pizza’s rapid cooking time (under a few minutes) the busy lunchtime crowds made for a bit of a wait.
The pizza we ate was of the thin, extra-crunchy-crust variety, and while there are much better pizzas to be had, it got the job done. I was less impressed with the soggy eggplant fries, though the creamy, spicy dipping sauce they came with was tasty.
Here’s where we ran into a little bit of a hiccup. After walking down the main promenade to the Pier head, we noticed all the lights in the main building were off. We watched as construction workers hoisted up a giant transformer and decided that, rather than wait several hours, we’d call it a day.
We started the second day where we left off, at the Driftwood Cafe.
Situated at the bottom of the Pier head building, overlooking a tilted lawn, the cafe is the most casual of proprietor Chuck Prather’s three restaurant concepts at the Pier. Chef Lee Aquino, who is also the executive chef at the Birch & Vine at the Birchwood (another Prather property), helms all three of the operations.
The concept here is largely grab-and-go. Everything is packaged in takeout boxes, though a smattering of tables out front allows for outdoor cafe-style dining.
The menu here follows an all-day format, with Counter Culture coffee drinks, breakfast pastries, salads, sandwiches and pizzas. A selection of homemade ice cream and smoothies is rounded out by a variety of shaved ice flavors, and includes the option to spike them with booze.
Since it was still early, we skipped the booze and ordered avocado toast instead ($10), which was more like an avocado bagel, served on half of an everything bagel topped with tomatoes and a handful of arugula. A pressed caprese panini ($10) packed a lot of flavor but was unfortunately difficult to eat, wrapped in paper that stuck to the bread. We capped our visit with a slice of key lime pie ($10), which was about as perfect a version as there is: creamy, tangy and tart with a sugary, sandy crust.
Next up, we headed upstairs to Teak, the most upscale of the Pier’s dining concepts, and arguably the most visually striking. But first, another line. A security guard was tasked with directing the pedestrian traffic and seemed overwhelmed. I didn’t blame him: Around lunchtime the line already stretched about 30 people long, and remained consistent throughout most of the day.
With floor-to-ceiling windows allowing for views of both Tampa Bay and downtown St. Petersburg, there’s not a bad seat in the house at Teak. The dining room imbues elegant, nautical vibes, from the lacquered lake boat hull that does double duty as a host stand to the plush aqua armchairs, a driftwood centerpiece and dark wooden accents throughout.
Still, given the current situation, we opted for a table outside. The restaurant features a small outdoor area near the back bar with breathtaking views. At one point a pod of dolphins swam by, frolicking near the fishermen casting lines on the Pier’s fishing dock below.
Though the dinner menu is a slightly expanded version of what you’ll find at lunch, there are a lot of crossover dishes. (The same goes for the upstairs bar, Pier Teaki.) While Teak is more upscale than the other dining concepts here, the menu’s pricing is varied, with several shared plates and entrees hovering around the $20 mark.
We started with a delightful tuna tartare ($18), in which thick hunks of ahi were served atop tostones with guacamole and creme fraiche, and cinnamon-dusted conch beignets ($12), which were like golden-fried savory doughnuts served with a zippy cilantro lime aioli. A selection of salads included the Ultimate Wedge BLT ($12), a whopping portion toppling with bacon chunks, red onions, tomatoes and grilled corn. A drizzle of balsamic gave it a welcome jolt of acid while the buttermilk blue cheese dressing made it all the more decadent.
Sandwiches and entrees steer heartier, with pasta dishes, a classic fish and chips ($20) and an over-the-top Surf & Turf burger ($26), which arrived with a well-charred patty topped with Maine lobster meat, a citrus fennel slaw and a golden turmeric aioli on a brioche roll.
Though the outside seating was lovely, I found myself eyeing the beautiful wraparound bar inside, from which a creative list of original cocktail creations emerged, some of which carried a healthy appeal, like the 24 Carrot ($10), made with Stoli vodka, mango turmeric syrup, freshly squeezed carrot and lemon juices, and bitters; and the Garden Variety ($10), made with Crop cucumber vodka, hibiscus simple syrup, lemon and beet juices.
After a long lunch (at this point it was already after 4 p.m.), we headed upstairs to the rooftop bar at Pier Teaki, and this is when things got a little hairy. Despite the staff’s best crowd-control efforts, there were little to no social distancing measures in place at the main bar, where a group of busy bartenders churned out tiki creations and frozen cocktails at lightning speed.
There wasn’t any seating available, so table service wasn’t an option. Walking up to the crowded bar to order a drink, I was elbow-to-elbow with other patrons, some of whom got way too close for my comfort.
Beyond the frozen drinks, the cocktail selection features twists on tiki standbys like rum runners ($12) and zombies ($14), as well as rum-based twists on classic cocktails, including the potent Pier Old Fashioned ($13), made with Chairman’s Reserve rum, Old Forester bourbon, Clement Sirop, angostura and orange bitters. A “bar bites” menu offers incentives to snack and soak up some of the alcohol, from a plate of sugary guava-filled empanadas ($15) to a martini glass filled with bright mahi and watermelon ceviche ($13).
As soon as we had our drinks in hand, we staked out an empty space near the railing and I started to see the allure of spending a lazy afternoon or evening here. The wraparound balcony affords 360-degree views of Tampa Bay and the downtown St. Petersburg skyline, and even in the balmy July weather, it felt pretty great.
As the day wound into early evening, the crowds began to thicken on the walkway below: couples on dates, families with kids in tow and work colleagues fresh from the office. They were all here for the same reason we were: to see — and taste — what the hype was all about.