Dinner and a show, anyone? There’s a new restaurant coming to the Mahaffey Theater on St. Petersburg’s waterfront.
Sonata, which will be helmed by Ted Dorsey, former executive chef at The Mill, is opening in a couple of weeks.
“We’re calling it coastal cuisine rooted in Southern hospitality, but I would like to say it’s a local version of Ocean Prime,” Dorsey said, adding that along with seafood and locally caught fish, there will also be steaks and chops.
While there hasn’t been a restaurant in the theater previously, it has a kitchen for catering events.
“I looked at the catering income and realized, why don’t we have a restaurant?” said Bill Edwards, chairperson and CEO of Big3 Entertainment, the company that operates the Mahaffey Theater. The theater is owned by the city of St. Petersburg. Edwards said he wanted to make better use of the theater’s large empty space.
Big3 Entertainment made a presentation about the restaurant to the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday.
The restaurant will occupy two floors in the theater; an upper space will open first and a lower atrium and patio space is planned for later. It will open with 140 seats and have 300 when completed.
There will be live entertainment on nights when there aren’t concerts.
The Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts also collaborated with the Imagine Museum to install glass artwork in the space. The museum previously held an art auction at the theater, and the foundation purchased a piece.
The success of the auction led to this collaboration.
“It’s really a win-win for all of us, being that it will help people see the visual arts in addition to the performing arts that go on there now,” said David Flatt, the museum’s executive director. “We’re happy to be a part of it and look forward to having a successful future with them.”
Edwards and Big3 Entertainment have managed the Mahaffey for 13 years. The City Council approved a five-year contract extension in 2021. A video shown Thursday in council chambers said Edwards has invested $10 million of his own money into the Mahaffey.
News of a new restaurant wasn’t the only reason why Edwards visited City Hall on Thursday. City Council member Ed Montanari asked the managing director of City Development Administration, Chris Ballestra, about overdue maintenance to the electrical system and other needed upgrades to the Mahaffey.
Ballestra said there are electrical issues “that it’s time to deal with,” along with a replacement of the audio system and general repair and maintenance. He said the Mahaffey handles up to $275,000 of repairs and maintenance annually, but the city is getting started on $930,000 in improvements.
The Mahaffey was built in 1965 and was part of the Bayfront Center. Ballestra said when the lobby and surrounding area were rebuilt, many things were “tied off and not looked at again.” He said there’s an ongoing study to determine total scope. The fountain outside, which has not been operating due to electrical issues, is also being repaired, Ballestra said, and should be done in January.
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”It’s gonna take, you know, two to four years to get it done,” he said. “But the electrical is one of the ones that we’re on top of right now.”
Montanari pointed out the current agreement has $400,000 set aside for capital improvements. Ballestra said the city is looking at 2027 Penny for Pinellas funds to mend the gap.
Edwards said a breaker has been blown out since the Firestone Grand Prix two years ago, likely due to power surges. He said he put in a quarter of a million dollars to keep the theater functional. He said that sometimes before a sold-out show, soundboards that are about 15 years old have to be shut off and he will “pray that it’s going to go back on again.”
”It’s about time that the city realized that they have to take care of their own real estate,” Edwards said. “Somebody’s been a good steward of it. But it needs work and money to supply it to take care of the things that need to be taken care of.”