Two words that dot the length of Central Avenue, often plastered across brown-papered windows, fresh sawdust piling into soft drifts in doorways. This is boom times for downtown St. Petersburg — retail, bars and breweries, restaurants and art spaces going in at a dizzying pace. For a long time the 600 block was a cutoff of sorts, at least for a handful of grim blocks to the west before the EDGE District picked back up at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and shot out to about 16th Street, when in turn the Grand Central District continued west until around 31st Street.
So what happens if Beach Drive's restaurants and retail are connected with Central Avenue's in dozens of continuous blocks of allures? If you ask Pete Boland, 31, general manager of the opening-this-week Kings Street Food Counter at 937 Central Ave., it "fosters walkability." That's two more powerful words that have heretofore seemed mostly like wishful thinking.
Boland doesn't think all this change has happened suddenly. He credits three things for setting the stage: the renovation of the Vinoy in the early 1990s, the arrival of Major League Baseball and the addition of the BayWalk (now Sundial) dining-shopping-movie complex. Oh, and more recently he says the move to bars staying open until 3 a.m. has meant that revelers stay on this side of the bay instead of road-tripping to Ybor and SoHo. But one thing he said seemed equally important as the Kings Street management team pored over the launch menu and tidied up the nostalgic diner-style counter seating.
"We're the generation that stayed," he said of himself and other young local businesspeople. "We're the entrepreneurs, the ones with civic pride."
It is this recipe of civic pride and entrepreneurial zeal that has made Central Avenue ever more densely delicious. We decided to take a walking nosh to find out precisely what has recently opened or is "coming soon" between the 600 and 900 block. Come along for some virtual calories.
Back up for a quick cheat: Tony's Pizza opened at 533 Central Ave. on Sept. 10. It's a third location for a largely by-the-slice business in Dunedin and downtown Clearwater. It's what I think of as New York street pizza (meaning: you order slice, they heat slice, you pay for slice and fold it lengthwise into a skinnier triangle, you eat slice while walking down street), competing most robustly with the longtime Fortunato's, which can be nuts near closing time. We spent $2.50 for a slice of plain cheese: nice sauce-to-cheese-to-crust ratio, bright and clean dining room in what was the St. Pete Brasserie space.
Hop into the next block and things start out at 601 Central with the raw-vegan Cider Press Café, which holds its grand opening this month (for a full review, visit tampabay.com/food) and the Hyppo, which opened Sept. 12 at 627 Central. With a luscious mural of the Sunshine Skyway by Melodious Monster, Hyppo sells drop-dead stunning gourmet ice pops. Some are creamy and some are pureed fruit popsicles, but they come in swoony flavors. We enjoyed a maple mamey sapota, a Caribbean-Central American fruit that in this context reads like spiced pumpkin pie (and I had a second visit where I sampled a pistachio rosewater pop, $3.50; wowza, it was good). Based in St. Augustine, this chain is seven stores strong now, all in Florida, and while they're looking to expand into Tampa, it was St. Petersburg that pulled more magnetically.
At 661 Central in the space that used to be Octave, something called the Lure is coming soon with a lineup that includes tiki, tapas and billiards as well as "cold dead fish." (If that means sushi, I'm not sure about their marketing moxie.) A few doors down at 667 Central, Brew D. Licious is practically an old-timer, having been in this location for more than a year (it was previously at the Hollander, and way out west on Central Avenue before that). It's got a slightly gritty bohemian vibe and recently made Alton Brown's list of the nation's top coffee spots. If our recent latte (its name a little racy for print; $5.50) was any indication — white chocolate peanut butter iced cappuccino, very nutty deep roast — Brown knows his java.
Keep it moving, long way to go. A few more doors and we're standing in front of what will bloom soon as Central Melt, an artisanal grilled cheese restaurant. Located at 685 Central on the east side of the State Theatre where Schoolyard Skateshop was, it is another project from Ed Allen, manager of the thriving Bodega further west on Central. Original opening target was for summer, but buildout is creeping slowly as things downtown are wont to do. Not sure grilled cheese can make a viable single-subject restaurant? Check out Toasted in Winter Park. Allen aims to source ingredients locally.
Christophe Moser opened the tiny juice bar Niryasa at 689 Central Ave. on Aug. 3, but an illness in the family caused him to close the doors nearly immediately. Andy Salyards (Urban Brew & BBQ, Urban Comfort and Urban Provisions, which opens later this month) has taken on the space as a fourth concept, this one called Urban Creamery. He's hoping to have its doors open between November and the end of the year after a little painting to make it look like a 1950s ice cream parlor. ("My wife is pulling for turquoise," he says.) Anchored by housemade ice cream, it will offer Belgian dessert waffles, sundaes, milk shakes, floats and such.
And at 695 Central, Central Perk Café changed hands in September, new owners Barbara Lankova and Franco Vidas aiming to renovate and change the menu slowly from a straight-up coffee shop to something more Spanish-inflected. (Vidas is from near Barcelona, Spain.)
At the head of the next block, with its cool, curving tomato-bisque facade, the Morean Arts Center introduced Spice Routes Cafe in 2011 in part of the center that previously was a gift shop. In March, Banyan Cafe took over the space at 701 Central. Erica Allums, who opened the original MLK location of Banyan in 2008, has an enormous following among the highly caffeinated crowd (it's Kahwa, all the way), with professors, journalists and avocational scribblers camping out over breakfast sandwiches, homey soups and buttery scones. The space is funky-artsy, with half of a vintage Porsche 911 mounted on the wall and a 1960s-era Columbia Firebolt bicycle on another. (That's a lot of sweet rides used as wall art.) The short menu has verve, although on our walk-around, the vibrant curried chicken salad (warm chicken salad set atop greens with dried cranberries, tomato and cuke with a creamy lemon poppy seed dressing with just enough sweetness; $10) didn't get the attention it should have from us; we were starting to get full.
Now, it's going to seem that not much is happening for the next block or so. Just be patient. Across from the Morean at 700 Central, a 30,000-square-foot Publix (that's a small one) will rise next year, all the better to serve upcoming apartment projects like the 348-unit, $70 million Hermitage complex.
Stephen Schrutt has turned the Avenue into a serious anchor on First Avenue S, with newcomers like Hofbrauhaus cementing the block as a beer-drinker's paradise. Schrutt is in negotiations to take over the POW pizza spot adjacent to the Avenue, but in the meantime he is poised to open Kings Street Food Counter this week at 937 Central, in the spot formerly occupied by Everything Dolce and Cafe Bohemia. With celadon subway tile, celery-colored spinning lunch counter chairs and graphic black-and-white pop art on the walls, it feels retro but hip.
Kings Street, named after Schrutt's pooch, will traffic in hot dogs, grilled cheeses (more grilled cheese!), shakes, craft beer and a short poutine menu (four styles, including one where the fries and curds are topped with chicken curry — how could that be bad?). So, it's a diner as envisioned by St. Pete's hipster-foodie millennials, an increasingly common demographic downtown.
Salyards thinks Central Avenue's draw is about more than just changing demographics.
"Central Avenue is one of the few roads that stretches all the way from gulf to bay. It's a historic thoroughfare."
True. Once all these new food businesses are up and running, Central will certainly be "thorough" when it comes to "fare."
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.