Beach Drive's restaurant row may be the city of St. Petersburg's most-talked about culinary scene for tourists and visitors from across the big bridges, but for locals, Central Avenue is the authentic culinary strip.
My current count of knife, fork and chopstick spots along the 34-block stretch of Central from the downtown waterfront to U.S. 19, is 51. And despite the lingering economic malaise, more are coming.
Starting at the city's eastern shore, Central cuts a two-lane path from the waterfront west through the business district, the arts district, the antiques district, the baseball district, the gay district and a bit of the city’s rubber hose and gasket district. And while it boasts a few architectural gems, Central is mostly a string of funky, low-rise, pre-war strip centers.
The small storefronts are perfect for quirky, mostly modestly priced local restaurants, and that's a lot of what's blossoming here. Don’t look for national chains or fast food. But name your cuisine -- from vegan to veal -- and you’ll likely find it somewhere along Central.
Some of my favorites: Nitally's Thai-Mex Cuisine
, where yes, Thai food gets wrapped in Mexican tortillas; Beak's Old Florida
, where your burger is served amid teak-lined Florida kitsch; Ceviche
, a Tampa import, that offers small plates and music until the wee hours. And Leafy Greens
, a raw food emporium that makes that concept attractive -- even for a carnivore like me.
But sampling an entire street is too much for one person -- especially one grappling with the annual New Year's resolution that "this time, I'm really going to lose those 10 extra pounds.'' So I called on some St. Pete dining denizens for their favorites. What follows is a very unscientific, but enthusiastic survey.
Dar Webb is one of The Burg’s most active arts supporters with stints on the board of the Palladium
, the Morean Arts Center, Studio@620
and more. Dar and her husband, Clint Page, live in a restored apartment above Central Avenue and stroll to their favorite downtown spots.
is just one door off Central on 4th Street North and is a terrific addition to the honor roll of Central Avenue eateries for breakfast and lunch,'' Dar says. "Chef Suzy Johnson turns out some of the best light and delicious food I know. I've sampled the muffins at lunch, but I understand that the mark of a true connoisseur is to be there at 7:45 when the day's fresh-baked batch emerges from the oven.''
Dar also likes the people watching. "When I sit outside Apropos at lunchtime, it seems that almost everybody you know in downtown St. Pete eventually strolls by.''
Catherine Woods is a nationally recognized artist, who shares a house in the Old Southeast and a warehouse studio
in the arts district with her partner, artist Mark Aeling. Catherine says she has to be careful when doing take-out on Central after a hard, messy day in the studio.
"I walked into The Queen and I
(a Thai restaurant at Central and 24th with a distinct Laotian flavor) and I was just out of the studio and I didn’t realize it was 'Drag Queen Bingo Night.' I wasn’t dressed for it!''
As for her favorite restaurant on Central:
"We love Acropolis
-- we often go with groups after openings or happy hour at Georgie’s (Georgie’s Alibi
, St. Pete’s best known gay bar, is just a block off Central and draws the arts crowd for legendary Friday night happy hours). The serving staff at Acropolis is wonderful -- the food is good and it's not overpriced. We're usually there late.''
She and Mark are also fans of the The Burg Bar and Grill
, a true, hole-in-the-wall joint on Central near Tropicana Field.
"We love it for lunch -- Philly cheese steak, chicken souvalki, fish tacos and burgers. It's locally owned and there are great guys running it.''
My old St. Pete Times (now Tampa Bay Times
) colleague, Tom Scherberger, lives on Sunset Beach, but often makes the one-block trek from the downtown newsroom to the food rooms of Central Avenue. He just finished a stint writing about food for the paper. His favorites:
"I really like Moscato's
(just west of 4th Street in downtown). They specialize in fresh pasta that you don't find too often these days and fresh bread. I mean -- fresh pasta and fresh bread -- how can you go wrong?''
Of course, like most Central Avenue fans, he can't stop at one restaurant. His other faves:
"I love The Queen and I. There are so many Thai restaurants, but to find a place that serves Laotian food -- plus the atmosphere is great and relaxed. And the Taco Bus
-- late night food, casual, affordable -- it reminds me of the food we got in Mexico.''
Paul Carder, a Toronto transplant, another multiple arts board member, lives downtown with his wife, Jacqueline MacNeil. Paul was one of many folks who cited the St. Pete Brasserie
, a French-influenced spot on Central between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
"The food is great and a value. We love the service and the great bartenders,'' Paul says. "The menu is so varied. We were there twice in the past two weeks. Sometimes late, we just eat at the bar.''
Michelle Christine Bauer
Michelle Christine Bauer, a consultant, writer
and downtown resident, joined the Brasserie chorus:
"It's run by a delightfully welcoming guy called Wilco, who roams his dining room and chats up guests. The servers and barkeeps are loyal to their boss and their customers, who love them in return. But the food is the story here. It's always delicious and lovingly prepared. Solid brasserie fare and zero pretense. What's not to love about the place?''
Michelle is also a fan of Pipo's
, a must for hearty Cuban and Ybor City
"It's fabulous -- a throwback to a lunch-line with the steam trays of juicy roast pork, rice, vegetables cooked for a politically incorrect length of time, and the ubiquitous black beans. Yummy, cheap, filling and always reliable.''
Photographer Carol Gallagher, known as Downtown Carol, says she can't pare her Central Avenue favorites down to just one.
"There are so many to choose from. The Oyster Bar,
has great food and great service. You can go there for a nice glass of wine at their bar or have a special date night out or special family occasion.''
The Irish Pub, Crowley's
, is also a favorite.
"Since I don't drink beer, I'm more partial to their food. I'm addicted to their sweet potato fries.''
And the future on Central Avenue also looks delicious. Bonnie Agan, an actress who lives in Driftwood, just south of downtown, is eager to see the opening of Central Avenue's newest restaurant.
"The Central Avenue activity I'm most excited about is Ricky P's
coming to the old Savannah's site,'' Bonnie says. "I love that that building, and Ricky P's soups and shrimp Po' Boys make me weep with gratitude.''
So that covers just 15 of Central Avenue’s restaurants. We didn't even get to The Garden
, Hideaway Cafe
, Spice Routes
and dozens more. Those dining discoveries will be up to you.
Paul Wilborn is executive director of the Palladium Theater and a contributor to 83 Degrees. He and his wife are restoring an historic house near downtown St. Petersburg. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.