St. Petersburg, Florida, is like that kid you think will never shake an awful nickname. Then she comes to school one year and she’s suddenly cool. Nobody calls St. Pete “God’s waiting room” anymore.
Sure, the once-sleepy city on the Gulf of Mexico is still a magnet for retirees. But these days, it thrums with youthful energy. On weekends, and even most weekdays, its waterfront cafes, restaurants and bars are packed. Hotels grand and small have been refurbished and are newly popular. The first of a dozen-odd planned new buildings, some high-rise condos and apartments, soar above its once-modest downtown skyline. And the tip of the landmark St. Pete Pier, site of an ambitious, $92 million renovation, will soon be home to an outdoor bazaar shaded by a solar roof structure and several hundred trees, and an airy new five-story building with a shade-giving canopy at pier’s end that will house restaurants and a rooftop tiki bar.
Despite its big-city ambitions, St. Pete is defiantly laid-back. Which is just how many locals — and visitors — prefer it. With a mix of world-class museums and a vibrant homegrown arts scene, the city is a refreshing mix of highbrow and low-key. That St. Pete is only a half-hour drive from my home in Tampa makes regular visits easy. I’m especially excited to ditch my car for a recently relaunched ferry service that makes the round-trip journey across the Tampa Bay five days a week.
Don’t let the name fool you: St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club is a curiously happening spot. And I say this not just because my family and I are card-carrying members. Founded in 1924, the world’s oldest and largest shuffleboard club has in recent years experienced a renaissance (and inspired a copycat club in Brooklyn). On any given afternoon or evening, players of all ages (most seem to be in their 20s) shove pucks and genially trash-talk each other on any of the club’s 74 outdoor courts (eight other courts are currently being used as a dance floor). More than a few also hoist adult beverages (strictly BYOB here). Friday nights are an ideal time for nonmembers to check it out.
What began as semi-legal — if highfalutin — graffiti has taken off in recent years, with local and even international artists being commissioned to turn once-seedy downtown walls into canvases for all manner of murals. City-sanctioned group and private tours (on foot or by bike), often led by the very same artists, are available through Florida CraftArt. My favorite murals tend toward the abstract, including California artist Ricky Watts’s swirly, multicolored “Space Rainbows,” which adorns the side of a three-story building. My teenage son Ewan’s tastes run more toward local artist Michael Vahl’s trippy portrait of a woman’s head, which decorates a wall along the Pinellas Trail.
It seems fittingly, um, surreal that this Florida city would be home to the largest collection of Salvador Dali’s works (more than 2,400) outside Europe. Besides showcasing many of the mustachioed artist’s most famous works, including many of his most famous, the Dali Museum — a fittingly unusual three-story structure that looks like a mash-up of a massive concrete rectangle fused with an amorphous geodesic glass bubble — also hosts visiting exhibits by various artists, often Dali’s contemporaries. Even the gift shop is fittingly over-the-top, with all manner of T-shirts, posters and coffee mugs covered with iconic melting clocks and crawling ants, as well as Dali-themed tarot cards, perfumes and even a baby Binky featuring the artist’s trademark mustache.
Your grandparents’ glass knickknacks these aren’t. The Imagine Museum’s hundreds of contemporary American studio glass works, including many by famed sculpture Dale Chihuly, sure made me rethink what kinds of fantastical shapes (and colors) can be wrought from this everyday medium. Museum founder and artist Trish Duggan’s “Nirvana,” composed of 1,000 glass Buddha heads, occupies an entire room. Others, such as Emily Brock’s “After,” is a breadbox-size diorama of a post dinner party scene. Among my family’s favorites are the William LeQuier sculptures that appear to be both sea creatures and waves. Despite any reflexive parental concerns that kids would be bored — or break stuff! — I’ve found most are as enthralled as the grown-ups.
I confess that before I visited Nitally’s, I thought their whole Thai-Mex fusion cuisine thing sounded pretty contrived. Then I tried their food. Count me among the gratefully penitent. Last lunchtime visit, I shared an outdoor picnic table with a couple and their toddler daughter. Like me, they were particularly smitten with the Panang Mole, a remarkably delicate mash-up of Thai red curry and Mexican mole sauce, made with coconut milk, carrots, green peas, sweet basil and (in my case) chicken. “I come here at least once every two weeks and wait in line for half an hour or more, if I have to,” the dad told me. “But it’s so worth it.” Agreed.
You know a dinner spot is popular when not only is the place nearly always packed, but they regularly set up tables and chairs for overflow diners in an adjacent office foyer. And they still have to turn people away at the front door! Such is the fairly common scene at Brick & Mortar, a cozy downtown restaurant run by the charming husband and wife team of Jason Ruhe and Hope Montgomery. Dishes might best be described as eclectic new American, with emphasis on locally sourced ingredients (many of their veggies come from a farm that sells to the public at the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market). Tip: They don’t take reservations, so show up early or hang out with a drink (they have an excellent wine list); it’s worth it.
As a Tampan, I take Cuban sandwiches seriously (read: I’m annoyingly pedantic). To be fair, the famed food’s true birthplace is in my hometown’s historic Ybor City neighborhood. But it should be clear to anyone who tastes one of these iconic sandwiches at St. Pete’s Bodega that the Latin American-inspired restaurant deserves its cult-like local following. Same goes for their other popular dishes, including the lechon platter, slow-roasted mojo pork with grilled onions, grilled tempeh with sweet and spicy slaw, and maduros (fried sweet plantains).
To me, an old-school Florida joint should have at least three essential qualities. It must serve good, unfussy food. It must have been around for at least several decades, preferably longer. And it must have outdoor seating. Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish has all these, and then some. Founded in 1951, this family-owned roadside restaurant also happens to excel in some of my favorite Sunshine State treats: House-smoked mullet and other local fish, including smoked fish spread. Fine non-finned dishes are available (they have a dandy cheeseburger), but my ideal meal here is the smoked mullet dinner, served with coleslaw, German potato salad and a pickle, plus a cold beer.
It’s been said that more than a quarter of Americans admit to shopping online while tipsy. Brutique refreshingly combines the two activities in a convivial, real-world boutique. In addition to casual women’s and men’s clothing — with an emphasis on the former — the store carries local skin-care products from Bohemian Reves and miscellany such as funky candles fashioned from beer bottles. Don’t care to shop? Hang at the bar (they don’t call themselves a bar-infused boutique for nothing) for a glass of prosecco or local beer on tap, and listen to one of the frequent live music acts. As if all this weren’t reason enough to stop by, dogs are welcome.
Haslam’s Book Store is more than just Florida’s biggest bookstore, it’s a spiritual center for bibliophiles from near and far. A favorite stop for authors on tour, it started in 1933, when Mary Haslam began loaning books from a small shop for 2 cents a day. “She was Blockbuster before there was Blockbuster,” her great grandson, Raymond Hinst, recently told me. His grandfather, Charles, moved the business to its current 30,000-square-foot home. Though you’ll probably find a new or used book about most any topic, I’m always amazed by how many books on niche subjects there are here. We’re talking an entire section dedicated to woodworking. Ditto for railroads, shells, birds and nautical adventure. Children’s books and books about Florida subjects are especially well represented. Lovers of rare books will find plenty here, too, including one of the first novels published by an African American, “Ras Bravado,” by J.W. Paisley, priced at $4,000. No self-respecting bookshop would be without at least one shop cat. Here there are half a dozen. True bookstore celebs that they are, postcards with their photos are available for sale.
Spend any time in Mazzaro’s Italian Market and you may come down with a touch of Stendhal’s syndrome. Only it won’t be from overexposure to Italian art, but to kitsch. Think of a bel paese trope, and it probably festoons this landmark local Italian food market: Various models of Vespas, mafia references, even recreations of street-side shrines to saints. Yet Mazzaro’s is also a legit mecca for those in search of just about every type of Italian delicacy, including plenty of house-made pastas and even cured meats such as sopressata and bresaola, as well as hand-stretched mozzarella cheese. Baked goods range from cannoli stuffed with sweetened mascarpone cheese, to hearty loaves of Tuscan and Pugliese-style breads. They also have plenty of prepared meals and an excellent wine selection (Italian winemakers often stop by to share samples of their wines with shoppers). I especially like to order an espresso at the counter and check out the scene. Just as one would in Italy.
Not only does the sheer variety of ethnic foods offered among the 100-plus tents that make up the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market make it feel like a culinary United Nations, lots of it is fantastic. Especially the breads at Fresh Baked German Bread, headed by a seventh-generation master baker from Munich. Their Muesli bread, chock full of raisins, is my favorite. Note: Get here early because their breads, as with many vendors’ products here, tend to sell out quickly. If you come to the Though Empanada World Café regularly, you’ll recognize other habitual fans: One couple who lives a few blocks away recently told me they come every week for steak and Gorgonzola-stuffed empanadas. Co-owner Lori Cruz, who left her job as a financial analyst several years ago to join her family’s business, says her mom’s favorite among the dozens of varieties they serve are the blue crab empanadas. Can’t argue with that. While many folks at the market choose to dine alfresco at one of the plastic tables, I typically gobble whatever I’ve bought before I reach them. For those who prefer to make their own food, there are plenty of places to buy locally grown or reared produce and meats, among other ingredients. Life Farms, which has a six-acre farm in nearby Clearwater, offers standard and more exotic veggies, including Hakurei, a Japanese variety of turnip that’s nicely peppery and sweet. And Plant City’s Florida Fresh Live Herbs also happens to be a great place to score live catnip for our two addict cats.
The Birchwood is a 1920s apartment building turned swank, Spanish mission-style boutique hotel across Beach Drive from the bay. Most of the hotel’s elegantly appointed rooms have four-poster beds; splurge for the premiere, which has a Juliette balcony overlooking the bay. The hotel’s restaurant, Birch & Vine, boasts a large selection of wines; 1,800 or so are displayed in a wall-length glass-fronted cabinet. Though it’s a small hotel, you’ll swear it has at least twice as many guests, given the popularity of its Canopy Rooftop Lounge. Spend an evening here, with its fantastic view of the bay and city, and you’ll see why. Come a little earlier to snag a prime firepit-side couch. Or just reserve a private cabana.
You’d be forgiven if you’re not sure what to make of the Hollander Hotel. I’ve settled on Old Florida quirk meets Los Angeles hipster. Built in 1933, this eclectic 100-room hotel has much to recommend it: A lodge-like lobby with gas fireplace that remains lit year-round, the Tap Room bar (with stuffed caribou head on the wall whose name Nam stands for Not a Moose, as too many guests have erroneously guessed), a full-service spa and coffee shop. Among its most notable aspects is the hotel-length covered outdoor porch with comfy furniture and ceiling fans (it’s also a hit with the hotel’s canine guests), and original wood floors in most hallways and guest rooms. But the compact outdoor pool area, with cabanas and poolside bar, pretty much screams, “This is the ideal place for a party!” Which, most weekends (and many weekdays), it becomes.
Every time I visit or walk by the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, I can’t help but think this landmark historical hotel looks as though it’s made from pink meringue (sorry, it’s stucco). Opened in 1924, the swank Mediterranean Revival hotel attracted many rich snowbirds (a yellow light in the bell tower was illuminated every winter season as a kind of Bat-Signal for the well-heeled). The four-star hotel was renovated in the late ‘90s, after being abandoned for nearly two decades. The result is a mixture of old-world elegance and modern amenities. I can’t think of a better example than the Grand Ballroom, where original wood beams share the ceiling with an otherworldly Chihuly glass chandelier. Guest rooms, which seem to be channeling a mix of Art Deco and Great Gatsby styles, are curiously spacious for a historical hotel. The biggest, the presidential suite, feels as big as our bungalow home in Tampa. An extensive gym (which I confess I’ve never used) includes a spin room with enough stationary bikes for an entire Tour de France Peloton. For those keen to golf, the Vinoy’s links are a five-minute drive. The wide, waterfront porch (my favorite part of the hotel) is a great place to grab a drink. Or, if you’re hungry, try one of the property’s three restaurants, the newest of which is Paul’s Landing, a casual bayside spot with a menu that riffs inventively on old Florida cuisine.
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The Edge District may be the most dramatic example of St. Pete’s renaissance. Here was a zone so blighted only a decade ago it could have been used as a set for a post-apocalyptic flick. Once-vacant buildings now house cool restaurants, bars, coffee shops, clothing and furniture stores. My favorites include Ashe Couture and Matter of Fact, neighboring bohemian surf chic clothing boutiques for women and men, respectively. Even if I wasn’t planning on returning as soon as a pair of Roark board shorts with a nifty Scottish thistle pattern in my size arrives, I’d return just to visit the amiable shop pooch, Lincoln. I’ve wondered if it’s local brewery Green Bench Brewing Co.’s excellent beers that draw so many folks or the adjacent artificial turfed lawn. Both, I’m guessing. If beer isn’t your thing, there’s Intermezzo, a hybrid coffee shop and cocktail bar in an airy space that serves an equally fantastic double espresso and Old Fashioned (they also have a nice wine list). For those unconstrained by bourgeois notions of appropriate times to drink hooch, you can order a cocktail when they open at 8 a.m. New apartment and condominium buildings in this district seem to go up monthly. The district also happens to be a baseball’s throw from Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays play.
Dating from the early 1900s, Old Northeast is a historic residential district that actually lives up to the cliche about having something for everyone. Got kids? Smack dab in the middle of the district are four acres of tropical plants and flamingos at Sunken Gardens, among the oldest tourist attractions in the country. No mere aging tourist trap, the Gardens has joined the ranks of those on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Or have a picnic in verdant waterfront Gizella Kopsick Palm Arboretum. For something with a bit more of an educational twist, there’s Great Explorations Children’s Museum, with scores of play-based exhibits. For more mature audiences, you might prefer tootling around the district’s brick streets on foot, or by bike or car, checking out historic bungalows and cottages. Every time I visit, I’m struck by how, when older houses are torn down here, they’re often replaced with something more architecturally interesting than the standard McMansions popping up around my Tampa neighborhood.