Twenty good Florida eats in Saint Petersburg

Chill Restaurant & Bar, St. Pete Beach
Chill Restaurant & Bar, St. Pete Beach

by Marc d’Entremont

Blessed with agricultural and ocean abundance at their doorstep, Florida restaurants in Saint Petersburg don’t have to search far for quality ingredients. A relaxed Gulf of Mexico life style and plenty of Florida sunshine draw residents and tourists to a plethora of cafes, fine dining, bars and beachside venues serving traditional fried fish platters to truffle and wild mushroom risotto. With an emphasis on independent ownership, Saint Petersburg chefs have the freedom to experiment or just create the best grilled grouper sandwich on the beach.

Chill Restaurant and Bar, St. Pete Beach

Chill is an appropriate word and restaurant to start a survey of the region’s good eats. Located on historic Corey Avenue, the outdoor plant lined covered dining area offers a quiet space to enjoy both the food and people watching. Chill Restaurant and Bar  includes gluten-free blueberry muffins and vegan hash along with imaginative omelets and crepes on their breakfast menu – try artichoke and goat cheese crepe. Lunch and dinner menus continue with vegetarian options and a liberal use of well seasoned and prepared vegetable sides to accompany a range of fish and meat dishes. The bar prepares cocktails guaranteed to make you Chill.

Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish, South Pasadena

Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish has been a Saint Petersburg institution for over half a century, but Florida’s tradition of smoking fish for preservation and flavor stretches back far longer. Smoked fish shacks are found throughout the long coastline of the state and are as much fast food as a burger. Ted Peter’s aromatic smokehouse, ably tended by great-grandson Ben Cook, sits directly on busy Pasadena Avenue providing a sensory marketing message to passing drivers. Smoked fresh salmon, mahi mahi, mackerel and mullet can all be had on a platter with sides, as a sandwich or as the ever popular smoked fish spread. Homemade German potato salad provides a touch of tart counterbalance to the richness of the fish.

Woody’s Waterfront, St. Pete Beach

You go first to Woody’s for the atmosphere, which besides terrific sunsets includes some really good live music and draft beer. Yet the food’s a close second reason to saunter over to this relaxed St. Pete Beach waterfront café especially for burgers and the sesame seared Ahi tuna steak. The Gulf of Mexico is so close that whether it’s lunch hour or happy hour Woody’s is like a relaxing beach party – with good music. Note: cash only.

Mazzaro’s Italian Market, Saint Petersburg

Mazzaro’s is synonymous in Saint Petersburg with ‘Italian food emporium.’ Within its spacious store packed with customers and food delicacies such as whole baby octopus and fresh frogs legs are sold next to aged beef and homemade sausages. Choice is the biggest issue at Mazzaro’s – too many choices. Dozens of home made fresh pastas, breads, soups, deli items and exquisite Italian baked goods with rows of oils, jarred preserved vegetables, a room full of wine and another of cheese. At lunch time the limited counter space for the prepared foods is prime and the lines for take-out are long. Saint Petersburg regulars simply factor in the time – for easiest shopping go in the morning before lunchtime.

The Veranda Café at the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel, Saint Petersburg
The Veranda Café at the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel, Saint Petersburg

The Veranda Café at the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel, Saint Petersburg

The grand pink Mediterranean Revival palace The Vinoy Hotel has dominated the Saint Petersburg waterfront since the 1920s. Like many of its day, it became a neglected eyesore that reflected south Florida’s changing tourism fortunes in post 1960s America. Its monumental restoration in the 1990s marked the turnaround of those fortunes and the Vinoy once more glows pink in the sunrise over Tampa Bay. Its poolside Veranda Café, with full drink service, offers a sophisticated menu of light dishes with an emphasis on health all in 21st century interpretation of a tiki bar. A generous quinoa and feta salad was fresh with vegetables and herbs while a huge house recipe black bean veggie burger on a brioche roll was spicy and bursting with a medley of herbal flavors.

Chief’s Creole Café, Saint Petersburg

Within Saint Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District Chief’s Creole Café proves just how deep the city’s economic revival runs. Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy, having lived in Saint Petersburg for many years, were well aware the area had been marginal. But under layers of neglect they found an interior space that evoked old New Orleans. The same is happening all over the Warehouse District. From the wrought iron furnishings to the raw brick walls and especially the feather light crawfish fritters, Chief’s Creole Café is homage to Elihu’s mother’s New Orleans creole cooking. Using many of his mother’s recipes, the menu hits all the creole favorites from homemade beignets to gumbo.

Habana Café, Gulfport

Habana Cafe, Guflport
Habana Cafe, Guflport

With photos of iconic Havana in the 1950s decorating tables, menu and walls, Habana Café continues the historic ties that have always bound south Florida to this major Caribbean island. Such ubiquitous specialties as a well-pressed and grilled Cubano sandwich are on the menu along with less frequent Palomilla steak – Cuba’s classic thin sliced sautéed steak with a zesty lime/butter/garlic sauce. For lovers of traditional Hispanic cuisine there are papas rellenas – fluffy meat stuffed fried potato balls – and slow roasted lechon asado – roast pork with herbs and spice. If it were served on the beach you’d feel you’re on the island.

Sea Salt, Saint Petersburg

Over 130 exotic salts and salt blends enhance Sea Salt’s predominantly seafood menu. Yet as an accompaniment to bread and butter they stand out on their own with intriguing flavor notes. This one year-old restaurant continues to surprise Saint Petersburg with its imaginative menu, eye-appealing presentations and wide, intelligently presented, selection at the raw bar. Although the menu offers crab stuffed avocado and fish tacos, Sea Salt shines when creating such dishes as a lobster rueben where the cheese does not overpower the delicate seafood. Raw sea urchin with lime and boneless wagyu short ribs with pomegranate barbeque sauce arrive with several salt selections the diner can use to finish, or play, with flavors.

O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille, Gulfport

O'Maddy's Bar & Grille, Gulfport
O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille, Gulfport

Gulfport is an enclave of old Florida on beautiful Boca Ciega Bay surrounded by Saint Petersburg. Gulfport harbors an eclectic collection of Florida bungalow style housing, much of it original from the 1920s through 1940s. An influx of young residents, especially popular among the LGBT community, has resulted in the restoration of many of these aging wooden bungalows. Gulfport’s expresses a laid-back ‘Margaritaville’ vibe. With its brightly painted furnishings and roll of paper towel on each table you sense O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille is for comfort food and a hangout for bay and people watching. But there is quality in O’Maddy’s comfort. The French dip’s beef was paper thin on a good kaiser roll with a flavorful au jus, and Julie’s Calamari Salad was decidedly Asian inspired with a blend of ginger, sesame oil, soy, bamboo shoots, bell pepper, mirin, rice wine vinegar and toasted sesame seeds.

FarmTable Kitchen at Locale Market, Saint Petersburg

At Locale Market in downtown Saint Petersburg California Modern successfully married the Mediterranean Diet. Part restaurant (FarmTable Kitchen upstairs) and food emporium (downstairs with outside seating) Locale Market displays a dizzying assortment to tantalize the most jaded foodie. Sushi grade seafood, aged meats, charcuterie and organic produce can often be had as grocery items and as prepared dishes for either take out or dining outside. Upstairs in the FarmTable Kitchen the same ingredients prove an earlier point that both farm and sea are at Saint Petersburg’s front steps. Like many local fine dining restaurants the menu changes frequently but just browse the market and you’ll see the ingredients. FarmTable Kitchen’s thin crust pizzas burst with flavor and make a perfect light meal.

Basil Leaf, St. Pete Beach
Basil Leaf, St. Pete Beach

Basil Leaf Thai, Sushi & Noodles, St. Pete Beach

Inside Basil Leaf the design has the feel of a traditional Thai house and fortunately their menu has the taste of a good Bangkok restaurant. Along St. Pete Beach’s busy Gulf Boulevard tourist strip it can be difficult to find decent alternatives to south Florida cuisine. Basil Leaf succeeds in blending Thai and Japanese dishes on a single menu while doing justice to their differences. The presentations are simple and artistic. A fresh spring roll with crab in rice paper with ginger garlic dipping sauce is a refreshing salad you could pick up.

Rumfish Grill, St. Pete Beach

Rumfish Grill has a well deserved reputation for its fish and seafood, but the 33,500 gallon fish tank that dominates an entire wall of the dining room is as major an attraction as its menu. Sumptuous lobster ravioli on a bed of seasoned roasted corn garnished with more lobster is equal to even the best fish tank.

Cajun Café on the Bayou, Cross Bayou, Seminole

Cajun Cafe on the Bayou, Seminole
Cajun Cafe on the Bayou, Seminole

Yes there are bayous thick with mangroves in Florida, and Cajun Café is as appropriate a “shack” as any on the Louisiana coast. Cajun cooking doesn’t have to just be in Louisiana to be authentic. The quiet location, screened in porch, no TVs and the rule that cell phones only be used outside, combined with the exuberance of Mardi Gras bling in the bar is true cajun country atmosphere. The smoky andouille sausage gumbo, fried soft shell crabs and extensive selection of craft beers make for a lazy Florida day.

Cassis American Brasserie, Saint Petersburg

Beach Drive is downtown Saint Petersburg’s attractive waterfront. It’s lined with cafes that spill onto its wide sidewalk. In an intimate designed enclosure, the Cassis American Brasserie creates a slice of French café cuisine. A pile of thinly sliced smoked salmon on micro greens with caper vinaigrette is reason alone to dine at Cassis. From duck confit/foie gras/truffle poutine to classic moules et frites the food and palm trees will transport you to the Riviera.

Smoked Salmon Salad, Cassis American Brasserie, Saint Petersburg
Smoked Salmon Salad, Cassis American Brasserie, Saint Petersburg

Boca Bay Grill, Gulfport

In eclectic Gulfport, the Boca Bay Grill pairs a traditional dark wood and glass steak house with a typical laid back outdoor garden and a menu with equal surprises. Glazed pork shoulder and prime beef shares space with a BLT – bacon, lettuce and fried green tomatoes. The veggie burger’s just as good as the chimichurri angus beef.

Spiro’s Pasadena Produce & Deli, South Pasadena

Pinellas County has a century old Greek tradition going back to the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs. Greek restaurants and markets abound in the Saint Petersburg area and Spiro’s ranks among the best. Second generation family owned, naturally, Spiro’s is a haven for Greek pastries, cheeses and traditional prepared dishes for eat-in or take-out. One side is the café and the other the deli with premium produce at regular prices.

Stella’s, Gulfport

Shrimp & Grits, Stella’s, Gulfport
Shrimp & Grits, Stella’s, Gulfport

You have to read Stella’s web site for their story! On Gulfport’s leafy Beach Boulevard the modest storefront does not look like a national award winning restaurant. The quiet location alone is great for breakfast and lunch – Stella’s serving hours. The extensive menu entices one with greaseless home made corned beef hash, creamy savory shrimp and grits, a perfect Cubano sandwich and plenty of vegetarian options.

The Wharf, Pass a Grille

At the very tip of Long Key, the thin sand bar that’s St. Pete Beach, historic Pass a Grille has no choice but to remain quaint and low rise. Bordered within a few blocks on both sides by the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, many restaurants have water views. The Wharf is sitting on the water. Small pleasure and fishing craft tie up at the dock and dine on The Wharf. With both indoor and wharf seating the atmosphere is everything, and the menu, although traditional South Florida cuisine, will not disappoint.

Paradise Grill, Pass a Grille and St. Pete Beach
Paradise Grill, Pass a Grille and St. Pete Beach

Paradise Grill, Pass a Grille and St. Pete Beach

This is where you go for beach side dining. The sand of St. Pete Beach is only feet away while from 7:00 a.m. until sunset the two Paradise Grill locations serve simple but well prepared breakfast omelets and sandwiches. For sunset lovers, St. Pete Beach is ideal and happy hour beer specials make the watching special.

Horse and Jockey British Pub, South Pasadena

It would just be another theme restaurant if a genuine Englishman didn’t own the Horse and Jockey British Pub. The steak and kidney pie and the fish and chips are for real – nay, even better than many pubs in London. Besides excellent American fare – good burgers (even veggie) – they have bubble and squeak and Cornish pasty! It’s enough to make an Anglophile get emotional. But emotion can wait for the football matches on TV, the craft beers and the live music that turn this neighborhood pub into a Saint Petersburg destination.

 

When you go:

These twenty restaurants are all located within a 20 minute driving radius of each other in southern Pinellas County – Saint Petersburg, St. Pete Beach and the enclaves of Pass a Grille, Seminole, South Pasadena and Gulfport.

The Saint Petersburg and Saint Pete Beach area is easily accessed by I-275 and nearby Tampa Clearwater International Airport (TPA).

Travel with Pen and Palate to Greece and the world with Marc d’Entremont every month in the Hellenic News of America

 

Sunrise on St. Pete Beach
Sunrise on St. Pete Beach

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