Plenty to eat, drink and do outside the conference for wordies at ACES 2017
By David Warner
ACES member and editor in chief, Creative Loafing Tampa
First off, we don’t always look like this. The reason some of the downtown streets look like they’ve been set up for battle, with concrete barriers and tall aluminum fencing interspersed among the palm trees, is that two weeks ago the St. Petersburg Grand Prix took place here, and chances are not all of the accoutrements have been removed.
But not to worry. St. Pete is an eminently walkable city, and there is much to see (and eat) within easy walking distance of the ACES 2017 conference hotel, the Hilton. And while you’re walking, imagine the very loud vroom!vroom! of Indycars whooshing past and be glad the conference didn’t have to compete with that.
Walk to lunch (or dinner)
Choices, choices, choices. Take a left out the front door of the Hilton and keep walking north on 1st Street. (Streets run north-south in St. Pete, avenues run east-west). Central Avenue’s the main drag, with avenues numbered 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. to the north and south of Central. You’ve got plenty of options by turning left and going up Central, 1st Ave N. or 1st Ave. S. Or take a right on Central and head to Beach Drive, St. Pete’s buzziest strip, with multi-million-dollar condos, lots of good restaurants, and a lovely view of St. Pete’s cherished waterfront parks.
On Saturday, your best bet for breakfast or lunch might just be the Saturday Morning Market (9-2 p.m. in the parking lot just north of Al Lang Stadium, where the Rowdies, St. Pete’s soccer team, play). There’s a bounty of good food options at the market, plus live music, interesting vendors and a crowded cross-section of le tout St. Pete.
For burgers & BBQ: The Avenue Eat Drink & Proper Kitchen (330 & 344 1st Ave. S.). Two adjacent restaurants, owned by same guy and both deservedly popular . (Also check out the lively sports bar Parks & Rec one door down.)
Excellent veggie and vegan: Meze 119 (119 2nd St. N.), Mickey’s Cafe & Organic (318 Central Ave.) — and a little farther away, Cider Press Cafe (601 Central), where they work wonders with “raw.” (Try the garden lasagna — seriously.).
Upscale Mexican with a pretty outdoor courtyard: Red Mesa Cantina (128 3rd St. S.)
Coffee and conversation: Kahwa Coffee (204 2nd Ave. S.). The caffeinated social center of downtown St. Pete.
Deviled eggs and Dr. Pepper Ribs: Z Grille (104 2nd St. S.). There are lots of other options on Zack Gross’s creative menu, but ya gotta have the eggs. And the ribs.
Tasty tapas: Ceviche (10 Beach Dr. NE). Return at night and check out the popular downstairs flamenco bar Che.
French twist: Cassis (170 Beach Dr. NE). Beautiful brasserie (great for brunch) with its own pastry shop. Also check out their Wooden Rooster creperie around the corner.
Italian bistro: Bella Brava (204 Beach Dr. NE). Like so many of the Beach Drive restaurants, the food’s good and the sidewalk tables are coveted.
Top Chef: Stillwaters Tavern (224 Beach Dr NE). Creative cuisine and cocktails from TC alum Jeffrey Jew.
Charcuterie bargain: Annata (300 Beach Dr. NE). Chow down on delicious cheeses, meats and fine wines for not too many bucks. Get a cone for dessert at Paciugo Gelato next door.
All-American steaks: Parkshore Grille (300 Beach Dr. NE). Upscale steakhouse.
Curries and Brits: The Moon Under Water. (332 Beach Dr. NE). Indian & English commingle nicely.
All-American seafood: 400 Beach Seafood & Taphouse (400 Beach Dr. NE). A varied menu, and a nice view of the park and the big pink Renaissance Vinoy, a classic hotel whose renovation helped spark the downtown boom.
Farther up Central
Iberian Rooster (475 Central) : Interesting Portuguese cuisine with a basement lounge.
Il Ritorno (449 Central) and Brick & Mortar (539 Central): Two of the smallest and best restaurants in town; sublime Italian and fresh, inventive American, respectively. Open for dinner only.
Acropolis (515 Central): Lively (watch out for flying napkins) Greek taverna.
La V (441 Central): Delicious French-inflected Vietnamese cuisine in a chic setting.
Shopping (and some eating, too)
Central Avenue’s 500 and 600 Blocks: Well-curated crafts (Florida CraftArt), witty, beachy gifts (ZaZoo’d), distinctive women’s fashions (MISRED Outfitters) and the Local Longboard Company give you an idea of the variety of these highly browsable blocks.
Sundial (2nd Ave. betw 1st & 2nd aves. N.): A sparkling and still quite new shopping complex with upscale clothing, a movie theater, and three excellent restaurants: Ruth’s Chris, Sea Salt and Locale (try the pricey but delicious StPetersburger).
The Hilton is excellently situated for arts aficionados.
The Dali (take a right from the hotel down 1st St., take first left on Dali Blvd): A museum dedicated to the mustachioed surrealist Salvador Dali. Housed in a contemporary architectural showpiece (affectionately nicknamed The Blob) right on the waterfront, it’s currently presenting an exhibit on the life and work of Frida Kahlo.
The Mahaffey Theatre: Across the street from the hotel and across a grassy plaza from the Dali, the Mahaffey is the St. Pete home of The Florida Orchestra, which will be doing a program of opera music on Saturday evening led by its charming British conductor, Michael Francis.
American Stage Theater Company (163 3rd St. N.): The city’s oldest professional theater company. On the weekend of ACES, a provocative new drama about genetics vs. fate called Informed Consent will be on stage.
The Chihuly Collection (720 Central Ave.): A rare outpost of the famed Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly, in a brand new home.
The Morean Arts Center (719 Central): Across the street from the Chihuly, a lively center for local artists with a hot shop out back that holds regular glass-blowing demonstrations.
The Palladium (253 Fifth Ave. N.): A beautiful concert hall and downstairs jazz club in the former home of a Christian Science Church. Chubby Checker’s there Thursday night.
freeFall Theatre and The Reading Room (6099 & 6001 Central): This is a longer drive up Central, but well worth the trip for two reasons. freeFall is a terrific small professional theater company, showing Red Velvet during ACES weekend, a play about the pioneering black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. And on the same property, there’s the new restaurant The Reading Room — what better place for copy editors to hang out? The cuisine’s new and fresh (really fresh — salads come right out of their own garden), and the menus are inside old Shakespeare volumes. Like the Palladium, freeFall is in a former Christian Science Church and the Reading Room is a former … Christian Science Reading Room.
Shorter drives up Central
Cool things are happening as downtown expands westward and neighborhood branding expands with it. Check out the shops and restaurants in The EDGE District just above MLK (aka 9th St); Enigma’s an always-hopping LGBTQ-and-everybody-else spot; Bodega serves the best Cuban sandwich in town; Buya Ramen serves up creative variations on its eponymous dish; and The Independent is a popular beer spot. Further up Central, shop and nosh in the Grand Central District; the Taco Bus, Nitally’s (famous for its verrrry spicy soup), the Queens Head and the LGBT Welcome Center are all worth a stop.
The brewery scene is huge and getting huger in these parts, and distilleries are catching up. Cycle Brewing on the 600 Block is a local favorite, with its Cream and Sugar Beer a strong argument for drinking beer with breakfast. The 200 blocks of Central and 1st Ave. N. are all about bar-hopping on weekend nights, as is Beach Drive. Ruby’s Elixir off Central is a nice spot for jazz and cocktails; A Taste for Wine is a nice second-floor wine-bar getaway that overlooks the Central Avenue craziness; The Ale & the Witch off Beach is a fun spot for ale and an eclectic mix of music in its open-air courtyard. For drinks with a view, join the crowd at The Canopy atop the Birchwood Inn on Beach.
Best bet: Drive south on I-275 to the Pinellas Bayway and head to Gulf Boulevard (about a 15-minute drive from the hotel). Take a left down Gulf in front of the area’s other Big Pink Hotel, the fabled Don CeSar, and head down to the quaint beach town of Pass-A-Grille and the beautiful white sugar-sand expanse of Pass-A-Grille Beach. (There’s road construction going on, but follow the Detour signs and you’ll be fine.) Have a hot dog and a beer at the Paradise Grill snack shack or head up to the rooftop bar at The Hurricane across the street — and sigh. (And if you’re there at sunset, cheer along as the bell rings and the sun sinks into the west.)