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Take A Bite and Sip of St. Pete

How to pair the city’s entrées and craft brews

By Gary McKechnie

St. Pete is pouring it on. U.S. News Travel recognized it as the “Most Underrated Beer City” and top chefs have been heating up menus all over town: Chef Jeffrey Jew from Top Chef Seattle at the Stillwater Tavern, James Beard nominee Zack Gross at Z Grille and Chopped champion Jeremy Duclut at Cassis American Brasserie, to name a few. And I was hungry.

St. Pete popped up on my favorite food blogs and epicurean magazines, and my curious stomach could no longer take eating vicariously through other foodies. “St. Pete? Really?” I caught myself thinking. I need to see (taste?) this for myself. My objective was three pairings, i.e.: visit three restaurants and three watering holes, so I could get a true taste of what St. Pete has to offer. What I found—and tasted—was a city that has been rebranded, revitalized and reinvigorated. A flavor punch to the Sunshine City’s culinary scene has led to a new day. Grab a fork.

Exterior BodegaThe Bodega. Photo from Tampa Bay Times.

Cuban sandwich with a Sunshine City IPA

I began with lunch in the EDGE District at The Bodega, which promised “Latin street food with fresh ingredients.” While waiting my turn at the walk-up window, I realized I was in a predicament. Their menu checked off every box on my “that’s what I want” list. I could order pollo asado (coconut-marinated chicken breast), lechon (slow-roasted mojo pork with grilled onions) or a frita (Cuban-style beef-and-pork burger with spicy mayo, tomato and avocado). The list went on. But, with limited stomach space, hard choices had to be made. I chose a classic: a Cuban. How was it? I’m glad you asked.

I’d swear St. Pete’s rich Cuban history was packed into this very sandwich. Perfectly pressed, it was crispy, hot and filled with the usual deliciousness (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayo) that, when combined, surpassed the sum of their parts. Topping it off was the chance to take a seat with locals at sidewalk tables and feel as if I was part of the community. Better yet, part of St. Pete’s scene.

One meal down, now for that drink.

Green Bench BreweryHanging out at the Green Bench Brewery.

Just one block away at the Green Bench Brewing Company on bohemian Baum Avenue, a wide, open-air courtyard was packed with customers sipping flights of beer and ordering from a retro-cool food truck. Folks working on a range of lagers, ales and stouts—most in their mid-20s to 40s—were parked at picnic benches, resting in Adirondack chairs or sitting at high-top tables inside the brick building. The vibe was like hanging out at a backyard party at a friend’s house.

Perusing their beer board, I was overwhelmed by choices yet again. By the glass (or keg!) I could order a Green Bench IPA (a medium-bodied ale with aromas of soft citrus, earthy pine and subtle notes of tropical fruit), Skyway Wheat (American wheat ale, packed with four varieties of US-grown hops), Les Grisettes (a traditional farmhouse ale popular with Belgian coal miners—seriously) and more than a dozen other choices. I settled for a frosty Sunshine City IPA. They double-dry the hops and mix in mosaic, citra and azacca; the beer was drenched with a unique tropical taste, which, a beertender shared, is a combination of tangerine, nectar, papaya, peach, kiwi and pineapple. Basically, they had St. Pete on tap.

Within one block were two places that channeled St. Pete’s youthful energy.

Plate of foodFlatbread at The Mill. Photo from Tampa Bay Times.

Go local: grilled shrimp with a craft beer

To work up an appetite, I walked off lunch in the Central Arts District. Nightspots, clubs and restaurants that circled the city blocks of Central Avenue revealed more levels of St. Pete’s edge. Places like the Five Buck Drinkery, Jannus Live and Mac Dinton’s Irish Pub were packed by 6 p.m. Vintage department stores, like McCrory’s and Kress, had been repurposed to cater to a 21st century clientele. Places like Il Ritorno and Brick & Mortar reflected a level of fun and sophistication.

For dinner, I chose the restaurant Florida Trend named the best new restaurant in the state. The Mill has only been around since 2015, but it seemed as if it had been a St. Pete favorite for generations. The rustic decor hinted at the farm-fresh quality of ingredients applied to dishes such as fish and grits, pork tomahawk and meatloaf Wellington. I immersed my taste buds in green harissa-grilled local shrimp with a smoked tomato Israeli cous cous and added a sweet soup: a ginger-carrot purée. The shrimp—large and plump—were cooked with just the right level of spiciness and served with a five-spice Moroccan charmoula sauce that gave it an extra kick. Plus, it was pretty healthy!

It felt right to linger awhile with my great seat beside a plate glass window. So, I ordered a local brew—Beach Blonde Ale by 3 Daughters Brewing—to sip leisurely as a bevy of night-lifers passed by. The golden beer is refreshing and light, finishing with a hint of citrus.

Looking outside at the crowd, animated faces reflected sincerity, amusement and satisfaction. It looked familiar. Then I remembered where I had seen this. It was at the active sidewalk cafés and nightspots of South Beach on Miami’s Ocean Drive.

I had to remind myself I wasn’t in SoBe.

I was in SaPe, and I loved it.

Not only are the flavors bolder but the city itself is bolder, thriving with life and entertainment.

Chicken curry with a scotch

On my last day, I went to The Moon Under Water, a wood-walled restaurant with a British Colonial theme, located along the downtown waterfront on Beach Drive. Delightfully different from the palm trees outside.

From the instant I was seated, I envied the diners around me who ordered traditional fish and chips and shepherd’s pie. So I joined them. The fresh fish a reminder of the bay nearby; the chips topped with vinegar, as tradition requires.

I wandered next door to The Birchwood, an 18-room boutique hotel that’s recently undergone an astonishingly hip makeover that’s transformed it all the way from the ground-level post-modern restaurant to the rooftop lounge known as The Canopy. Energy pulsated from every floor.

Beach Drive, the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel and St. Pete’s downtown waterfrontBeach Drive, the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel and St. Pete’s downtown waterfront.

Atop The Birchwood, I joined guests enjoying drinks and conversation beside glowing firepits, and peeked at others within the sanctuary of private cabanas. Finding a spot by the roof’s edge, I had a Scotch and water. I looked down upon the sidewalk cafés, over to the classic Vinoy Renaissance hotel and out to the bay, and marveled at the beauty and energy around me.

St. Pete is simultaneously grown up and younger. It’s alive with culture, exquisite cuisine and energy. Not only are the flavors bolder but the city itself is bolder, thriving with life and entertainment. I would never again think “Really?” when its name came up in foodie blogs and magazines.

Taste St. Pete’s unique flavors for yourself and discover why people are saying “You’re my Sunshine City”.


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