The St. Petersburg restaurant scene has suffered through five of the most tumultuous years on record, thanks to the economic collapse and the oil spill. It's been bad, and even the most optimistic owners are squinting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But cruise through the restaurants and bars of Gulfport and there's a different vibe. Instead of the panicked energy or forced nonchalance of some other Pinellas neighborhoods, these folks are bearing up. Talking it out. Weathering the economic storm like they would a hurricane, chatting up neighbors with a drink in hand, walking outside to enjoy the sun before the eye passes by.
"You look around and it's a phenomenal throwback to what we grew up with," explains Gulfport Chamber of Commerce President Lori Russo. I didn't contact her for an interview; we just bump into each other at Village Pub, where she's nursing a glass of wine to take a break from her Sea Breeze Manor B&B down the street. She's a booster of Gulfport, but she's also practical.
"You look around Gulfport and everything is open and running, there's no 'for lease' signs," she says. "People vacate, sure, but then people move in."
In fact, two new restaurants have hit Gulfport recently. Tangelo's — which was having its soft opening the night I was visiting the area — and Dive, which will open Sept. 3.
Tangelo's moved from downtown St. Pete, where it had been in business for 23 years, after owner Lisa Brennan's rent more than doubled in just a few years. Tonight she's busy delivering plates of food to the largely Gulfport-local crowd — her new regulars — along with a few loyal customers from downtown. Gulfport is such a devoted and insular community it should take a lot less than 23 years to develop a serious following in the new spot.
Dive Bar and Grill — in a great position across from the Gulfport Casino, overlooking the water — is a prime spot for a gay bar (something Gulfport hasn't had in recent years), but the location has changed hands more over the past few years than almost any other spot in the neighborhood. Just a week before the grand opening, the building is bereft of signage and the windows are bare, except for a small "GaYbor" sticker in the corner of one. That makes sense — attached to the restaurant will be an outpost of Ybor's MC Filmfest, the eclectic video and gift shop owned by GaYbor boosters Mark Bias and Carrie West. Will they be able to split their considerable energy between two shops in two beloved neighborhoods? Seems likely.
Meanwhile, just up the street, Pia's Trattoria took the recession as an opportunity to expand into the neighboring house. Instead of just a single dining room inside and a beautiful courtyard in back, there's now a bar, two interior dining rooms, and two private dining rooms surrounding that gorgeous outdoor space. Even redesigned and updated, the place still carries that funky, cozy vibe that made it such a hit when it opened a few years back.
Peg's Cantina didn't expand its space — the restaurant already encompasses a massive outdoor dining area under the shady oak canopy around the front of the converted house — but they did expand their offerings. Owner Peg Wesselink's son Doug Bozark brought his passion for beer to the backyard and turned the restaurant into a brewpub. Bozark — who works full-time for Cigar City Brewing in Tampa — rotates eight different handcrafted brews through Peg's taps, all made in his tiny set-up behind the restaurant. There are some typical styles — a red ale and an IPA — but he also plays with the sour beers that are the darling of the craft and home brew scene right now. Peg's also makes its own soda — usually root beer and cream.
Speaking to Wesselink is an exercise in interruption. She knows the names of every person who walks through the doors, and every entrance necessitates a brief catching up. "I never anticipated enjoying it this much," says Wesselink, who started the restaurant six years ago after a career as a university professor. She and her husband moved from their first digs to downtown Gulfport's core about four years ago, just shy of the economic downturn. It was a good choice.
"When you're in a recession and you're in a community, the community supports you," she explains. She plans to give back to the community by trying to start a foundation that will bring studio space for artists back to Gulfport. Although billed as an "artists' colony," the time when struggling painters could find a place to work in the area is long gone.
Tight community or not, the restaurant scene isn't always rosy in Gulfport. La Fogata — the Brazilian steakhouse that opened to some consternation among locals a few years back — closed earlier this year and sits empty, although the luxe bar Bellini's that was attached to the restaurant is still open for business. Tangelo's and Dive found their spaces thanks to the demise of restaurants in those spots. But the overall turnover in the area is low and, like Russo said, people seem willing to move right in when space opens up.
"There's more concentrated action here than any other place in Pinellas," says Russo. "And it's family-friendly. Pet-friendly. It's beautiful."
peg's cantina, peg wesselink, gulfport, the economy, recession, restaurants, bars, brian ries, pia's trattoria, gigar city brewing, tangelo's, dive bar and grill
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