What a difference a year makes. As I mentioned last week in my review of Wood Fired Pizza’s new location, the lonely block of First Avenue in downtown St. Pete that housed Buona Vita was a largely desolate area, just the one restaurant struggling to draw customers away from the more attractive restaurant and nightlife centers just a few blocks away.
Now, the block is hopping, thanks to a beautiful new World of Beer, the aforementioned pizzas of Peter Taylor and an entirely revamped and retooled restaurant by the owner of Buona Vita called The Avenue. It’s a nightlife triple threat that seems to be giving the more traditional downtown St. Pete spots a run for their money.
You could credit World of Beer with the transformation, but let’s give Allan Galeano his due (along with new partners Stephen Schrutt, Chris Dorsey and Jason Levine). Galeano took the tepid Buona Vita and retooled it to fit the area’s new customer base perfectly.
Start with the look of the place, which now evokes the kind of small ski lodge atmosphere characteristic of Galeano’s previous home in Park City, Utah. Folding double doors open up the space to the sidewalk, but the geometric bookshelves, fireplace and sleek but comfortable furniture make it cozy. Comfortable, casual and beautiful at the same time, just the thing for this block’s new crowd.
The menu fits the bill as well, with a host of burgers, fries, mac and cheese and other casual comfort foods. Even there, though, familiarity breeds more excitement than contempt.
Take the burgers. In a time of burger proliferation, Avenue manages to hit all the high points while still making a few advancements of their own. You can choose between patties of Angus beef, lamb or buffalo, or a slab of ahi tuna, all of it cooked a bit more than you might like and seasoned a little less than you’d hope (especially the lamb), but good enough in spite of that. In fact, those little faults might just encourage you to try one of the restaurant’s own concoctions to liven things up a bit.
Like a burger tossed in Buffalo wing sauce and topped with blue cheese — oddly, it works best with the lamb — or a supremely messy chili-cheeseburger that will require you to decontaminate before venturing back out for a beer and conversation at WoB. Ahi tuna with a massive scoop of the restaurant’s mac and cheese? Sure, it may be too decadent for beef, but the lightness of the ahi meshes surprisingly well with the gooey pasta. I suspect the combination would work even better with Avenue’s crab cake, although their version of crab cake, with pepperjack cheese and spicy mayo, works just fine on its own. Or you can skip the bun and order the mac with crab and truffle oil, but that simpler sort of refinement doesn’t work as well, the heady truffle flavor overpowering both of the other main ingredients. Best to just order the regular mac, which has a nice balance of crisp and gooey texture that makes it a comforting bargain at $5.
Avenue’s snacks need more work than the burgers, featuring typical wings, serviceable fries and homemade potato chips that for some unfathomable reason are topped with blue cheese and barbecue sauce. They’re better without the sauce, the onion rings and jalapeño poppers are worth a try, and the sweet potato fries are a hit if you prefer your deep-fried snack with plenty of sticky, sugary topping.
Although I am certainly not one to underemphasize the importance of food quality, Avenue’s success lies more in its ability to cater to the newfound market on this block of First Avenue, which it does with almost pinpoint perfection. Take the late-night menu, for instance.
Avenue serves food until 3 a.m. to catch all of downtown St. Pete’s last-call regulars, with a menu including the restaurant’s basic burger, a chicken biscuit sandwich and an array of hearty and filling breakfast bowls. Eggs and maple syrup on top of French toast, or steak, American cheese, home fries and eggs at 2:30 in the morning?
Both are tasty enough, but it’s the opportunity and availability that make them perfect fare, especially considering the lack of late-night options around the area. Add in the beautiful surroundings and you might even be able to fool yourself into thinking that downtown St. Pete is living up to its occasionally hip persona, with a late-night culture that’s rare in Florida outside Miami.
And maybe you’re not fooling yourself. With Avenue and its neighbors, as well as Ale and the Witch and its compatriots in the Tower Plaza Courtyard area, downtown St. Petersburg may be experiencing a second (third? fourth?) burst of nightlife culture that’s maybe not as elegant as other incarnations, but still plenty cool.
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