I admit it, I mentally wrote off the compact little business district tucked into the courtyard of the Plaza Tower building in downtown St. Petersburg. The primo location — a block from the bay in one direction and Baywalk in the other — was hampered by the fact that the businesses were well-hidden from the street, with little signage and foot traffic to overcome that problem. Good restaurants had come and gone from the courtyard, including L’Olivier Creperie, and it seemed the cons outweighed any possible pros the downtown spot might enjoy.
Color me wrong, in a big way.
Over the past year, urban pioneers have blazed a path into the Plaza Courtyard, turning it into one of the most comfortable, lively and happening spots in downtown St. Petersburg. Trip up the stairs into the quaint and open space and you’ll see ’Burg hipsters and be-suited workers listening to live music and downing pints of Bells Oberon or Argentinean Malbec, groups of friends tossing back cheap sushi or slurping piles of noodles, crowds shifting between restaurants and bars until you start to feel that you’ve walked into a killer food court. That’s the key to the area’s success.
That renaissance started with The Ale and the Witch, the craft beer bar that moved into the courtyard’s anchor space about a year ago. Why did it find success while other businesses faltered in the same location? One reason is that it specializes — beer, and plenty of it, geared to the beer geek — which makes it a destination. People in the know will find it, despite its being off the beaten path.
Another reason is that it’s a fantastic place to get a beer. The interior is a cozy blend of earth tones and wood, chalkboards and beer signs, stools and standing room that set a perfect scene, with that curious combination of design and organic growth that makes Ale and the Witch seem to have been here for years.
Add to that the outdoor seating in the courtyard — always the Plaza’s biggest draw — and you have a beautiful setting for downing a beer, which Ale and the Witch has covered with a selection that’s better than any spot on this side of the bay. There are 32 taps devoted strictly to American craft brews, most deep cuts from favorite breweries, the kind you don’t often find even at serious beer bars. That means Saison Du Swamp from Gainesville’s Swamp Head; Cigar City’s Hotter Than Helles; Breckenridge’s Pandora’s Bock; and Ruthless Rye from Sierra Nevada. Yep, people will seek out Ale and the Witch no matter where it pours.
But what are you going to eat? Ale and the Witch doesn’t have a kitchen, so it arranged with Mazzaro’s Italian Market to stock some prepared foods for its clientele. Nowadays, however, beer lovers have a few more options, starting with Sab Café.
Sab Café opened last year, closed for a remodel and re-opened just last month. It’s a tiny space on the edge of the courtyard, just room enough for a bar that runs along the cooking area and one row of small tables. The size suits the food.
Sab serves a limited menu of noodles and stir-fries spanning southeast Asia, from pad Thai to pho, all cooked to order behind the bar with wok-tossing verve, all priced to move at around $10 a plate.
And for that price, just about everything on Sab’s menu is a bargain. The pad Thai is laced with more tamarind than most, giving the noodles a subtle sweet and tart note that plays off the fish sauce and cilantro. A stir-fry laced with plenty of Thai basil is sharp and just sweet enough to balance out the herbaceous flavors, while other dishes play with sharp chiles and salty sauces.
Call it fast casual if you’d like, but Sab’s food is better than the prices indicate, and the setting, both inside and out in the courtyard, makes for an elegant meal, especially when combined with Sab’s small but well-chosen sake list.
On its own, Sab Café is well worth a visit, but the restaurant’s contribution to the Plaza Courtyard goes beyond that. Hungry beer drinkers can order Sab’s noodles and eat them at Ale and Witch’s bar, or take a beer to the outdoor tables in front of Sab. It’s a synergy that’s at the foundation of the Plaza’s newfound success.
Although it’s on the edge of the Plaza, with a main entrance facing First Street instead of the interior of the courtyard, the brand-new Rollbotto is another building block in that success. Walk into the place and you’ll see a wide-open dining room that combines modern chrome with rough wood elements, all facing a counter where customers can order assembly-line sushi that distills rice, veggies and fish down to a Subway-like system.
Sushi rollers work off of plastic mats that list all of the ingredients and quantities for each makimono, sliding the mats down as they’re filled until the final worker deftly rolls it into a compact cylinder and slices it. This, along with the decidedly casual and carefree combinations that Rollbotto has created, strips the arcane artistry from sushi.
That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. This method allows Rollbotto to sell rolls at assembly-line prices, with only the most elaborate approaching $10. And considering how often people buy sushi at supermarkets and out of prepared food coolers, it’s surprising there isn’t more pseudo-fast food sushi like at Rollbotto.
You won’t find exceptional fish here, if that’s what you’re after, but the clever combinations sometimes make up for that, like grilled steak, tempura shrimp and asparagus in the Surf N’ Turf, or toasted coconut, pineapple and shrimp in the Big Kahuna. The egg rolls and potsticker are frozen, the sweet potato fries are poured from a bag you can buy at the supermarket and the salads are nothing to get excited about, but in the end you get what you’re paying for — a sushi meal that comes in under $10, including a beer.
And Rollbotto’s beer list is nothing to sneer at — two dozen Japanese imports and craft brews — even with Ale and Witch just two doors down.
Head to the rear of Rollbotto, through a sitting area of modern couches and Japanese monster movie posters, open the back door and you’re in the courtyard, right next to Wine Madonna. I’m not sure exactly how Wine Madonna fits into the Courtyard phenomenon. It’s an old-school style of wine bar, full of flickering light and rich woods, cozy and less hectic than the rest of the plaza. There are plenty of wines by the glass — more New World than Old — and owners Madonna Metcalf and Kris Radish are happy to chat with anyone who shows an interest in wine, or just about anything else.
Maybe Wine Madonna serves as a place to escape from the bustle outside, or a way to encourage more traditional drinkers to visit the courtyard in a way that Ale does not. Whatever the answer, visit on a busy night and you’ll see wine glasses next to pint glasses on the courtyard tables. Even this place plays a part.
Starting with Ale and the Witch’s grand opening a year ago, the Plaza Courtyard has experienced a monumental leap forward, transforming it from deadly restaurant-killer to one of the hippest and most interesting dining and drinking destinations in St. Pete. Maybe the folks over at Baywalk should stroll over and get some pointers.
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