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All work and no dining can deaden a downtown

sandra thompson
THOMPSON
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By SANDRA THOMPSON

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2002


It's almost noon, and the breeze pushes through the open doors of the downtown cafe. People are sitting at the bar, drinking an early glass of wine or a late cappuccino; others are scattered throughout the room, and outside, at tables with red woven cafe chairs, eating arugula and shrimp salads or roasted radicchio. Good-looking young men and women with long white aprons are serving; in all, it's a pretty sophisticated, and pleasant, lunch scene.

Too bad it's in Sarasota.

We get on Tampa's downtown for its lack of anything interesting after dark, even dinner, but, in truth, it's also pretty dull during the day.

Even with the zillions of office people, there's no place really interesting to eat lunch -- no reason, if you don't work downtown, to go downtown for lunch.

Okay, it's better than it used to be.

Ten years ago, when I went from an office in downtown St. Petersburg to an office in downtown Tampa, naive me, I thought I was going to a big city place where there'd be cool places to eat and things to do on my lunch hour.

There was almost nothing. At lunch I got in my car and drove to the same places I ate lunch on weekends, like Woody's or Wright's, both on South Dale Mabry nowhere near downtown. At least now you can get a decent sandwich downtown. But not thanks to Tampa visionaries who saw that, gee, there are all these people here who need to eat lunch, why not open a nifty little -- or big -- place?

The relatively new lunch spots are not Tampa originals. Mostly, they're from Pinellas.

Lonni's originated in Dunedin; City's Gourmet Deli, in north St. Pete; Bread & Butter Gourmet Deli, in Tarpon Springs; and Lucky Dill, the new-to-downtown kosher-style deli, in Palm Harbor. C'est la Vie! -- the French bakery and cafe -- is from Sarasota.

That's all to the good, but there are no shops to stop into on your lunch hour to pick up whatever. (Exceptions: Old Tampa Book Co., and I think there's still a pen store somewhere.)

Why has no one done anything interesting downtown?

Now Franklin Street is being opened up to traffic, which is seen as something really revolutionary (as though most streets weren't available to cars), but it doesn't matter if it has cars or not, if there's nothing there.

A couple of weeks ago, possible future mayor Bob Buckhorn took a bunch of Tampa colleagues to see the miracle of downtown St. Petersburg after dark: people on the streets! To do this he rented a bus. Hello? Downtown St. Petersburg is a half-hour drive. Why hadn't the people interested in Tampa's downtown thought to drive over and take a look?

BayWalk, open for almost a year and a half, has had people there from the get-go. So have the art galleries and the State Theater and Jannus Landing. Now there are fancy residential towers and lofts, too.

It's nice to know what's happening next door, but let's not get our noses too much out of joint.

Remember: Downtown is all St. Petersburg has.

We've got people going out at night; they're just not downtown. They're on South Howard Avenue and South MacDill, on Boy Scout Boulevard, in Ybor City and Old Hyde Park Village.

On restaurants, Tampa has St. Petersburg beat hands down.

When it comes to downtown, Tampa seems to continually suffer from either an inferiority complex (We're not even St. Pete) or delusions of grandeur (We can be Boston!). Maybe if we look at downtown for what it is, we could get something started there. Like, maybe a destination restaurant.

People are already there at lunch and some would appreciate something more than a sandwich -- a place, like Sarasota's Epicure, with elan.

And parking's great after 5.

-- Sandra Thompson is a writer who lives in Tampa. She can be reached at tampa@sptimes.com. City Life appears on Saturdays.

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