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Not so positively Fourth Street

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 26, 2002

The crowds at the new Evos in St. Petersburg have seconded the notion that Bonefish Grill put forward 2 1/2 years ago: Fourth Street N lusts for contemporary graphics, even those flaunted in Tampa for eight years.

Whether the "air fries" of Evos' "fast food with a conscience" are indeed the hottest thing since unsliced seven-grain bread is a subject for another day. The signs -- and slick signage -- of an invasion of modern corporate restauranting won't wait.

Some see the changes as upgrading the Fourth Street corridor from a row of all-chain dining. Wrong. What they mean is that Fourth Street had an image of fast food and Very Old Economy names such as Arby's, Village Inn and the Clock. The actual change is to newer chains with more flash, proof that this half of the city has finally been admitted to Hip Brand Nation.

Look what's coming soon to join Fourth Street's Chinese restaurants and Bosnian markets:

Next month, Fourth Street will get its own serving of Bloomin' Onions now that almost 700 Outbacks have been built since the chain opened its second unit on Park Street in 1989.

The Fourth Street Outback will be joined by Panera, the best chain imitation of an artisanal bakery. Farther south will be another Starbucks (for those who get thirsty between downtown and Albertson's and want a curbside view of the traffic), and the first outlet of Tijuana Flats Burrito Co., whose hot bar and cool art attract lines at six Orlando locations.

City officials are negotiating to bring Carrabba's, Outback's Italian sibling, to Sunken Gardens, across the street from the soon-to-be Outback.

I predict the restaurants all will be packed the same way Fourth Streeters stampeded into Chick-fil-A, Fred Fleming's Famous Barbecue and Bonefish.

And yes, the wild success of Fred's and Bonefish prove that Fourth Street, like the rest of the Tampa Bay area, is an incubator of chains, not just an avid consumer.

That, however, says more about the savvy and Outback-inspired ambition of some local restauranteurs than about the taste or sophistication of local diners. Or maybe it says we have the perfect palate to test food bland enough to sell nationwide.

The chain invasion is a reminder of two other facts of modern dining.

Although the Nibbler acknowledges the value, convenience and even good taste of some chain food, the dining clusters that have opened in the last two years, from BayWalk to International Plaza, have delivered more chic decor and slick marketing than good food.

Nonetheless, their big bucks, good looks and genuine smarts have been enough to swamp a lot of little guys, some of whom had food with more flavor and a distinctive personality. It is not successful chains, but independent restaurants, that show the taste and distinct culture of cities.

So don't lose sight of Fourth Street's valiant independents, which will have to stand up to the onslaught: Red Mesa with its nuevo imagination, the bare-bones bargains of Fourth Street Shrimp Store, the quirky cooking of the Brown Dog Cafe, the burgers and beers at El Cap and the home-baked goodies of Cafe Mozart and St. Pete Bagel.

A new independent restaurant has joined the list. Cunucu Cafe & Take-Away adds everyday don't-worry eating to the menu. Food at Cunucu (2701 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; 727-550-2354) is simple chicken pork and ribs, with hints of jerk, curry and coconut, priced from $5 to $8. In the sides taken from Aruba, you find funchi (that's a sweet cornmeal mush), a tart seafood salad and homey steamed cabbage. On the minus side, Pep's Sea Grill has closed, depriving Fourth Street of a pioneer no-frills seafood spot.

In the meantime, beware the blinding effect of the oncoming bright lights. They can disable your taste buds, too.

First bite

Take-out fried fish is nothing new in takeout on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street S, but the new Southside Seafood and Grille (2400 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-3474) turns it out clean, crisp and with extra style.

They do grill and blackened dishes, but I took mine from the fryer. Whiting got a crunchy crumb crust and butterflied shrimp a much lighter coating.

Best bets on the side are hush puppies with a little fire inside and the house gumbo. The latter, when it's available, is a jump-up of chicken, shrimp, fish, corn and firepower fused with yellow rice, the most solid eating you can do with a spoon.

The menu runs from burgers and wings to shrimp Alfredo, with prices from $4 to $14.

Tampa Bay bouillabaisse

-- There's more to brunch in downtown Tampa than First Watch. Another door has opened in the church-mouse-quiet part of the city on Sunday morning, this time at C'Est La Vie, the French bakery that brought Sarasota's best croissants north.

C'Est La Vie (200 E Madison, Tampa; (813) 221-4748) has served croissants and coffee for breakfasts, and baguette and quiche lunches on weekdays for two years. Now it's open on Sundays for the after-church crowd and Sunday newspaper readers.

-- When Bill and Lina Shi took over the Pepper Mill Restaurant (1575 S Fort Harrison, Clearwater; (727) 449-2988) a couple of years ago, they didn't tinker with the menu and kept the favorites that made the place a fixture.

But customers asked for dishes from the Shis' days as Chinese restaurateurs, and the couple have added an Asian menu: ginger and scallion lobster tail, currypot beef, sesame chicken breast, tofu and vegetables, and more. Dinner prices run $15 to $24.

-- Record reconstruction removed and rebuilt one of Tampa's oldest Steak 'n Shake locations (2315 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 251-3350) in three months. There might be an official grand reopening, but the burgers have been lined up on the grill since the doors opened.

-- Food critic Chris Sherman writes about dining and restaurant news in the Nibbler. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or by e-mail at sherman@sptimes.com.

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