Fine dining, with a side of service

Downtown restaurants add valet parking, removing a common aggravation.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007

Downtown's nightly waltz of diners circling the block for a good parking spot or fanatically digging for quarters to feed the meter may be coming to an end.

A growing number of area restaurants have started offering complimentary valet parking.

In the past 10 months, three restaurants have begun offering the service, and city officials and downtown socialites predict that more will follow.

The trend points to a growth of fine dining establishments downtown as well as a concern over available parking spaces in St. Petersburg's increasingly popular downtown scene.

Offering valet parking helps restaurants stand out from the pack, said Shawn Downey, co-owner of Courtesy Valet, a Seminole operation that handles valet parking for several downtown restaurants.

"When people go out to dinner, they don't want to be inconvenienced; they just want to pull up and get out in front of the restaurant that they are going to," he said. "They don't want to have to walk a couple of blocks to find their car."

Valet parking is not completely new in St. Petersburg. Visitors at the Pier have enjoyed the service for years, and some restaurants lucky enough to have an off-street entrance always have been able to provide the service. But in the past, restaurants with an on-street entrance were prohibited from offering valet parking because the service would block the public right of way.

Last fall, at the urging of several restaurant owners, city officials passed an ordinance that allowed all downtown establishments to offer valet parking.

City officials say valet parking is a luxury touted by restaurant wheelers and dealers, but it isn't exactly a necessity. There is ample parking in the area south of Tropicana Field, including 6,500 on-street parking spaces and 25,000 off-street parking spaces such as garages, said Evan Mory, city parking manager.

"Valet is obviously a convenience some restaurants want to offer their patrons," he said. "As downtown's gotten busier and some new restaurants have come in, a valet parking permit has became a regular request."

Despite assurance from the city that there is enough parking to go around, restaurants owners said they have no real guarantee that their diners will find a good spot unless they provide valet.

"Parking is at a minimum. Particularly in our area, there are no parking garages," said Dyce Craig, co-owner of Bella Brava New World Trattoria, a Tuscan restaurant on Central Avenue. "This is just a service we decided our guests deserve, especially in the summer when it is so hot and they have to walk."

Bella Brava started offering nightly valet parking last month. The cars are parked in a county-owned lot the restaurant leases.

Fresco's Waterfront Bistro on Second Avenue NE also began offering valet parking recently.

There, guests can leave their keys with the guys by the door without any worries.

"It's just easier," Sasha Brown of Pinellas Park said as she waited for her Toyota Prius to be pulled around front after a recent meal at Fresco's. "And it's free."

Valet parking also affords customers, especially those with luxury vehicles, some peace of mind, said Kris Jacobs, another co-owner of Courtesy Valet.

"We had this guy pull up the other night in a Lamborghini Gallardo," he said. "You don't want to leave a car like that just parked on the street."

At Parkshore Grill on Beach Drive, a valet service parks cars in a secure underground lot. The gourmet restaurant has done so since it opened in November 2006. Nearly 70 percent of the restaurant's customers use the service, which is especially popular with diners from Clearwater and Tampa, said Christen Stephens, the restaurant's office manager.

"Our customers love it," she said. "We could not live without it."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.