By CHRIS SHERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000
Over the years "Love" went by other names, the fantasies of Bay Plaza, a string of exhibits at the Florida International Museum, Major League Baseball.
All these public projects were touted as restoring vitality to downtown St. Petersburg, but none did as much as the infamous green benches once did.
Now as Love's latest dream, the $40-million Bay Walk mall with 20 screens and a half-dozen dining rooms, comes true, downtown is already surprisingly alive.
At 10 p.m. on a recent Friday, restaurants are full from Grand Finale to the Garden, and Bertoni is turning away late arrivals. On the cast iron balcony of A Taste for Wine, folks idle over Oregon pinot noir and Bordeaux, while punksters sprawl on the sidewalk below and dates get sticky on a dance floor across the street.
This is what the hope and determination of small independent restaurateurs have brought to town in the past few years.
There had, of course, always been food on the blocks along Central, a short and boring menu, but now there's sushi, health food, cappuccino and focaccia too.
They didn't invest millions -- they were lucky to have thousands -- but the risk was just as great. The obstacles were many: shifting and failing plans, construction delays (and destruction) and always the poor and desolate on the streets, customers with parking problems or, worse, $35 tickets.
Beyond the usual problems that sink new restaurants, there was the fearful suspicion that St. Petersburg wanted no more than a $3 tuna sandwich or a $10 steak.
It began with people, both restaurateurs and artists such as Tom and Lisa Brennan, who had visions of city life in other places and insisted it could happen in St. Petersburg. When they signed a lease for the first location of Tangelo's in 1987, Lisa Brennan thought the funky little space would be right for a low-key Caribbean bar and restaurant. Lisa's mother, who came from Fort Lauderdale for the occasion, however, broke down in tears. "I cried, it was such culture shock."
Now Mom lives here, too, and works in a downtown gallery, while the Brennans wonder if the future downtown may be so busy it will crowd out their little shop.
For Rochelle Smith, it started on tennis tours in Europe, where she fell in love with wine bars between tournaments: "I knew I would do this." When she gave up the game, she worked in wine stores and then looked for locations in Safety Harbor and Feather Sound. "When I saw this balcony, oh, this is perfect. People are going to love this place."
They did, sometimes only a handful all night long, but Smith and partner Erin Shim never regretted it. "You just need a few of those and you get chill bumps." And after five years, "The accountant said "You girls did good.' " Besides, she figures her timing was right: Any earlier they might not have succeeded; later they might not have afforded it.
When Emmanuel Roux arrived in 1993, he had seen city life in Savannah, Ga., as well as Europe, and the vacuum in St. Petersburg gave him hope. "All the downtown had been bled of its life. It had gone to the end. You can't have such a large suburban area without a heart and soul. It had to come back."
Starting with the oldest restaurant in St. Petersburg, he revamped the Garden with a Mediterranean theme, installed a flashy bar in the lobby of the old Detroit Hotel and gave downtown its first tastes of sushi and another upscale trend, an expensive showcase of Pacific Rim cuisine.
His faith has been rewarded, he says, with September's sales the best ever. And his former partner, chef Joe Chouinard, has enough confidence in downtown that he's starting another Pan-Asian restaurant, Pacific Wave, this month.
While Wanpen Tepwong knew urban life from Bangkok and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where her family had a restaurant, she needed to find out "what taste the American people like" and pick a location. After working for a year in a Tampa restaurant, she and husband Yoon chose St. Petersburg to open a second No. 9 Bangkok.
After feeding downtowners red, green yellow and panang curry for six years, she decided to expand, spending another two years to double her space to add a 15-seat sushi bar and improved bathrooms. "I want to open today, tomorrow, I want to open," she said a month ago, and last week she finally did.
For Brian Wellman, it took more than a year of designing and building to create his version of the hip dining scene in New York or Los Angeles in his Grand Finale. And when it opened in 1998, it still seemed like an abandoned corner in the empty grayfields near the Dome.
Yet after two years, Wellman's corner glows with a hip crowd, cool modern decor and hot contemporary cooking into the wee hours.
When Bertoni, who grew up in a restaurant family outside of Milan, took over the old Club Detroit space, "I took my chances. I had no idea St. Petersburg thought of itself as an up-and-coming place.
"I was told so often all I had to do was to sit and wait for baseball," he said, but when baseball came it did little for the eastern end of downtown. Fans did come to the Dome but went directly home after the game. The Titanic exhibit at the Florida International Museum, however, produced much greater spillover, and then Bay Walk construction slowed business down, and now Bertoni expects the movie complex to force a temporary downturn.
Through it all, he has been tough-minded but determined, calling the cops to clean up the streets and bugging the city about parking, while he stocks his wine cellar with his favorite Italian vintages and introduces the city to veal tonnato.
Certainly other restaurateurs have failed -- and others have succeeded and added extra flavors and fun to the plates in downtown. Bertoni, Smith, Roux, the Brennans, the Tepwongs and all the other successes did it on their own, believing in downtown against the odds.
While Bay Walk's restaurants and screens will open to understandable excitement, they are far from the first to believe in downtown St. Petersburg.
Don't forget the little guys. Help them keep the faith.
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