I know, I know, the St. Pete Pier has its faults. That stretch of unshaded concrete leading up to the pierhead can make for a grueling trek. The mix of bikes and scooters, toddlers and terriers makes for some dicey near-misses. And while I love Janet Echelman’s Bending Arc, couldn’t it be raised up just a little bit so that it doesn’t look so much like a collapsed fishnet when you view it from the mainland?
But there’s so much to like. It’s not just that the Pier gives tourists a new place to visit; it gives St. Petersburgers so many new places to be. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Pier’s many eateries. Here’s my take.
SPA BEACH BISTRO
Ambience: 8. You say you want shade? Head for one of the tables under the trees and umbrellas in this outdoor oasis mid-Pier. On a Saturday afternoon, it feels like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a big family picnic, surrounded by happy squeals from the adjacent playground and splash pad. (The ambience changes at night, when the bar and live music draw a more grown-up crowd.)
Food: 7. The most rudimentary of Pier menus, but what else are kids going to eat but pizza, ice cream and chicken fingers? (They have salads, too.)
Service: 10. Cary Breton, who served me our pizza from the counter, happened to sit next to us on his lunch break. He asked how the pizza was, and when I asked if there were any red pepper flakes available he hopped up and said “I’ll get that for you!”
DOC FORD’S RUM BAR & GRILLE
Ambience: 8. Somehow this mega-popular chain manages to maintain the laid-back vibe of a coastal-town fish shack. Pro tip: If the hostess tells you there’s an hour-and-a-half wait, take her advice and look for a seat at the bar.
Food: 9. We’ve already extolled Doc’s famous Yucatan Shrimp in dRTB’s A to Z Issue, but we hadn’t tried another of their specialties, because, well, how good could fish fingers be? But the serving is generous and the fish is fresh, the coating crunchy without being greasy. I wasn’t crazy about a Panko-Crusted Grouper dish (a trifle too salty), but I liked the plump little shrimp on the Shrimp Scampi Flatbread. And the menu offers lots more than fish dishes. My dining mates raved about the boneless pork ribeye, we enjoyed the meaty Texas Baby Back Ribs, and the mammoth slice of carrot cake was scrumptious.
Service: 10. Caroline and Eli set a welcoming tone that made eating at the bar a perfectly fine alternative to the busy dining room. And Caroline makes a mean Old Fashioned and a smooth-as-silk Mai Tai.
Ambience: 7. This grab-and-go spot at the far end of the Pier is one of three Pier Point restaurants run by Chuck Prather of Birchwood Inn/Birch & Vine fame. Like its sister establishments on the floors above, the ground-floor cafe has a sweeping view of the St. Pete skyline — that is, if you can manage to score a table or bench. But you can always take your coffee drink or your sandwich and settle down on the grass slope in front of the cafe, where families like to picnic and kids like to roll.
Food: 8. We had breakfast here one weekend morning, sampling a delicious breakfast pizza that was big enough for four (we took half of it home), an equally generous egg and sausage croissant-wich, a tasty chocolate croissant and good coffee.
Service: 8. Friendly, quick and efficient. Order inside at the cashier and wait in the smallish space to hear your name called, or they’ll bring the food to your table.
Ambience: 9. This is the Pier Point’s high-end dining spot (with, happily enough, not so high-end prices). Getting there can be a little confusing (you’ll likely need guidance to find the elevator to the second floor), but once you arrive, the decor makes an immediate impact. The hostess desk is the hull of a lake boat, there’s a gleaming installation of etched-glass nautical maps in the lobby ceiling, and an array of boat replicas hang above the dining room. The color scheme is teal, grey and teak, and the wide-angle view of city, sky and water is unmatched by any other St. Pete fine-dining restaurant. And while it’ll feel even more like the big-occasion room it deserves to be when there’s no need to limit the number of diners, there are fewer more romantic options for dining than a table by a window at Teak.
Food: 9. A creative and well-priced menu. The Rosemary Manhattan is a smooth and savory twist on tradition, and 24 Carrot is a bright-tasting concoction of Stoli vodka, mango turmeric syrup, carrot and lemon juices. The apps we tried were stellar: crunchy conch beignets and an outstanding potato-crusted lump crab cake, enhanced by “Big Easy” corn, a kind of succulent succotash. I only wish our server would have advised us that the same mix of andouille and corn would be the main accompaniment for the “Laid Back” Lobster Bake; the flavors were redundant and the saucing overwhelmed the not very large lobster. The short rib, though — a bargain at $18 — was terrific, and inventive, too, bathed in ginger guava BBQ sauce on a nest of roasted cauliflower mash. And the Killer Key Lime Pie, also available at Driftwood, totally lived up to its name.
Service: 9. Aside from the one quibble mentioned above, our server was warm and engaging. And any restaurant would benefit from the easy charm of Teak manager Eddie Hodkinson.
Ambience: 7. It’s a rooftop tiki bar and it can get crowded, so there can be a loooong wait before you’re allowed up. The main reason for the popularity: glorious sunset views, and the chance for highly scenic selfies. There are lounge areas and high-top tables and niches where you can escape with friends, and you can perch in the mouth of the Tiki Monster if you dare (video above).
Food: 7. Similar to the Teak menu, though really what you want to eat up here is the fun stuff: a very good Peterburger (though one of our party complained it wasn’t served hot enough), nicely done fish tacos, an okay BBQ chicken flatbread and, of course, tiki drinks.
Service: 7. Confusion was afoot among my five fellow diners as to who was ordering what and who was footing the bill, so that may have had something to do with the delays and the (possibly) lukewarm burger. But our server was unfailingly good-natured through it all, and we had a very good time.