Secrets of St. Pete/Clearwater: What Only the Locals Will Tell You

Aug 1, 2018

So you probably know about St. Pete/Clearwater’s beaches (thanks, No.1 rating on TripAdvisor!). But what about the craft beer trail or—even less expected—the Dali Museum?

Once you pull your head out of the sand (an admittedly Herculean task on such amazing shores), you’ll find all kind of secrets and surprises in in this Florida Gulf Coast enclave 90 miles west of Orlando. For the best of the bunch, we’ve crowdsourced tips from notable insiders—and here’s our resulting treasure map.

Best Place to Grab a Beer

Some call this the Gulp Coast. The place is hopping with hops. The St. Pete/Clearwater Craft Beer Trail runs from Tarpon Springs to St. Pete—with 40-plus stops along the way. In fact, tiny Dunedin alone offers eight craft breweries within a square mile, not least, the state’s first craft brewery: Dunedin Brewery. A few other locally beloved stops:

Independent Bar St. Pete, whose 24-draft rotation keeps Chad Mize—muralist and owner of Mize Gallery—coming back weekly to see what’s on tap. He likes the Kölsch, a golden ale from Cologne that has long been a staple and local favorite here.

The Ale and the Witch, a U.S. craft beer-centric spots with a courtyard that casts its spell on Olga Bof, founder and president of nonprofit Keep Saint Petersburg Local. The list of beers on tap is always changing, but check for locally made brews from the likes of Pinellas Ale Works, St. Petersburg Brewing or 3 Daughters Brewing.

Green Bench Brewing Co., named for a fun feature of early-1900s St. Pete: the 2,500 benches that lined the downtown, inviting passers-by to stop, sit and make friends of strangers. The place has a similar effect on Jessika Palombo, co-owner and beverage/hospitality manager of the Reading Room (more on that to come), who loves to schmooze over seasonal cider with whomever she finds at the bar.  

The Shave Cave, where you can get sheared and beered: “It’s a really cool barbershop with a really cool owner who offers you a beer as soon as you walk in for your appointment,” says Jeffrey Hileman, executive chef for Locale Market and FarmTable Cucina (more to come on that, too).


Best Night-Out Splurge

Having flown under the radar for years, the local dining scene is gaining national cred (USA Today named it one of five underrated food cities on the East Coast), and poised to make a rapid ascent. To see why, try these foodie favorites:

The Reading Room offers novel twists on garden-inspired and wood-fired cuisine. But the accompaniments are no less impressive, notes Tegan Foster, co-owner of Hawthorne Bottle Shoppe, who raves about the homemade bread, the cocktails and the wine list.

The Restorative promises imaginative flavors in a casual, intimate setting. If you dine at the counter, “the chefs themselves will take your order and prepare your one-of-a-kind meal directly in front of you,” says Michael Lyn Bryant, VP/GM/band booker at Dunedin Brewery. “The menu changes all the time, depending on availability of ingredients —as well as the chef’s imagination. I've never had the same dish twice, but I can say that my favorite dishes were topped with fresh-shaved truffle, and the chef is always generous with his truffle.”

FarmTable Cucina produces a bounty of house-made pastas, pizzas and fresh breads. “We love the energy and the food,” says muralist Ya Levy La’ford. “Start with some fried cauliflower, then let the lasagna melt in your mouth.”

Rococo Steak: “It’s in a beautifully restored building and the food [chic, subversive takes on steakhouse fare] is fantastic,” says Bof. Not for nothing, the resident wine collection has received Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence five years in a row. “But if cocktails are your thing and bourbon’s your tipple, then you absolutely have to try their ‘Smoke,’” she adds.


Best Places for Arts Lovers

Well hello, Dali. From big-name artists to big-scale murals, St. Pete paints a pretty picture for appreciators of the arts. Exhibit A? The Morean Arts Center, which boasts the first permanent collection of glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work in a building designed specifically for his art.

We canvassed our insiders for other favorites:

The Dali Museum houses 96 of the Spanish surrealist’s oil paintings (as well as original drawings, illustrations, prints, sculptures, photos, videos and archival documents). So, um, why here? When an art-collecting couple sought a home for their droves of Daliana back in the 1970s, St. Pete stepped up and built one. “Even the structure of the building is a work of art,” says Bryant.

The Museum of Fine Arts holds pieces spanning 4,500 years. When you’re ready for a break from time traveling through the galleries, hit the MFA Cafe. “They’ve got great food and the view from the windows at the back—and their outdoor patio looking out onto our bay—is just stunning,” says Bof.

 Jannus Live is a really cool outside music venue which hosts both national and regional acts, says Hileman. There’s always a standing-room-only crowd—because there is no seating.


Best Cheap Eats

You don’t have to be a big spender to dine deliciously in St. Pete. Our insiders get the best bites for their bucks at these spots:

11 Chicks Yummy Creations, a Venezuelan place run by—you’ll never guess—11 women (all related). “They specialize in handmade arepas, and offer many different bases with toppings,” Palombo says. “All gluten-free and delicious.”

Central Melt is known for its gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, but “I adore their tomato soup and you'll never forget their fresh, hand-cut fries—they're addictive,” Bof says. She also likes the Notorious P.I.G. (BBQ pork, homemade red onion and bacon jam) and the Caprese Melt.

Pico Rojo, an unassuming counter-serve South American café that’s big on rotisserie chicken. “Almost everything here is cooked simply with olive oil and sea salt,” says Bryant.

The Chattaway, a legendary eatery in the Old Florida part of St. Pete. Open since 1951, it’s known for burgers and British flavor, including afternoon tea. “I love the veggie burger,” Mize says. “Say hi to the koi fish.” Yes, there’s a pond.


Best Places to Kick Back on the Sand

For all the other local enticements, you’ll of course want to spend time on the sand—and yes, Clearwater Beach reigns as best in the country, according to TripAdvisor. Hard to beat 2 1/2 miles of stunningly white sand and warm emerald water. Still, there are some seriously worthy local rivals:

Honeymoon Island is a state park at the end of Dunedin Causeway, where more than four miles of beach offer great swimming, fishing and shelling—and a three-mile trail takes you through one of the last remaining virgin slash pine forests in Florida. “The extra distance and small entry fee keep the park relatively quiet—even during peak season,” says Bryant.

Sunset Beach, of course! On the southern tip of Treasure Island, it’s straight out of a Jimmy Buffett tune—a laid back, live-and-let-live place. You’ll find colorful homes, tiki huts and bohemian beachfront bars not far from the white sand. “The very end of Sunset Beach is my fave,” says Foster. “It is never crowded, you can take a beautiful walk for as far as the eye can see, and it is a perfect sunset spot.”


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