In a City of Cool Places, St. Petersburg’s Central Ave Stands Out
By Janet K. Keeler
The 600 Block of St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue is a stretch of road where a millennial cool cat can find nirvana.
It’s here that a slug of strong java at Brew D Licious or a bowl of vegan pad Thai from the Cider Press Café reflects what’s happening now. Fair trade duds at Illume Organic Apparel and handcrafted earrings at Strands of Sunshine pile on the hipness.
The historic State Theatre concert venue brings out the noise and the funk, plus hip-hop, indie and metal. Insane Clown Posse anyone?
Heck, even a baby boomer will be entertained fun here, especially in the unique boutiques that line the Crislip Arcade, built in the 1920s and given new life in the 2000s. Kids who’ve grown up with MasterChef Junior and sushi lunches won’t want to leave Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops until they’ve sampled coconut pistachio or strawberry habanero. For a buck extra, any pop can be dipped in chocolate.
In recent years, St. Petersburg has landed on must-visit lists from the New York Times, TripAdvisor, Forbes Travel and AmericanStyle arts and travel magazine. Fueling the city’s vibrancy is a robust art community and a craft beer scene that continues to bubble and brew. “God’s waiting room” as it was once known, is more like a heavenly rave these days, with downtown bursting on weekend nights with music and street life.
There are distinct districts to prowl, all of them punctuated with murals celebrating an array of subjects from Frida Kahlo to spinning dinner plates and snake oil advertising. On the downtown waterfront is tony Beach Drive, with its glittery high-rise condos, art museums and sidewalk dining. West of downtown, and still on Central Avenue, is evolving into a haven for local breweries, hipster restaurants and neighborhood bars. The scene is expanding south from Central where the Warehouse Arts District rises from a tangle of industrial buildings.
St. Petersburg is booming again, and the 600 Block, as it’s called, stands out as a destination that mixes old St. Pete with a fresh vibe. All around downtown, large apartment complexes are being constructed to house those interested in living in the thick of things. The 600 Block remains special for its nod to history, the low-profile buildings with their brick facades were born in the 1920s during another Florida boom period. Tenants and contents aside, they don’t look that different.
Most of the 600 Block was slated for demolition to make way for development just before the real estate bubble burst in 2008. Tattered antique shops had been shuttered for a couple years when a clever St. Petersburg city councilwoman had the idea to offer affordable rents to artists. The idea took hold and what was once a blighted section of Central has become an epicenter for independent commerce, even if the rents have increased and some of the tenants have changed.
Start your 600 Block amble at the corner of Central and Sixth avenues with the water of Tampa Bay to your back.
The Cider House Press Café has transformed a large space into a sleek restaurant and bar that serves lunch and dinner, specializing in vegan and raw fare.
As you head west, on the north side of Central, you’ll pass Fourward Glass Gallery and its colorful hand-blown pipes, and then hit a stretch of boutiques such as Misred Outfitters and Illume Organic Apparel and a trio of shops with French names: Bijou, Cozette and Suzette. For shoppers looking for a unique ensemble, these are must-stop shops.
(On the south side of the block is a tattoo shop, a couple of bars and music venues and Daddy Kool Records, where everything vinyl is hot again. This side of the street comes to life when the sun goes down.)
Strands of Sunshine is both a play on St. Petersburg’s nickname, the Sunshine City, and the cheerful, handcrafted cards, bags and jewelry found inside. The proprietor welcomes shoppers with ice pops in their hands since the equally sunny Hyppo is just a few doors away. There’s artwork, too, and Stash yarn shop stocks oodles and oodles of colorful skeins for stitchers. The sign on the door is a nod to the warm Florida weather, inviting shoppers to peruse the wool in air-conditioned comfort.
Take a right into the Crislip Arcade at about the center of the block. The arcade was slated for the bulldozer too, but was revitalized in 2010 to house galleries. The entire block was envisioned as an artist colony, but over time has evolved into a mostly shopping and dining destination. The Local COOP, which occupies a couple of spaces in the arcade, has brought together local artisans and crafty folks, and Salt-LIGHT Art brings a touch of classy sophistication to the arcade alley. Jewelry is a specialty of White Pine Studio.
From the arcade, head into the alley behind the north side of the block to meander among the murals on the backs of the buildings. Artists created many of them during the city’s inaugural SHINE Mural Festival in 2015. (For more information: shineonstpete.com.) One of them honors a beloved local artist popularly called Woo, who died in his 600 Block gallery in 2012. He was just 43, and he watches over the alley with his iconic dark-framed glasses, goatee and soul patch. Walk back through the arcade after you’ve visited Frida, some rambunctious little space aliens, Twiggy and Mr. Sun (a nod to 1940s St. Petersburg marketing campaigns), and start your journey west again.
The sidewalk becomes crowded here with café tables and skateboarders sharing the walkway. You’ll notice a shift in the offerings as you head toward the State Theatre, the former bank that’s been a concert venue for decades. There’s Two Fold Bicycle Shop, specializing in funky folding bikes, and the Local Longboard Company and its wall of colorful boards. The Lure restaurant is a popular spot for cocktails, small plates and pool and is next door to Brew D Licious, where coffee drinkers sink into cushy chairs and the talk is as thick as the espresso. (Or sit outside where water bowls bring relief to thirsty dogs.)
And then there’s Star Booty and El’s Menswear, the oldsters on the block. Part hair salon, part boutique, the folks at Star Booty have been making young St. Petersburg cool long before trendy hit the city. In recent years, Guitars on Central has shared the space with Star Booty. Stop in to El’s and get a lesson in St. Petersburg history, and stylish dress clothes, including porkpie hats to top off the look.
Your walk ends at the State Theatre, and if you’re lucky there will be a line of people waiting for a show, their clothes and hair matched to the genre of the acts. Might be punk. Might be metal. Could be an indie jam. Buy a ticket for the show or simply watch the crowd.
And here’s another neat thing about the 600 Block. In a downtown littered with parking meters, there are none here. You’ll get two hours free street parking and no hunting for change. How cool is that?
If you go…
There are several hotels in downtown St. Petersburg, including the historic Vinoy Renaissance (501 Fifth Ave. NE; (727) 894-1000). There is a Hampton Inn and Suites (80 Beach Dr. NE; (727) 892-9900) and a Courtyard (300 Fourth St N; (727) 450-6200), plus several boutique hotels including the Ponce de Leon (95 Central Ave.; (727) 550-9300) and the Birchwood (340 Beach Drive NE; (727) 896-1080). Another option for accommodations is the Hotel Indigo (234 Third Ave. N; (727) 822-4814).
St. Petersburg’s downtown district and surrounding arts venues come alive on the second Saturday of each month for the monthly ArtWalk. A free trolley takes patrons to more than 40 galleries around the city’s core from 5 to 9 p.m. Many stores are also open late for ArtWalk. For more information: stpeteartsalliance.org/artwalk.
For general information about events in St. Petersburg, go to the city’s website: stpete.org
Photos by Scott Keeler for VISIT FLORIDA