Make a stop in Grand Central (Florida, that is)

By Diane Bair and Pamela Wright Globe correspondents,December 11, 2018, 5:07 p.m.

Not that long ago, this rapidly-growing neighborhood was a string of empty storefronts, and a place you avoided walking through at night. “It was pretty desolate,” says Jonathan Tallon, president of the Grand Central District Association. “But it was dirt cheap and you could do what you wanted, so it attracted a very curious and interesting mix of entrepreneurs. It became an innovation lab.”
Today, the pedestrian-friendly area, stretching east-west between the 1600 and 3000 blocks of Central Avenue, is filled with people who quit their day jobs to pursue their passion. There are colorful murals, vintage boutiques, yoga studios, coffee shops, brew pubs, tattoo parlors, hair salons, doggie daycares, and a growing list of restaurants. Old buildings have been repurposed; flower boxes planted, and the laid-back, Old Florida hub, designated both a national and state Main Street community, is on the rise.

“Everyone’s eyes are on Grand Central right now,” says Tegan Foster, co-owner of Hawthorne Bottle Shop.

There are plenty of places to eat and drink in the GCD, and over the course of a few days, we tried our best to check out some of the hot spots. The Urban Brew and BBQ (727-822-8919, www.urbanbrewandbbq.com) serves craft beer and Southern-style barbecue (try the braised pork belly, smoked in draft root beer for more than seven hours.) The colorful Casita Taqueria (727-498-8749, www.casitatacos.com) has simple Mexican street fare, made in-house with fresh ingredients. Their camarones, with garlic grilled shrimp, chipotle mayo, and cilantro, and the slow-cooked pork carnitas, topped with salsa verde and queso fresco cheese, are favorites. Enjoy them with a cold Modelo at the picnic table outside. At Nitally’s Thai-Mex Cuisine (727-321-8424, www.nitallys.com) you can get chipotle stir fry, panang mole, and chorizo fried rice — sounds weird but it works, and somehow mirrors the funky, diverse neighborhood. The hippy-ish, save-the-planet (we like that stuff!) Love Food Central (727-317-2034, www.lovefoodcentral.com) serves vegan and gluten-free dishes, like the popular G-mash toast with smashed garbanzo salad and avocado, and the pulled BBQ sandwich with jackfruit, avocado, and house-made BBQ sauce. At the more sophisticated, but still unpretentious, Lolita’s Wine Market (named after the owner’s dog Lola — Lolita when she misbehaves), you can create your own charcuterie board, selecting from a large variety of cured meats, cheeses, and pickled accoutrements (727-505-0503, www.facebook.com/lolitaswinemarket). They also have daily small plate specials, like a burrata roasted pear and arugula salad, garlic shrimp, and chorizo oysters Rockefeller.
On our last day in the GCD, we sat at the Dog Bar (“Sit. Stay. Drink.”), a combo doggie daycare, dog park and a full liquor, beer, wine bar (727-317-4968, www.dogbarstpete.com). Dogs played in the park, with on- and off-leash areas, swimming pools, doggie ramps, tunnels, and cots for lounging. People clustered at outdoor tables and hunkered up to the bar to chat with neighbors and strangers over cold brews, watched sports on TV, and played Ping-Pong and corn hole. We wondered: How long will the GCD stay so wonderfully funky, before it becomes too gentrified, sanitized, expensive.

“The district still has a little bit of dirt and grit under its fingernails,” Tallon said. “That’s what makes it interesting.”

We agree; let’s hope it stays that way for a while.

If you go . . .

For more information, contact Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, 727-464-7200, www.visitstpeteclearwater.com. The retro chic and contemporary The Avalon (727-317-5508, www.avalonstpetersburg.com) and its sister property The Hollander (727-873-7900, www.hollanderhotel.com), both located downtown, offer value-packed lodging options with free parking and no resort fees. Or, go posh with a stay at the downtown Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club (727-894-1000, www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/tpasr-the-vinoy-renaissance-st.-petersburg-resort-and-golf-club/). The waterside grand hotel has everything you need on site, including restaurants, fitness center, full service spa, and newly-renovated rooms. It’s a short drive to the Grand Central District, or hop on the Grand Central trolley.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.

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