Once-sleepy St. Petersburg, Fla., awakens with vibrant arts and nightlife scenes by Paul Abercrombie

The St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, the largest in the world, attracts players of all ages. (VisitStPeteClearwater.com)
Sizing up the triangular downcourt target, I wonder if my wife and teenage son realize what an only-in-Florida scene we make.
Not only are we playing shuffleboard. We’re doing so in downtown St. Petersburg, as card-carrying members of the seaside city’s historic shuffleboard club, the largest in the world. You really can’t get more Sunshine State than this.
While older folks are shoving pucks on this Friday afternoon, most players are far younger, many in their early 20s and hoisting cans of beer. The club and city, it seems, have experienced quite a revival.
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Like most of our friends, when we moved to neighboring Tampa nearly three decades ago, my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Gail, and I regarded the half-hour drive across the bay to St. Pete as about as fun as a trip to the DMV. Derelict buildings seemed to outnumber retirees in a town long derided as “God’s Waiting Room.”
My. How times have changed.
Today, St. Pete’s arts and nightlife scenes are palpably more vibrant and hipper than Tampa’s, as a result of the young people and entrepreneurial small businesses that have enlivened its walkable downtown. On weekends — and many weekdays — waterfront cafes, restaurants and bars are packed. Hotels grand and small have been refurbished and are newly popular. Fellow Tampans, you’ll hate me for saying this, but you know it’s true: St. Pete is cooler than Tampa.
Hankering to experience more of St. Pete than we’ve been able to on day trips and occasional overnight visits, the three of us decided to stay for a proper weekend. Besides revisiting some favorite places, we’d check out some newer spots we’d heard good things about.
We drop our bags at the city’s iconic pink confection of a hotel, the Vinoy, a Mediterranean Revival-style historic landmark near the bay. Then my wife and I walk with our 15-year-old, Ewan, several blocks southwest to Il Ritorno, a newish restaurant whose riffs on traditional Italian dishes have been getting raves from friends. As spirited as our shuffleboard game earlier in the day, it couldn’t account for how avidly we tuck into a dinner of pan-roasted branzino and rib-eye steak. A shared plate of lovely taleggio-filled agnolotti, flecked with crispy bits of fried lamb belly and charred leeks, is surprisingly light.

A post-dinner stroll along Beach Drive to our hotel takes us through a lively crowd of genial revelers old and young, dressed up and down and everything in between. The strumming of the handful of guitar-playing buskers we pass is pleasant enough, but it’s the dapper older guy seated at a table covered with several dozen wine glasses of various sizes that compels us to stop. Above the vessels, half-filled with water, his hands whirl, fingers tracing the rims, producing a spot-on musical sampling of everything from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the “Star Wars” theme song. Awed, we linger to listen and to chat. He tells us his name (James Turner), and about the art of playing the glass harp, which he says he has done on big-time TV shows in the United States and abroad. We agree this was yet another reason to stay the night.
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The next morning, we drink coffee on our hotel balcony, admiring how eclectic the town has become. In the pool below, a half-dozen aging athletes move more or less in unison to the commands of a much younger water aerobics instructor. Across the street, in the bay, an armada of toylike sailboats navigates around sleek motor-powered yachts. About a mile farther south, propeller planes take off and land from the city’s tiny bayside airport, just beyond where, a little more than a century ago, the world’s first commercial passenger flight took place — a small, wooden seaplane that went to Tampa. To the south, the landmark St. Pete Pier awaits its snazzy redevelopment. To the west, the first of a dozen-odd planned new buildings, some of which will be high-rise condos and apartments, soars above downtown St. Pete’s once-modest skyline. But I’m pleased to know the city’s quirky neighborhoods remain intact.

Boats moored at the Vinoy Yacht Club, with the changing St. Petersburg skyline behind them. (Monica Herndon/For The Washington Post)
By the time the seniors cede the pool to young kids and their parents, we remember we have an appointment to keep. Hoofing it several blocks southwest, we meet St. Pete-born muralist Derek Donnelly in an alley off Central Avenue. It’s in these back streets that he and a few other artistically inclined teens began experimenting with cans of spray paint. A decade later, his formerly “semi-legal” public art career has gone legit. Today, he juggles commissioned painting gigs with the city-sanctioned tours he leads of St. Pete’s outdoor mural scene.
Through once-seedy downtown passageways, we stroll as if through an open-air art gallery with our amiable, tattooed docent. Derek points out examples of his own work, but seems most enthusiastic talking about murals done by the growing number of fellow hometown artists, as well as national and international ones. No two murals seem similar. And none is blessedly of the “beaches and margaritas” Florida genre Derek says some tourists expect. We pass ’60s icon Twiggy, painted by local artist Chad Mize, gazing dreamily from an alley wall, and Los Angeles graffiti artist Shark Toof’s fearsome red and black shark splashed across the backside of the State Theatre.
As if on cue, a city bus pulls up to a stop nearby. It’s wrapped with an image of the same swirly, multicolored mural that covers a wall of a three-story building in front of us.
“This mural stuff is contagious,” Derek says with a laugh.
At lunch on the covered outdoor patio at nearby FarmTable Cucina, we compare photos of murals and marvel at the food. We take turns trying to describe the fried cauliflower’s flavors, which seem to outnumber its ingredients, including finger lime, golden raisins, guanciale and sea urchin aioli.
“Don’t you feel like we’re not even in the same state anymore?” Gail asks. To which we all agree.
If I hadn’t recently visited — and very much enjoyed — the city’s Morean Arts Center collection of fantastical glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly, I might stupidly have begged we skip the mile-plus-long amble up Central Avenue to the just-opened Imagine Museum, which showcases studio glass artworks. Over the hour we spend browsing the museum’s collection, I lose count of how many times we say “That’s cool” and “That’s amazing.” Among our favorites are the rumpled vessels fashioned from glass threads by Toots Zynsky and the sea-creature-like sculptures of William LeQuier.
Wandering back down Central Avenue, we pass shops and restaurants old and new as if time-traveling every few paces.
Several bayside blocks from our hotel, we pop into the fittingly odd-looking Salvador Dalí Museum, packed with more of the mustachioed artist’s works than anywhere outside of Spain. Though it’s among our favorites, we’re feeling a little museumed-out, so we cut short our visit to seek out an encore performance by our glass harpist pal on the way back to our room.
Having been content to explore the compact downtown by foot, we agree with some reluctance to drive six miles west to the Reading Room for dinner. The new restaurant, which says it strives for “a modern approach at nostalgic tastes,” has been gushily praised by friends and media getting gushy praise from friends and media alike.
I can’t remember a dinner conversation focused so much on what’s on our plates and in our glasses. Gail says her sgroppino cocktail, garnished with a mint leaf affixed to the rim with a tiny clothespin, is better than any she has had in the drink’s Italian hometown of Venice. We debate whether the quirky and delicious beets and berries dish would work as well for breakfast as it does for dinner. Yes, we decide. We concur at first bite that the browned butter and persimmon cake, topped with a scoop of delicately funky La Tur cheese, is among the best desserts we’ve ever tasted.
Sunday morning brings fresh balcony-side theater. Below, hotel staff scatter and hide hundreds of multicolored plastic Easter eggs in preparation for kids to hunt. A gaggle of millennials arrives at the downstairs restaurant, their laughter and casual dress signaling that they’re in search of a post-night-on-the-town brunch and Bloody Marys. Skyward, we spy an osprey that has swung by for breakfast and is flying northeast with a freshly nabbed fish in its talons. It reminds me of the places we didn’t get to on this trip: the white sugar-sand beaches and the mangrove-lined waterways that can be explored by kayak. We’ll be back; after all, they, too, are only a short drive from home.

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