Notes from St. Petersburg: the Don Cesar and Wharf Dining

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St Pete cesar

Because I have a condominium at my disposal in Cape Canaveral, that’s where I usually head when I want to have a quiet weekend outside of Orlando without getting on a plane. But recently I went to the other coast instead and spent some time in St. Petersburg. It had been more than nine years since I last overnighted there, so I enjoyed the chance to spend some more time, and what a great time it was.

I stayed at the Loews Don Cesar, the big pink landmark that has been a standout on the Gulf of Mexico for decades. 

St pete drinkThe hotel is nice, though its sheer age keeps it from being classified as elegant anymore (I can’t throw stones at that particular glass house). But I was surprised more by the lack of guest relations training that many of the staff showed. Many of them didn’t seem to like what they were doing, and those who at least put on a front didn’t go any further to enhance the experience.

For example, when we accidentally left a set of car keys at the poolside bar, the bartender just put them aside the cash register even though we had signed the bar tab to our room number. Wouldn’t it have been more guest friendly to call our room to let us know where the keys were rather than having us run all over looking for where we’d left them (which is what we did)?

On another occasion when we paid by cash, the bartender rounded up the change he gave back to us, keeping 49 cents for himself. A pittance, really, but I see that as tantamount to stealing nonetheless. 

And while sitting out in a beach chaise as the afternoon waned, a young man picking up umbrellas and beach chairs was tossing tables from about 10 feet way into a pile just a few feet from where we sat. Not very conducive to a relaxing afternoon (and we’d paid dearly for the privilege to sit on a chaise). When I asked if he was trying to tell us we should leave he just grunted and said, “You don’t have to.”

But then there was the fellow who had set us up with a couple of kayaks for a morning paddle and who, after we had gone off shore a ways, enjoying the dolphins that were swimming around us, came out on his jet ski to make sure we were OK. It was nice of him to do, and I chose not to see it as concern for a couple of old guys.

I had been to the Don Cesar’s Maritana Grille several years ago when I was doing the State Fare column for Florida magazine. And, frankly, I wasn’t all that thrilled with it, and I was even less thrilled with the pricing. Only one entree on the current menu is under $30 (it’s $29) and everything else is way above.

So for our meals we ventured off the hotel grounds. The first night we went to downtown St. Pete, which is a little like Church Street in Orlando in terms of its surfeit of young people and drinking establishments. We chose an Italian restaurant called BellaBrava, on Beach Drive. It had a nice upscale and modern feel, and we really liked the server, who was also the bartender. She was friendly and more than accommodating, granting our requests for tastes of the wines we were considering and giving honest -- sometimes brutally so -- assessments of some of the dishes we were considering.

Unfortunately the food wasn’t as good as the service. Rick had something called the rigatoni crostata, whose most distinct feature was that it was served beneath a dome of puffed crust of bread that looked for all the world like Tropicana Field. Beneath it was an unappealing blend of sausage, red and yellow peppers and cheeses in a tomato sauce that was underseasoned. not bad, just bland.

The same with my Pasta Brava, penne pasta with wood-grilled chicken, ham, peas and mushrooms in a cream sauce. You’d think with all that good stuff there’d be some wonderfulness in the mouth, but nothing.

The next morning we had a serviceable breakfast at Sea Horse restaurant on Pass-a-Grille. Nice omelet served by a laconic young woman. I also liked the eggs over hash, one of my favorite breakfast combos.

Driving back to the Don Cesar we spotted a place called Wharf, the only description for which could be a dive. We made a note to try it that evening and we loved it.

st pete lobster roll

We sat at a railing overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and watched the boats go by. Just after we had placed our order, a young couple passed by on their way out and the woman leaned over and said, “You should get the lobster roll. I’m from Boston and I know lobster rolls.” I thanked her but decided to stay with my original order of grilled mahi mahi. And it was a very nice piece of fish with a pleasant smoky flavor note. We also loved the crab cake appetizer and the rouxy cup of gumbo with hunky bits of sausage.

We liked it so much that we went back the next day for lunch, a rare thing for me to do when I’m traveling, but we were about to drive back to Orlando and we wanted the comfort of the Wharf’s downscale atmosphere and view of the river.

And this time I had the lobster roll, and the woman from Boston knew of which she spoke. It was a delicious lobster salad served in a buttery toasted white bread slice. Perfect. So was the soft-shell crab, delicately breaded and fries just so.

The only negative of Wharf was the over-pumped juke box from the bar. It really didn’t need to be that loud, and I think the people in what must be expensive houses across the water would agree.

By the way, the room at the Don Cesar was quite nice, tastefully decorated and blissfully quiet, which helps to make up for shortchanging bartenders.

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