“See you at Sunset!” It's a frequent greeting in Pass-a-Grille. Folks gather at the Paradise Grille to watch the glowing red-orange sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico horizon. One lucky guest is chosen to ring a ceremonial ship's bell, exactly 15 times. Over the past two decades, seven thousand people from around the world have rung the bell and signed their names and remembrances in the guest books, now on their 20th volume.
Call it a perfect snapshot of the sleepy little Keys-type community populated as much by pelicans as people. Occupying the narrow southern tail of St. Pete Beach, Pass-a-Grille is nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and Boca Ciega Bay. The quirky beach town is a mere thirty one blocks long and one block wide.
Each morning wiry kids with spinning rods in their hands line the seawall on the east side of the town. On gusty days its broad sugary white beaches play host to kite boarders. Kayakers and paddle boarders navigate the Gulf waters most afternoons. Loggerhead sea turtles nest here during the summer.
History says Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez landed at Pass-a-Grille in 1528. The town is named for the 18th century "grilleurs" who would stop on the beaches here to smoke their day’s catch in order to preserve it for the trip home. It is mostly a residential community of well-preserved clapboard cottages, cozy inns, and an occasional waterfront mansion. Old Florida palms line the streets, which offer a collection of off-beat shops, art galleries, and waterfront restaurants.
We stayed at the Coconut Inn just steps from the beach with a pool, grilling area, bikes and an easy walk down to the business district. Stop into Island Life, the gift shop embodiment of beach life. Color is everywhere. Scan the vibrant paintings by owner Candice Vacchiano's 91-year old father Ralph McKoy, check out the parrots carved in Bali, the wooden and beaded jewelry from Indonesia, and wooden turtles sculpted in Ecuador. Surfboards and SUPs serve as both bright backdrops and items for sale. If your timing is good, you may get to see the celebrated artist at work in his studio.
Pass-A-Grille has always been a magnet for quirky characters. The best place to discover them is at the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum. It was originally built in 1917 as the barrier island's first church. Read about Silas Dent, the hermit of Cabbage Key and Panther Key John, a crusty old Cuban fisherman who claimed to be the last Gulf Coast pirate. You will also enjoy World War II exhibits and an extensive Old Florida postcard collection.
Eccentricity rules in Pass-a-Grille. Take Evander Preston. At a glance, the 6-foot, 3-inch Preston appears to fall somewhere between Eric the Red and Daniel Boone. A jewelry craftsman, brewer, art collector, and master chef, his 8th Avenue gallery is an elegant funhouse where he designs and creates unique contemporary jewelry with prices to match. Famous clients include Jimmy Buffett and Lauren Bacall.
A few doors down is Grace, the restaurant that has quickly become a sensation. Transplants from Cleveland, Marlin Kaplan and Lisa Masterson moved to the Tierra Verde neighborhood to retire. It didn't quite work out. A restaurateur for more than 30 years with venues ranging from causal bistros to fine dining establishments, Grace is Chef Kaplan's tenth. Over the years he's had the privilege of cooking at the James Beard House in New York City on a number of occasions.
Grace is elegant without being intimidating, but there is whimsy, too. Seth Casteel's fabulous photographs of "Underwater Dogs" dazzle in the dining rooms. From a leaping Lab to a diving Dachshund, the photos capture the canines' startled expressions breaking through the surface of the water to chase their favorite toy, a tennis ball.
It offers a smart signature cocktail list, all of the concoctions named for local dogs. Watson is a combination of Boodles gin, Aperol, St. Germaine, white peach balsamic, and Prosecco. The short and creative menu is a delightful blend of American basics served with international flair and, like the decor, a bit of whimsy.
The heirloom tomato salad is sugar and salt cured and topped with a lovely nip of orange blossom water and fried pistachios, creating simple but complex flavors. The braised mussels are bathed in saffron broth and the bone-in pork chop is perfectly complemented with an onion and apple confit. There are wonderful twists -- Sputnik lettuce from local Brick Street Farms instead of classic iceberg for the Grace Wedge, and a spicy crawfish addition to the head-on shrimp and grits.
Let's put this out there. The Brass Monkey serves up the best jumbo lump crab cakes in Florida. They're nearly baseball-sized beauties. Proprietors Barry and Kelly Streib owned the Bay Cafe in Ocean City, Md. for 18 years before they headed south. Ravens, Orioles and Terps flags hang from the balcony dining area overlooking the Gulf.
On our final day we headed down to Paradise Grille to hear guitarist John Frinzi (a handful of his original songs are played on Radio Margaritaville) entertain a growing crowd. Out on the Gulf a lone kayaker glided south trailed by a pair of brown pelicans skimming the water's surface. As the sun slowly disappeared, a family of seven strolled over to the Sunset Bell.
"My mother Doreen recently passed away so we brought our family together in remembrance of her," said Allison Rushing, a Largo resident. "It's such a beautiful setting and a nice honor for us to ring that bell. It's Friday the 13th. I know Mom would have gotten a kick out of that."