ST. PETERSBURG – If you enjoy the casual atmosphere of bar dining but don't want to forgo upscale ambience, is the place to go in downtown St. Petersburg.
Marchand's ballroom-size dining room at the historic Vinoy Hotel has an open-air bar at its center that accommodates a lot of people without feeling crowded. The bar is shaped like a giant picture frame, with the staff in the middle, working all four counters.
Patrons can order professionally mixed cocktails, watch sports on TV, and order from an only-at-the-bar menu that offers fresh-cut sushi and sashimi as well as more traditional pub-style dishes.
The menu choices delight, and it also is fun to people-watch, since large parties tend to congregate here without disturbing the diners in the extra-large dining room.
Perched on tall chairs at the bar, we have watched as well-dressed people from a wedding party gathered to toast, and also bore witness to some kind of vintage costume party where the women wore hats and boas, and the men dressed like Victorian gentlemen.
Recently our goal was not to feast our eyes on the parade of people but to sample the , inspired by a New York City restaurant of the same name. Blue Ribbon's bar food has drawn celebrity chefs as customers, including Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali.
In May, Marchand's introduced a Blue Ribbon menu of chicken wings, BBQ pork sliders and other classic pub foods, based on recipes from the famous Manhattan restaurant. These are downhome dishes with a flourish.
One of the best-known Blue Ribbon specialties, marrow scooped with a spoon from a beef bone, didn't make it to the Vinoy restaurant. But admittedly, marrow was not on our wish list on a recent evening in St. Petersburg.
Sitting at the semi-packed bar on a Saturday night, we tried two of the Blue Ribbon appetizers: Northern Fried Chicken Wings with Mexican Honey ($12) and Fried Rock Shrimp with Lemon Cayenne Sauce ($14).
By the time we arrived after 9 for a late-night dinner, the bar already had sold out of our first choice: BBQ Pork Sliders with Shredded Lettuce and a Brioche Roll ($10).
The chicken wings were big and meaty, with six full wings served on a wooden palette. Unlike many places, these wings were whole, not cut up into parts and drumettes. They were covered in a breadcrumb honey-flavored mixture. Honey also was served as a dipping sauce.
The fried rock shrimp were a standout. The fleshy rock shrimp have the tougher texture of spiny lobster. There were a dozen morsels on the plate, covered in a light golden batter and served with a spicy dipping sauce. They were perfect for sharing with a dinner partner.
Both the chicken wings and rock shrimp were appetizers, but together they made a meal that the two of us shared. We also ordered a Blackened Grouper Sandwich with Key Lime Tarter ($16) off the regular bar menu. The sandwich contained a nice-sized portion of blackened grouper, served with a tangy house-made slaw.
For drinks, we tried one of the local beers promoted with the Blue Ribbon menu, a Jai Alai IPA from the Cigar City Brewing Co. It was icy cold and just bitter enough to cleanse the palate between bites of food. We also enjoyed a glass of Mumm's champagne, from a bottle freshly opened and poured in front of us.
For dessert, we indulged in some specialties from Marchand's dessert chef: Mocha Gateaux, which was a dark chocolate icebox cake; and a Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee. Both were rich, creamy and devoured.
There are many places around the city where bar food is less expensive and still satisfying. But bar dining at Marchand's adds an elegant touch to a casual night out. Reservations are not necessary to eat at the bar. And the experience can be both low-key and intimate.