ST. PETERSBURG — The last time chef Don Pintabona lived in the area, a trendy, farm-to-table market and restaurant would have been unimaginable in downtown St. Petersburg.
New York City, San Francisco, maybe Miami, but not this faded waterfront city noted mostly for its high concentration of urban retirees.
That was the 1980s.
The announcement Thursday that San Francisco restaurateur Michael Mina is adding St. Pete's Sundial shopping complex to his long list of signature eateries seemed further proof of the city's striking turnaround in recent years.
It also backed up big talk by businessman Bill Edwards that his renovated outdoor retail center would attract one-of-a-kind dining and shopping and solidify the city's reputation as a world-class destination.
“When we started this, there were certain things on my list of things that I had to have, and fortunately we've probably done about everything that I wanted to get accomplished,” Edwards said at a Thursday morning gathering of downtown residents, merchants, city officials and members of the media.
Mina and Pintabona have teamed up to build their 20,000-square-foot marketplace on two floors of Sundial, blending their respective roots in fresh California cuisine and Italian cooking.
Locale Market will offer fresh produce, meats, wines, cheeses, ice cream, coffee and prepared specialty foods, much of it sourced from area farmers.
The full-service Farmtable Kitchen restaurant should also gratify visitors and local foodies with a menu based around fresh, seasonal ingredients.
“We want it to be an experience. We want you to come in here just to get lost, just to enjoy yourself, just to say, wow, this is not my typical shopping experience,” said Mina, whose company runs 20 restaurants around the country, including the well-reviewed Bourbon Steak in the Miami area.
The Edwards Group has kept tight reins on which tenants would occupy Sundial, a multimillion-dollar renovation of the failed BayWalk shopping plaza on Second Avenue North.
Rumors have circulated for months about the 80,000 square feet of retail space in the heart of downtown, but several businesses recently have announced their plans to move in.
Marilyn Monroe Spa, Chicos and White House Black Market have all made official announcements.
A Ruth's Chris Steakhouse is expected, along with a new location of the Naples-based seafood restaurant Sea Salt.
Last month, local jeweler Diamonds Direct became the first business to open at the Sundial, even as heavy construction around its perimeter continued.
Edwards has said the plaza's storefronts will be filled by this fall.
Sundial's top floor will be focused on dining, while the ground floor will offer a diversity of specialty retail, said Rick Baker, former St. Petersburg mayor turned Edwards Group president.
“The whole center is going to bring a retail component we don't have” in St. Petersburg, he said.
Farmtable Kitchen and Locale Market will occupy 25 percent of Sundial and serve as the anchor tenant, Baker said.
Channeling the city's love for all things local, the two chefs envision an urban market where people can shop the old-fashioned way — visiting the store every day for just the right cut of meat and the freshest vegetables.
Lifelong friends Mina and Pintabona would have never thought to bring their market to St. Petersburg until they were introduced to Edwards and saw downtown's business revival, Mina said.
Pintabona got his first cooking job after finding an ad in The Tampa Tribune while he was a student at the University of South Florida, but he's rarely dropped in on St. Pete during visits over the years.
He grew up around his father's Italian market in New York and traveled the world refining his culinary skills and building a reputation.
“To be honest, there aren't a lot of locations outside of New York that I'd be jumping to move to,” he said.
Now he's relocating downtown to help lead the market's opening this fall.
“I was blown away. This is such a vibrant downtown,” he said.
Their market will bolster advertising by Pinellas County's tourism agency, which has been touting St. Petersburg and the wider area as a culinary destination, said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
“To have something like that here really does suggest growth in the level of sophistication in the destination,” he said.