Restaurant and bodega built and styled with a beachy vibe.
Showing a visitor around Whitney's while craftsmen put the finishing touches on the new restaurant, James Brearley stops for a moment to pick up and discard an inch-long rock, an outlier amid the expanse of crushed stone forming the floor of the outdoor dining area.
Attention to detail. It's had a lot to do with how partners Brearley, David Benstock, Jose Chichande and Joseph V. Chillura got here, remodeling a long-empty former Chevron gas station on Longboat Key's north end into the island's newest eatery. Whitney's, at 6990 Gulf of Mexico Drive, opened Monday.
The casual, beachy spot at the corner of Broadway Street and the island's main thoroughfare is intended to be thoroughly local with its architecture and design, its bodega-styled grocery and its menu offerings and approach to freshly made cuisine.
A sign over the beer-and-wine service area proclaims Whitney's is "Muy Longboat Key" in its appeal to residents, visitors, beachgoers and workers. The words "Hail This Feisty Village'' greet visitors over the main entrance.
A shower is mounted on the western exterior wall, facing a popular public beach access and parking lot across the street. Cut slabs of rock form sidewalks on the property instead of poured concrete. Lush landscaping envelops the property.
"I never could imagine that it'd be this cool,'' said Benstock, who is also owner and executive chef at Il Ritorno, an Italian restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg, his hometown. "Yeah. I mean I had all faith in everyone, but I mean it still blows my mind every morning when I walk in or drive off, and it's just beautiful at night. I mean, you should see it with all the lights. It's a work of art.''
At first glance, the building's former life is evident. Roll-up doors from the station's service bays are still there, leading into the interior dining area and will be open as often as possible, Brearley said. Upon closer inspection, the canopy that shades the outdoor dining area is newly built, replacing the original one. The roof of the original building has been raised, but otherwise the restaurant occupies the same footprint as the gas station once did.
The idea to keep the design as-is formed shortly after the partners purchased the property in the fall of 2018 and firmed up over the following winter. Redevelopment of the building began in June 2019. The business received its certificate of occupancy last week from the town. Shifts of about 10 employees will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
"We kept the soul of the gas station,'' said Chichande, who grew up on Longboat Key and has worked at some of the island's fine-dining locations. "We kept the canopy, we kept the garage doors, the same window halls, the same door. Some the old tile is still here. You know, we're not pretending to be something we're not. We used to be a gas station, now we're a super-awesome restaurant.''
Brearley said the cuisine will focus on freshly made items. Lox was being prepared on a recent visit. The restaurant plans to create its own sauces, bacon and other parts of the menu. Patrons will order at the main counter, with table service from there, featuring silverware and place settings. Breakfast will be served throughout the day. Tacos, burritos, burgers, chicken and seafood will figure prominently into the offerings.
Takeaway bags will be offered for people on the go, and the bodega is stocked with essentials and some beach necessities. The idea is to best appeal to the community's wide variety of customers, Brearley said.
"We've been very deliberate with menu items and bodega items to make sure that if you're on the island as a tradesman or as a worker, you feel comfortable here,'' he said. "But at the same time, if you're a homeowner and you're here for a great piece of fish it's the best piece of fish we can find in Cortez. I think there's something really cool about places that are, maybe, especially today, democratic where you meet the entire community.''