Jet-setting all over the world, traveling in fabulous circles, planning charity events and designing interiors for some of Europe’s most luxurious domiciles wasn’t enough for Susanne Byram, who left Houston (and a second home in London) for St. Petersburg.
It was 2013. She got divorced and bid farewell to Texas, and much of the life she knew. And “I just went crazy and said ‘I’m going to try to open a restaurant,’” recalls the native of Copenhagen, Denmark, who speaks four languages fluently but had no previous experience in the restaurant business.
What Byram did have, when she opened Left Bank Bistro in September, was impeccable taste, and a sense of style, and a particular fondness for the Parisian café culture of the 1920s – cozy, intimate, and crackling with such creative energy that a confluence of the era’s most creative minds congregated there, an area the locals called La Rive Gauche.
We’re talking, of course, about Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald, Dali, Magritte, Sartre, Joyce, Baker et al.
You know, the gang.
Left Bank Bistro had a sort of “re-opening” this week; the first chef didn’t work out, and although initial reviews were strong, the menu has been tweaked ever-so-slightly and is under new direction in the kitchen. It is decidedly French, it is all locally-sourced, and because the bistro has a dark, decorous and bountifully well-stocked bar, it’s as close to Paris in the ‘20s as St. Petersburg’s ever been, or is ever likely to get.
And it almost didn’t happen.
“In 2015, my daughter moved from New York to St. Petersburg,” Byram explains. “She calls me up and she says ‘Meet me in St. Petersburg.’ And I’m thinking, my crazy child, moving to Russia. I had never heard of St. Petersburg, Florida.
“But I came and I fell in love with it. Such a beautiful place. I bought a little bungalow on the south side for when I would come to visit. And the more I looked around, I saw this city changing. I saw the new restaurants open up. I saw downtown blossoming. And then I decided to start looking for commercial property.”
She purchased two buildings on 9th Street North (aka Dr. MLK Street), the home of Patty and Friends Antique Mall at no. 1241, and the vacant antique shop next door, at 1225.
The Patty and Friends vendors and managers were allowed to stay as Byram’s renovations, a massive undertaking, began. “I wasn’t making any money, but I hadn’t decided what to do,” she says. “I really thought I was going to tear it down and make it into a parking lot, because it was so bad.”
In April of this year, the vendors were pink-slipped, and the building was gutted and re-fitted with new floors, new carpeting, new air-conditioning and numerous fresh coats of paint.
It was re-christened Market at Left Bank.
“It used to be a flea market,” Byram says, “and now it’s more like antiques and vintage gifts, and we have some local artists in there. It’s a market – it’s no longer furniture and just junk.”
By that point, crews had already started in on the restaurant building. Constructed in 1922, the facility’s original hardwood floors were revealed and restored. Every one of the original windows remained and were retained. A late-period (and somewhat superfluous) addition to the building’s backside was demolished. The flat hardwood ceiling was removed (and crafted into bistro tabletops), and the original vaulted ceiling restored.
The existing Southern-style wraparound porch – refitted, repainted and furnished in European café style – was the icing on the cake.
The walls are decorated with, among other things, vintage black and white photographs of the artistic legends of 1920s Paris. “Susanne’s vision is the thing,” suggests general manager Tony Harahan. “As much as chefs change, or managers, it’s her vision that makes Left Bank Bistro what it is.”
Byram doesn’t think she’s taking a risk by opening a Euro bistro on the 9th Street corridor, instead of hip, happening downtown. “There’s really no restaurant in the area,” she says. “And I believe this is the next place to really explode, and that’s what I hear from a lot of people as well.
“I’m not that far from downtown, that’s the other thing. I’m on 13th and MLK. So it’s a neighborhood restaurant, but it’s also become a destination. I have a lot of people from Snell Isle and from downtown that come to Left Bank Bistro.”