Gulf Beaches Museum
Quaint little communities, found at the end of a road, tend to collect characters—none more colorful than Kim Henson at Pass-A-Taco in Pass-A-Grille, at the southern tip of St. Pete Beach. Walk around the corner at 8th Avenue and Gulf Way (by Paradise Sweets ice cream shop) and you’ll likely run into a gaggle of beach-goers waiting in line in front of what looks like a closet—that’s Pass-A-Taco. Kim’s fresh-grilled tacos and burritos with home-made guacamole and salsa are to-die-and-go-to-heaven for. The lagniappe (that’s Creole for “something extra”) you’ll get will be the lively conversation with Kim.
Pass-A-Grille has been collecting characters throughout its history, and the best place to learn about them is at the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum in the original historic 1917 Pass-A-Grille Beach Church building on 10th Avenue. Among them was a crusty old Cuban fisherman, Juan Gomez—also known as Panther Key John, who claimed to be the last Gulf Coast pirate. Gomez brought tourists to the barrier island of Long Key (now St. Pete Beach) on day excursions in the 1850s, and regaled them with (likely mythical) stories of his swashbuckling days. Civil War veteran Zephaniah Philips was the first to plat streets in Pass-A-Grille, in 1890, but it was developer William McAdoo, from North Carolina, who built the first bridge from the mainland onto the island in 1919. That same year, as a publicity stunt, he buried a fake treasure chest in the beach sand on the next island north, which is where its name “Treasure Island” came from. Although a ferry out of Gulfport had been bringing visitors to Pass-A-Grille’s beach since 1906, it was not until McAdoo built his bridge that development began to take place in earnest. Further development was spurred by the construction of Thomas Rowe’s Don CeSar Hotel in 1925 – 1926. And it was Rowe that managed to attract some famous names to Pass-A-Grille: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Clarence Darrow, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and some infamous as well—like Al Capone.
According to Allen Morris’ Florida Place Names maps dating back to 1841 identify Pass-A-Grille as “Passe-aux-Grilleurs”—probably named for the fishermen who would stop on the beaches here to smoke their day’s catch in order to preserve it for the trip home. Although Zephaniah Philips’ family were the first homesteaders here (in 1896), Pass-A-Grille’s original inhabitants were Tocobaga Indians, who lived throughout the Tampa Bay area and built mounds on nearby Tierra Verde and at Safety Harbor. By the late 1700’s the Tocobagans were extinct, likely from foreign disease from European explorers.
Today Pass-A-Grille is still a quiet beach town, populated as much by pelicans as people. Well-preserved clapboard cottages hearken back to the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Most of the town was designated a National Historic District in 1989 (with expanded designation in 2003) with more than three hundred buildings declared historic. For visitors the rooftop of the Hurricane Restaurant is a popular vista point, but my favorite beach view is from the second-floor balcony of the Brass Monkey, a block south. One unique aspect of Pass-A-Grille is its mile-long public beach, fronted by Gulf Way Boulevard instead of houses. For most of its length, sea-oats-covered dunes separate the beach from the road.
There is great food to be found on Pass-A-Grille. In addition to the aforementioned Pass-A-Taco, you will find beach-elegant dining in the courtyard at The Black Palm on 8th Avenue, the island’s “main street”. Sea Critters on the Intracoastal Waterway makes a great grouper sandwich, and the Brass Monkey serves outstanding Maryland crab cakes. Two local favorite breakfast spots are the Seahorse on Pass-A-Grille Way, and Paradise Grille right on the beach.
Perhaps my favorite spot on Pass-A-Grille is one missed by most visitors. The Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church on 16th Avenue, across from the city park has a labyrinth in it’s courtyard—a stone pathway that follows a circuitous route which leads to its goal at the center. Walking the labyrinth is always a meditative experience. Like a metaphor for life you can always see the goal, and often wind along the path near it, only to be detoured away from it. But eventually, if you are patient and persistent, you’ll reach the center.
Pass-A-Grille Beach today
Pass-A-Grille Beach, 1966 (Burgert Brothers Collection, Tampa Library)
Pass-A-Grille Beach Community Church labyrinth