A St. Pete strip gets hip with three new bars

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Until very recently, the two-block stretch of First Avenue N, east of Ninth Street in downtown St. Pete, wasn't high on my list of places to visit for a night out. It's a traditionally tough area for businesses — a little too far from both the Grand Central district and the lower Central strip to attract meaningful foot traffic, and the perpetual surrounding vacancies don't help the cause, either.

Despite this, I've visited there more often than any spot downtown over the past few weeks. What were once shuttered storefronts and vacant spaces are now lit up with new ventures, all appearing in a remarkably short span. In the spot left vacant after the ArtPool Gallery relocated, The Bends appeared. Bottom to the Top bikini bar was gutted and rebuilt into The Boundary. The old Chatterbox space became Engine No. 9. A streetwear shop called Freshly Squeezed opened on the corner. All within the span of about a month.

Engine No. 9 is the newest kid on the block. A heavily attended soft opening was held less than two weeks ago and a grand opening is planned for next month. This small restaurant and sports bar wraps around Freshly Squeezed, with a long, narrow bar opening onto the Ninth Street side, and a perpendicular dining area facing First Avenue.

Inside, everything is fire-engine red and bright white, creating a minimalist, modern vibe uncommon for most sports bars, which Engine No. 9 considers itself. The designation isn't arbitrary — Engine No. 9 prides itself on its access to every major televised sports package, so visitors can watch the game, the fight, the match, or whatever else happens to be going on when they visit.

The sports theme extends past the massive flatscreens behind the bar and all the way into the dining area, where smaller flatscreens are embedded in the walls of each booth. The beer and wine selection is currently no match for the gourmet-tinged menu, featuring foodie spins on casual bar fare, but craft beer and more extensive wine options are on the way, along with an expanded menu, both of which should debut at next month's grand opening.

The Boundary, another new player in the restaurant category, offers a variety of creative dishes in a rustic, faux-old-fashioned setting. A large dining area made up of brick walls, booths and decorative license plates faces a stage, where bands perform on Fridays and Saturdays. The stage — decorated with mounted vinyl records and school lockers — has a cool and gritty retro feel, like some sort of punk-rock sock hop. I've only caught one set here so far — Orlando's Wooly Bushmen — but it seemed like a cool spot to hear a show after dinner.

The bar is a straightforward affair, with nine taps and a solid bottle list, including several 22- to 25-ounce bombers falling into the $10 to $15 range. The beer list changes regularly, so expect to see plenty of seasonal offerings among the usual IPAs and ciders. The wines are mostly varietals from California and the Pacific Northwest, and although no liquor is served, the selection of robust and flavorful wines and beers are ideal complements to the food.

For liquor, The Bends is the spot, located just a block or so away from the Boundary and across the street from Engine No. 9. I stopped by on opening night and was surprised to see a veritable who's who of downtown regulars. I could only imagine what the scene looked like at the usual Central Avenue hot spots, as their entire clientele seemed to be at The Bends.

For what it's worth, The Bends hits a lot of the right notes. It's a dive that isn't quite a dive — hip, laid-back, but with lots of energy. A shot and a wash costs $5 (Bud and whiskey, or Tecate and tequila), or you can upgrade to a classic cocktail like a Blackberry Bramble or Dark and Stormy for $2 more. Cans of PBR fly out of the cooler only slightly faster than pints of Tampa Bay Brewing's seasonal pumpkin beer, Gourds Gone Wild. DJs spin records several nights a week, and the staff is made up of the folks you've probably rubbed elbows with if you've spent much time at bars downtown.

It gets busy here on the weekends — so busy that there are often more people crowding outside on the sidewalk than inside the bar. This instantaneous popularity is somewhat surprising, but I think it's simply a breath of fresh air in what can sometimes seem like a stale downtown scene.

In all, it took just a few weeks for an area that was a ghost town to become downtown St. Pete's spot of the moment. Just far enough off the Central strip to be cool, perhaps, but more likely a happy accident involving good timing and a few new businesses injecting energy into a part of town that really needed some.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm thinking these might even stick.

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