Blend redefines ‘ultra lounge

The "ultra lounge" trend seems to have come and gone for the most part, with a few successful ones continuing to go strong and newer clubs tending to open with more modest approaches. I've visited quite a few ultra lounges and have often found them to be somewhat lacking in one regard or another, generally because they favor hype and flashy looks over substance. For example, the place looks great and the six-figure sound system sounds phenomenal, but the drinks are weak and expensive, and the DJ is still playing Low by Flo Rida, four years past critical saturation.

Blend Lounge opened a couple of years ago as a chic wine bar in a trendy, upscale Westchase shopping and entertainment plaza, and has appropriated many of the more popular elements of the ultra lounge — ultra-modern décor; a dark, high-contrast color palette; a cool, club vibe; a full menu of shots; and, of course, DJs spinning records — but by no means can it be considered "ultra."

For one, there's the size. Blend is pretty tiny, situated in a shotgun-style space next to the Westchase World of Beer, of which it shares owners. The two bars are connected in the back by a long, enclosed patio, which allows visitors to get some fresh air and travel between bars, should their taste for cocktails turn to craft beer, or vice versa. The interior of Blend consists of an open-air entrance, followed by a small dance floor, and then a bar on one side and booth seating on the other, with a narrow pathway leading down the hall to the back patio.

Secondly, Blend is much more low-key than the average ultra lounge. DJs play at night and the volume can get fairly high but not full-on club levels, so having a conversation with friends is never off the table. The bar is only steps away from the booths and tables, and on busy nights, a second bar is open on the patio, so getting a drink isn't much of a hassle, but bottles are still available, in case you need the full VIP treatment.

While the focus at Blend is music, drinks, and conversation, there are a few diversions built in that set it apart from other club-style lounges, such as a table shuffleboard setup between the bar and the patio, and a few flatscreen TVs behind the bar, showing sports alongside Top 40 music videos. Above the bar, facing the entrance, is a massive stone idol of some sort of Aztec or Mayan deity, which adds a really unique focal point to the bar area, while surely providing plenty of conversation fodder during last week's "end of the world" speculations.

What I liked best about Blend Lounge, apart from the unintimidating, comfortable atmosphere, was the drink menu, which was quite diverse and changes on a seasonal basis. The drinks are geared more toward the club crowd than cocktail purists, so expect to see lots of fruit-forward, easy-sipping drinks, but these are not limited to the basic vodka or rum-and-fruit juice fare that you might expect. Rather, these range anywhere from Champagne cocktails ("The Audrey Hepburn"), Cosmos enhanced with St. Germaine, a spin on Lynchburg Lemonade tinted with Cointreau, and a full page of specialty shots mimicking everything from Gummi Bears to chocolate-covered pretzels. I came with a small group, and everyone present commented on how much they enjoyed their cocktails.

The beer selection is pretty limited, so if you need something beyond the most basic of options, simply walk next door and grab a pint from World of Beers. Wine lovers, on the other hand, will find a range of options to choose from. After all, Blend was originally a wine joint, as evidenced by the attractive wine-cellar rack hanging below the stone god above the bar.

Blend is a place where you can cool off after a hard day's work just as well as you could go out for a night of drinks and dancing. It's not quite a club and not quite a basic lounge, a format that could either benefit from the strengths of each or suffer miserably from a lack of a good concept. In the case of Blend Lounge, I'd say it's quite fortunately the former.

Blend Lounge

9524 W Linebaugh Avenue, Tampa, 33626; (813) 475-6908; blendlounge.com

The Vibe: A small, hip wine bar and cocktail lounge with a club atmosphere.

Booze: Beer, wine, and liquor. Beer, $3-$5; wine, $7-$15 by the glass and $20-$200 by the bottle; liquor, $5-$26, with most cocktails in the $7-$13 range. Drinks specials change nightly — check the website for details.

Specialty: Blend was originally a wine bar, so the short, curated wine list has much to offer if you're in such a mood. At nights, the scene gets a little more fast-paced, so a cocktail is probably the way to go. The Blue Agave Bliss is a nice twist on the classic Margarita, using blue curaçao and grapefruit juice in place of lime, while the Smooth Sailing and signature Blend Punch are fruity, rum-based concoctions that go down easy but aren't too heavy in case you decide to dance.

Hours: Monday-Friday, 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday, noon to 3 a.m.

Blend redefines ‘ultra lounge 12/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 27, 2012 5:40pm]

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