By Justin Grant
Where did all these people come from? I wondered during my last trip to the Mandarin Hide. Not just because the bar was packed at 10 on a Thursday night, but because this is a bar that specializes in cocktails — good ones. It's not a swanky nightclub or an "ultra lounge," where you would expect a lot of people to show up on any given night. It's just a place that serves up a variety of classic and original cocktails four nights a week.
So what gives?
If you haven't yet caught the buzz, the Mandarin Hide recently opened in the vacant spot next to Mastry's in downtown St. Petersburg, promising to bring vintage mixology and a classic atmosphere to the local cocktail scene. You may be wondering exactly what scene I'm referring to, and up until recently, I'd have to agree with your cynicism. But judging by the popularity of the Mandarin Hide, it looks like there is indeed a demand for quality cocktails in the area.
Sure, if you take a look around, you'll see one or two domestic light beers resting defiantly in the hands of indifferent patrons, but you're far more likely to see folks sipping on Sazeracs, French 75s, Sidecars and Bellinis. And I'm sure that a lot of the bar's popularity has to do with the popularity itself, as people tend to gravitate to places where they know that a lot of other people will be.
Whatever the reason for the ever-present crowd at the Mandarin Hide, it looks like St. Petersburg could be becoming a place where the classic cocktail isn't simply relegated to the mildly irritating enthusiast who's forever reminding bartenders of the proper garnish for a Negroni.
Part of the appeal of the Mandarin Hide clearly lies in its atmosphere. The bar is smartly decorated in deep, rich colors, and the lighting is just bright enough to promote reasonable visibility. Antler-shaped chandeliers illuminate the bank end of the bar, where an antique door has been made into a large table.
The bar itself runs the length of the space, backed by a large selection of various spirits and liqueurs, leaning mostly toward the premium end of the spectrum. I often say that the first sign of a quality bar is its Scotch whisky selection, and this bar is certainly no slouch in that regard.
The Mandarin Hide serves wine and beer, including some very good craft varieties, but the focus is on cocktails, from Prohibition-era creations to modern dessert drinks. One signature drink is Tito's Blind Pig, which beefs up a simple vodka soda with cucumber and jalapeno pepper — and yes, it's good. Very. The Dark 'n' Stormy and the Moscow Mule, served in its traditional copper mug, are two more to try.
Fans of the classic cocktail have long lamented the absence of places in the area to enjoy such libations. If the Mandarin Hide is any indication, it seems public interest might finally be high enough to sustain a cocktail lounge, even in a city where the average citizen rarely ventures beyond Cape Cods and rum and Cokes.
Justin Grant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org