Wesley Chapel has seen tremendous growth over the last 10 years or so, with several planned communities and retail centers opening to match its rapid population growth. One of the major hubs of Wesley Chapel entertainment and — surprisingly — nightlife comes in the form of the Shops at Wiregrass, a massive, 800,000-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex resembling a small town of its own.
This complex features scenic walkways between businesses and even a few small parks, adding to the neighborhood feel. It's described on its website as an "outdoor lifestyle village," which should help describe the ambition of what is essentially a very large shopping mall. In its size and scope, the complex is somewhat of a surrogate downtown area, making the presence of several popular bars and even nightclubs a bit more believable.
AJA Wiregrass is one such place, bringing an "ultra lounge" environment to an otherwise improbable location. A sister property to AJA Channelside in Tampa, this shopping mall nightclub opened a little over a year ago and has since become quite popular. Over the past year, the club has seen packed weekly events with DJs and live music, as well as a few celebrity appearances, including ones from people who I really wish were not celebrities, such as Vinny from Jersey Shore.
I stopped by on a Wednesday night to see what the fuss was about and found the place in full swing, with a sizable crowd populating the two main bars and an impromptu dance floor near the stage, on which a live band was playing high-energy Latin music.
The first thing I noticed once I made my way through the crowd and took a seat at the open-air bar was the club's design. AJA is highly stylized, with a heavy emphasis on the visual part of the experience. Color plays a big role, with bright shades of red, yellow and blue emanating from acrylic lamps suspended from the ceiling. The walls of the different rooms were decorated with patterned wall coverings and glass mosaic tiles, also following the primary color scheme.
As far as the layout goes, there are three bars, two of which were in action during my visit, with a third surrounded by a seating area and an adjoining patio with a pool table and dart board. In the center is a large stage area flanked by a large patio bar and an elevated bar with VIP tables and bottle service. The actual bar tops in these latter two areas are made of a backlit opaque material that I later learned to be onyx. All this in a shopping center!
It turns out Latin Night is a weekly affair, part of AJA's regular schedule of events, ranging from Bike Night on Thursday to a club night — Fashionable Fridays — and DJs and live music on Saturdays.
Don't worry, I didn't forget the drinks. Beer is available, but it's limited, with one beer on draft (Stella Artois) and a few of the usual domestic bottles. The cocktail menu is a better indicator of what you'll find here, with several premium cocktails, wines and champagne listed.
I tried a Hollywood Martini, a mix of Ketel One Oranje, Grand Marnier, a splash of orange juice, fruit pureé, muddled oranges and a champagne floater. Maybe you follow me on what to expect here. The drink was very tasty, but I was a bit disappointed that the bar was out of fresh basil, nixing my plans for a St. Croix — Bacardi Superior rum, fresh basil, strawberries and Sierra Mist. Other notable cocktails include the AJA Martini and WC Housetini, both of which are garnished with dry ice, giving the cocktail a smoky appearance. If you prefer simpler fare, that's no problem, as the bar is reasonably well-stocked. However, a fancy house cocktail is probably more fun.
For a nightclub in a somewhat unusual spot, AJA hits most of its marks pretty well. From the posh lounge area to the open-air side bar with its enormous ceiling fans, the high-end design aesthetic belies its location. I suspect that in the past, the majority of Wesley Chapel nightlife was actually located in Tampa, but if the crowd at AJA on this particular Wednesday night was any indication, people are finding more and more reasons to stay local.