St. Petersburg's looking pretty good to beer enthusiasts these days, with quality brews practically pouring out of every downtown bar, several of which are dedicated pouring as much premium craft beer as possible. The homebrewing scene is thriving, and small-scale breweries are opening in nearly all surrounding counties, as well as in St. Pete.
One of the original players in the St. Pete beer scene, the Independent, opened a sister bar in the Grand Central District. The Rex, as it was called, had a great concept — simplicity. The focus was on the bar's 20 rotating taps, featuring only domestic craft brews, most for $5, and no gimmicks. It was a place to grab a pint of beer and chat with friends. Simple and effective.
Recently, the owners of the Rex decided to let someone else have a go at it, and thus Steel City Brewhouse appeared. When I first heard about the change in ownership, I was concerned. I'd enjoyed many a pint at the Rex and found it to be a great change of pace from the typical downtown St. Pete happenings — a place to converse, maybe play some cards or backgammon, and enjoy a fine ale without the drama doubtlessly in progress a mile down the road.
I was worried that Steel City wouldn't share the sentiment. Certainly, my initial impressions did little to assuage this anxiety — an increased flat-screen TV presence, football imagery in the bar's name and logo, and of all the nightmares I could possibly dream up, Bud Light on draft. The walls were painted a lighter color and the lights turned up, all but eliminating the low-key charm of the Rex.
Then I got a hold of myself. New look aside, this was the same bar, just with some new bells and whistles. In fact, the new boss was on to something — attracting new business with a more mainstream appeal, while being careful to avoid alienating the old crowd by keeping the overall vibe intact. The music and TV volume stayed low, the focus remained on domestic craft beer on tap, and most of the familiar bar staff stayed on for the change.
Perhaps best of all was the fresh enthusiasm that new ownership usually brings, in this case, new promotions and events, such as 2-Wheel Tuesdays and Thursdays, where patrons arriving on bicycles receive $2 off of every draft. The bar has expanded its wine list beyond a single house red and white, and wine-based frozen cocktails also on hand, in case you brought a friend along who does not appreciate craft beer.
Of course, the focus of Steel City is still beer. The 20 taps rotate regularly with selections from the nation's premier craft breweries, and a bottle cooler offers additional options. The prices still are in the $5 range, and there are plenty of specials to ensure a fair bang for your buck, including a weekday 2-for-1 happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m., kill-the-keg specials and a loyalty punch-card that awards two free drinks for every 10 bought. Customers looking for to-go beer can also have their 64-ounce growler cleaned and refilled for $9 to $12.
As the name would suggest, there's a Pittsburgh theme here, from the city's skyline in the bar logo to vintage photos of Pittsburgh life. The owner came from the city and wanted to keep a bit of her hometown intact. Pittsburgh's iconic beer, Iron City, is available as well.
Sure, it's unfair to evaluate Steel City Brewhouse solely as a successor to the Rex, but comparisons are inevitable.
Fortunately, Steel City is still a great place for a pint, a conversation or any of the others things that one would have found at the Rex.