Tuesday, December 12, 2017
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Tampa's Martini Republic brings new life, upscale tastes to Franklin

I used to DJ on Thursday nights at The Hub, and while my partner was warming up, a few friends and I would walk a couple of blocks north to Fly Bar to get a snack to go. The Hub and Fly Bar served as end points for a stretch of Franklin Street that was almost completely deserted, as if the bars were at war and a demilitarized zone had been established between them.

It was odd seeing steady crowds at either end of the stretch, with absolutely nothing bridging the gap between the two. Then a few months ago, a new bar popped up right in the middle. Opening a new bar in a largely unpopulated area, much less an upscale martini bar-slash-nightclub, is a bit of a gamble, but in the case of the newly-opened Martini Republic, it's a calculated one.

Owners Joshua Croy and Jakub Horodecki are betting that condo development in recent years will help revive the dormant Franklin Street stretch, bringing in a clientele of well-heeled young professionals who want to experience a relaxed, upscale lounge environment that would normally be hard to find in this part of town. Some of the expectations listed on Martini Republic's website do seem ambitious — celebrity meet-and-greets and $1,500 VIP sponsorships come to mind — but I have plenty of respect for folks who are willing to aim high and try something new.

With a month or two to go before the official grand opening, the Martini Republic is essentially a work in progress, although most of the elements are already firmly in place. The main bar and club area is fully operational, and an outdoor courtyard is in the works, occupying the former parking lot attached to the building. This courtyard, dubbed The Grove, will feature a separate bar, a stage for live music, and dense, tropical foliage surrounding groups of lounge chairs and café tables.

From outside, it would be tough to spot the Martini Republic amongst any number of surrounding shuttered former businesses if not for a small, backlit star logo above the entrance. The interior is a complete 180, filled with plush booths in an elevated VIP area, lounge sofas in the front, a tall DJ booth overlooking a dance floor in the back, and the focal point — a long bar designed to look like a slab of glowing ice, lit from beneath in constantly changing colors. The juxtaposition of exposed brick walls and long, hanging chandeliers gives the place a modern feel that seems more Hyde Park than Franklin Street, but it all flows together very well.

One feature that helps the Republic stand out from the average swanky "ultra lounge" is an effort to keep volume levels low, despite DJs performing in the relatively small space every Thursday through Saturday. It's loud enough to dance, but quiet enough to have a conversation — a welcome change of pace for those accustomed to shouting amongst friends on a typical night out.

Of course, Martini Republic serves plenty of booze, from a selection of wines, craft beers and premium spirits to a drink list soon to feature seasonal cocktails and other specialty drinks. In its current form as a small martini menu, the list features a range of chilled concoctions with sexually suggestive names. That seems at odds with the ostensibly highbrow design of the space itself, but the drinks are quite good. Some cocktails are as simple as blueberry vodka with fresh blueberries for garnish; others are more ambitious, combining unexpected flavors such as watermelon and mint, or cherry and cocoa. My only gripe is that the namesake cocktail — the Martini — is listed on the menu as a vodka drink. Don't get me started!

Time will tell if the Martini Republic will become downtown Tampa's new place to be, but it's certainly nice to see someone stepping up to bring this lonely section of Franklin Street back to life. Next time I make the trek between the Hub and Fly Bar, I hope to have a few stops along the way, and I expect the Martini Republic to be one of them.

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