Where did all these people come from? I wondered during my last trip to the Mandarin Hide. Not just because it was packed at 10 p.m. 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 expect a lot of people to show up on any given night. It's just a place that serves 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 next to Mastry's in downtown St. Pete, promising to bring vintage mixology and a classic atmosphere to the city's cocktail scene. You may be wondering 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.
Sure, if you take a look around, you'll see one or two domestic light beers resting 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 a lot of other people will be.
Whatever the reason for the ever-present crowd at the Mandarin Hide, it looks like St. Pete could be becoming a place where the classic cocktail isn't simply relegated to the mildly irritating enthusiast, forever reminding patient 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 back 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. I often say that the first sign of a quality bar is its whisky selection, and this bar is certainly no slouch.
The Mandarin Hide serves wine and beer, including some good craft varieties, but the focus is very much on cocktails. A short cocktail list is littered with a nicely balanced mix of drinks, ranging from Prohibition-era creations to modern dessert cocktails.
The bar has several signature drinks, such as the popular Tito's Blind Pig, which beefs up a simple vodka soda with cucumber and jalapeño pepper — and yes, it's good. While many similar cocktail lounges focus on Prohibition-era cocktails, the Mandarin Hide also serves a few classics that weren't around in the 1920s, such as the Dark 'n' Stormy or the Moscow Mule, served in its traditional copper mug.
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 like 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 or rum and Coke.
Even now, I'm hearing about a new lounge that has opened up only a block away. Time will tell if St. Petersburg will actually become a haven for the cocktail enthusiast, but for now, the Mandarin Hide is a pretty good place to start.