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Tucked in Grayl's Hotel, Packard's Bar is an overlooked relic

The small, cozy Packard’s Bar is a relaxing change of pace from the often crowded and raucous bar scene.

Luis Santana/tbt*

The small, cozy Packard’s Bar is a relaxing change of pace from the often crowded and raucous bar scene.

As I was cruising down St. Pete's Beach Drive recently, enjoying the weather and scenery, I realized that there are a few interesting places on the stretch between Fifth and Central that I had somehow neglected. I took note of the sign at Grayl's Hotel for Gatsby's Restaurant and Packard's Bar.

Packard automobiles? The Great Gatsby? At home later that day, I did some research.

I found that the owners of Grayl's Hotel, located in a historic building dating back to the 1920s, had decided to take a cue from the site's past and open an exclusive, and expensive, Prohibition Club harkening back to the Roaring Twenties, with multiple bars and lounges — including a themed speakeasy and rooftop "lookout" bar — a cigar and wine bar, a library and a dance floor among the list of amenities for members. Unfortunately, the economy took a dive, and most of the elaborate plans were nixed. Gatsby's Restaurant and Packard's Bar were the two projects that remained.

We arrived at the hotel in the early evening and opted to sit at the bar. I was surprised by the tiny, L-shaped bar, capable of seating six people at most. The majority of seating indoors is in the form of restaurant tables, and there's a large courtyard out front with a view of Beach Drive, as well as another to the side, which features a fireplace on cooler nights. A second bar and large, separate courtyard are occasionally open for private parties or busy nights.

This small, cozy bar was a welcome change of scenery from the crowded and raucous establishments that I often find myself in. I ordered a Canadian Club while the rest of the group got their orders together. Mark, the bartender, was quite affable and provided a generous hand-pour, resulting in cocktails that were stiff enough to keep our interest but well-balanced enough to taste good.

Packard's has a small cocktail list with a solid range of styles, although the drinks were somewhat weighted toward the sweeter and fruitier end of the spectrum. I was impressed with the number of signature, house cocktails, accounting for the bulk of the menu. Most were in keeping with the classic theme, consisting of a base, fruit liqueur or vermouth, and garnish. The draft-beer selection was strictly utilitarian, comprised mostly of the usual domestics and a few standard imports like Stella Artois, Heineken, and Guinness.

With most of the locals gravitating toward the lower Central Avenue bar scene, the clientele of Packard's consists mainly of occasional tourists strolling down Beach. As such, it's one of the few places in the area that you can stop into for a relaxed cocktail before or after dinner, or simply to unwind after a long day without having to beat the crowd. I'm on a perpetual search for places like this, so I'm glad to have been able to add this one to my list.

I imagine that this is the type of place you might have found back in 1922, when the Grayl's Hotel building was constructed and the story of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby unfolded: A low-key, classic bar serving simple and sturdy cocktails, tucked away in an unassuming hotel. Prohibition would have made it much harder to find, but that era ended 77 years ago last week. Now, there's nothing to stop us from having a seat in this cozy, laid-back bar and ordering up something classic.

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Packard's Bar

340 Beach Drive NE, St. Pete; (727) 896-1080;

The vibe: A cozy, classic bar with an old-fashioned touch.

Booze: Beer, wine, liquor. Beer is $4-6, wine is $6, and liquor is $5-12. Drinks are discounted during happy hour, which starts at 4 p.m. daily.

Specialty: The bar has several creative, signature cocktails, so make sure to ask for the cocktail menu. Against the warnings of the bartender, I tried the Caipirinha, a traditional Brazilian cocktail, which uses cachaça as the liquor base, an ingredient that is unusual to find in the Bay area. It was a bit sweet, but I enjoyed the chance to try a popular cocktail that is nearly non-existent in this part of the world. If you're less adventurous, try the Old Fashioned, made with Woodford Reserve small-batch bourbon.

Hours: Generally 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, but closing hours vary, so call ahead.

Tucked in Grayl's Hotel, Packard's Bar is an overlooked relic 12/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 9, 2010 3:24pm]
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