History goes down strong at the Floridan Palace. It's served in a cocktail glass with a color that's somewhere between a Florida orange and the sun. It has a name, "Between the Sheets," that foreshadows what might happen to the imbiber if he drank more than the bartender's recommended limit. • Like the elegant 85-year-old landmark, originally called the Floridan Hotel, painstakingly restored and reopened in all its historic luster this summer after nearly a quarter century, the recipe for its signature cocktail was also dusted off and put back into play.
Guests who walk up N Florida Avenue and into the lobby of the Floridan — the city's tallest building until 1960 — can get a true sense of Tampa's streetcar and cigar heyday. They can crane their necks at the original ornate tiled lobby ceiling and stare at the gleaming brass mailboxes behind the front desk. They can smell the same wood columns and touch the wrought iron caging in the Crystal Dining Room. They can hear Ella Fitzgerald croon "I'm beginning to see the light" through the speakers.
And, for $12 in the hotel's restored Sapphire Room lounge, they can taste the same elixir the bar famously served for decades. The concoction, tracing back to Prohibition, serves up a stiff 3 ounces of liquor that rarely swim together in modern drinks, giving today's Tampa residents a taste of the city's tony past.
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Gus Arencibia was the type of bartender who wiped down your spot at the bar, put down a napkin and asked for your order. A martini came with gin, vermouth, olives or a lemon twist and nothing else. He served them stirred, never shaken. He tended bar at the Floridan for almost 20 years beginning in the mid 1940s.
The Sapphire Room was downtown's exclusive power center, a first-floor club just off the street with a strict jacket-and-tie dress code. Women wore dresses and needed a male escort to sit at the bar. Actor Gary Cooper, boxer Jack Dempsey, Elvis Presley — they all had a drink there.
"Everyone wanted to be seen here," Arencibia told Brad Massey, who penned a 2009 article for Tampa Bay History, an annual Tampa Bay History Center and University of South Florida Library journal.
It was where businessmen and mobsters told tall tales and made silly macho bets over sandwiches and a drink, and where GIs and the hotel's celebrity guests danced with eligible bachelorettes looking for Mr. Right — or at least someone that night.
"There were so many women dancing that the Sapphire Room was renamed the Surefire Room by some of the local GIs," Arencibia told local author Paul Guzzo in 2009 for Cigar City magazine.
"Between the Sheets" was the "Surefire Room's" aptly named signature drink, containing enough punch to knock out anyone's inhibitions. It included ¾ ounce of brandy, ¾ ounce of light rum, ¾ ounce of triple sec, 1/2 ounce of lemon juice and a lemon twist garnish.
Though local lore credits Arencibia with creating the drink, it was common during Prohibition. The drink even preceded Arencibia's Floridan tenure, according to local writer Raubi Perilli, who profiled the bartender in 2009 for New Heights magazine.
As the Floridan shifted from regal to ruin in the 1970s and '80s, the drink disappeared from downtown. Over the last few years, Arencibia heard about a businessman, Antonios Markopoulos, who was rehabilitating the hotel, and he looked forward to setting foot in the reopened hotel. But he died in May at 97, three months before the ribbon cutting.
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Bartender Margie Dmetroshko had just started working at the Floridan when customers came began regaling her with colorful stories of the hotel's storied past. One woman said she turned down a persistent man at the bar who turned out to be Elvis. Other natives told Dmetroshko that their parents told them they had been conceived there.
And one customer told Dmetroshko how Between the Sheets was as much a part of the Floridan as its vintage red rooftop sign.
Dmetroshko, 57, had been a bartender for 30 years in Long Island and Tampa but had never heard of such a drink. She told the Markopoulos family, and Antonios' granddaughter, Angela Vasilopoulos, came across the Floridan's recipe for the drink in an old magazine profile on Arencibia.
They asked Dmetroshko to bring the drink back, and she shook one up. It reminded her of a top-shelf margarita, with rum standing in for tequila.
She put it back on the menu but soon the feedback was that it was too strong.
So Dmetroshko tweaked it for modern palates. It still includes all the same ingredients — just one more to smooth it over, which may or may not be a tinge of orange juice. She refuses to say.
Instead of a lemon twist, the Sapphire Room now serves up the cocktail with an orange wedge, which if squeezed, makes it less puckery.
"It's refreshing," Dmetroshko said, noting that it's best sipped after work or at happy hour but certainly not with any meal.
Two, she said, should be the potent drink's limit.
"We sell a lot of them," Dmetroshko said.
Sonia Gomez, a Sapphire Room cocktail server, said the drink is already helping the hotel make new regulars. One couple, in their 20s who live downtown, stop by the Floridan for just one "Between the Sheets" every weekend.
Then they go home.
Justin George can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3368 or on Twitter at @justingeorge.