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Mastry's, an iconic St. Petersburg bar, goes smoke free

ST. PETERSBURG — The relics on the walls of Mastry's Bar — including two mounted tarpon, a barracuda head and photos of Babe Ruth — have gotten their last translucent amber coating of nicotine.

After nearly 80 years, the iconic downtown bar, thought to be the city's oldest, has gone smoke free.

The move comes 11 years after the state banned smoking in enclosed workplaces. Since then, even bars that didn't serve food and were exempted have been telling customers to take it outside.

But if there was one place that would surely never abrogate smokers' rights, it was Mastry's. The bar at 233 Central Ave. reeks of cigarette and cigar fumes, as ingrained as the history on its cedar walls.

Bartenders for decades have pulled cigarette packs out of a three-tiered wooden rack with 40 slots, not far from a sign that warns: "Prices subject to change according to the customer's attitude."

Lay Mastry, who co-founded the bar in 1935, built the rack himself a half-century ago. It will eventually come down. The ashtrays were to be removed by this morning.

"That was the biggest single complaint about our bar, that it was entirely too smoky," said co-owner Jay Mastry, 61, who smokes Marlboro menthols. "Women didn't want to come in because you could smell the smoke in their hair. Guys' clothes smelled like smoke, and that was offensive to a lot of people."

Bar manager Justin Mastry, 42, who has worked at Mastry's since he was 18, pushed for the change. His father, Rick Mastry (Lay's son) and Jay share the bar's liquor license.

He appreciates the bar's colorful history but believes it needs to change.

"Whether it's a year from now or five years from now, you're not going to be able to smoke inside anyway," he said. "It's a thing of the past."

Lately, he has been searching the Internet for chemicals that will remove thick layers of smoke residue. Even the fish on the wall will get a touch-up.

Customers who want a cigarette can use the patio furniture on the sidewalk or repair to a rear deck overlooking Jannus Live.

Here, Justin expects to add ceiling fans, hanging plants, a television and a bar to lean on.

The Mastry's story predates the current location by more than 50 years. Brothers Lay and Johnny Mastry founded the bar at 152 Central Ave. in 1935. Mastry's Bar and Grill featured live music, a restaurant and a steady flow of New York Yankees baseball players from the glory years — Ruth, Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin, among others — stopping by for drinks. Jim Mastry, another brother, joined Lay after he got out of the Navy in 1945.

In 1988, after a fight with the city over eminent domain, the bar moved across the street and dropped its restaurant.

George Kehs, 76, has occupied the corner stool every morning since the move. Overall, Kehs has been a loyal Mastry's customer since 1949.

Now missing part of a leg and walking with a cane, Kehs said he isn't looking forward to going outside to smoke his Remington cigars.

"Inconvenient," he said Thursday morning while sipping a beer and smoking.

"They aren't happy about it," said Pam Culpepper, 51, who tends the bar at Mastry's two days a week. "It's more the older crowd during the day. The younger people are used to it. It doesn't bother them to go outside and smoke."

On a recent night, tattoo artist Lance Conklin, 43, stubbed out his cigarette and reflected on a place he has enjoyed for much of his adult life. The change of policy won't affect the authenticity of Mastry's, he said.

"It's a dive bar surrounded by college bars," Conklin said. "It's a real bar. This bar doesn't have to fake the funk. It's like the Flamingo, it's like Wilson's."

The number of bars in the Jannus Landing block has increased dramatically in recent years, with names such as Mandarin Hide and Café Del Mar. They don't allow smoking.

In downtown St. Petersburg, committed smokers can take refuge in fewer and fewer places, such as Emerald Bar, Steve's Tavern and the Bends. Smoke-friendly bars in Tampa include the Hub Bar and Tiny Tap Tavern.

At Mastry's on Wednesday night, Philadelphia native Ray Norcross, 33, said he felt as though he belonged there.

"There's something about it," he said. "The pictures on the wall, the shotgun bar. When you come in here, it's like coming home."

He was dismayed to learn about the ban, that something in his comfort zone would be taken away. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said.

His reaction prompted his friend, Mike Considine, 43, to defend the policy as the right thing for the bar. Norcross reversed himself and said he did not mind going outside to smoke, so long as the bar's ambiance did not change.

His buddy assured him there was no danger of that happening.

"Babe Ruth drank here, come on," Considine said. "This place isn't going anywhere."

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

Mastry's, an iconic St. Petersburg bar, goes smoke free 07/31/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2014 10:36pm]
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