It's hard to talk about St. Petersburg's Jungle Prada neighborhood without looking at its past. The connection to early Spanish expeditions, Prohibition-era gangsters, jazz music and the bay area's indigenous Tocobaga tribe makes Jungle Prada fertile ground for legends, rumors and speculation about the last 500 years or so of local Florida history.
One building that has remained popular in the modern era is located adjacent to the 16th century landing site of Pánfilo de Narváez's expedition, which saw a clash between Narváez's Spanish explorers and the local Tocobagas. (The landing site is also the home of several Tocobaga burial grounds.) About 90 years ago, this building was home to a club called the Gangplank, where jazz legends Count Basie and Duke Ellington once performed. Rumor has it that Al Capone, who owned property down the road, was part owner of the club. At the time, the Tyrone Square Mall land was an airport, giving Capone and his gangster friends easy access to the Jungle Prada neighborhood.
There may or may not be underground tunnels once used by Capone and company to smuggle booze during Prohibition in this area, and when the building was occupied by Saffron's more recently, the owner displayed an unopened safe purported to be from Capone's era.
Also, Babe Ruth supposedly got married there once.
In other words, Jungle Prada Tavern, the latest occupant of this storied location, has a lot of history to live up to. And respect is paid to the past in a few ways. The original Spanish-style architecture of the interior is intact, with rooms separated by broad, stuccoed arches. The original terrazzo flooring — refurbished by the previous owners, who ran the Black Palm restaurant — runs alongside curved laminate flooring. The side patio is a perfect place to relax in pleasant fall weather, and it has a view of the historic Narváez landing site.
But, more importantly, Jungle Prada Tavern serves a more immediate purpose as a much-needed watering hole for folks who live in the neighborhood. Thirsty locals have scarcely few options in this regard, and Jungle Prada Tavern delivers more than the bare minimum required of the average local's joint. The history is there, along with more current touches: a pool table, darts, lots of flat screens around the copper-topped, U-shaped bar, and live music of the non-jazz variety.
For beer, there are 32 taps and a nice selection of bottles. The tap list includes a great mix of local brews, domestic craft beers and quality imports like Unibroue (Quebec), Einstok (Iceland), Tucher (Germany) and Steigl (Austria). There are a roughly equal number of wines available, spanning a similarly-diverse geographical range, with most available by the glass as well as bottle (although a few premium wines from Napa are bottle-only, with prices in the triple digits).
Personally, I'd go for the cocktail list. There are four rocks drinks and four served up — technically seven total, since the Jungle Sunset appears on both lists — and the flavors are generally on the fruity/easy-drinking end of the spectrum. (When I visited, there was also a Hurricane on special.) These cocktails are simple, but they're tasty, attractively-presented and absolutely perfect for sipping on the patio.
The Narváez Landing, which references the historical site across the street, is a fruit-forward affair made with Zaya rum (it's delicious), while the Mellow Buffalo classes up a typical whiskey-ginger with apple cider, served straight up. Here's another Capone connection: the Chicago South Side, a Prohibition-era gin drink made with house-grown fresh mint. Who knows? Maybe Capone was smuggling gin through his alleged underground tunnels to drink these things at the Gangplank.
Jungle Prada Tavern might not leave a legacy of Gangplank magnitude, but that's okay. Jungle Prada residents are more likely to care about having a fun, friendly place to eat, drink and congregate in their part of town than they are about wild stories from the past. Of course, the history of the building makes for good conversation while you're there, and that's pretty cool, too.
—[email protected]; @WordsWithJG.