I've driven by the 4 Three Nine many times on my way home from downtown St. Petersburg. I liked the look of it: small, unassuming, low-profile. The name refers to the bar's address: 439 First Ave. N — straightforward and to the point, but with a little flair.
I had already resolved to visit when I learned that the owner and primary bartender, John Williams, is also a professional magician. Now, I don't expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for magic, but if you're telling me that the bartender at a local bar is a magician who is known to perform behind the bar, I'm telling you to get ready, because we are going.
The 4 Three Nine has a small café setup out front, which is probably quite nice in good weather, but this trip was during a torrential downpour, so we sat inside. Besides, I wanted good seats in the case of an impromptu magic show.
The interior of the 4 Three Nine is the size of a large storage unit — its billed as a "micro lounge" — with a bar capable of seating a snug seven. There's a TV behind the bar — not on, unless you ask for it to be — and a chalkboard detailing the current drink specials. A small cooler sits behind the bar, stocked with a small selection of bottled and canned beers. On top: several decks of Bicycle playing cards.
When we arrived, there were three other patrons at the bar (and a dog), which constituted a fairly full house. This isn't a party bar, by any means. It's a refreshing change of pace, actually — a bar where you're guaranteed to interact with the bartender and other patrons, simply because you're all in such close quarters. If you didn't feel like a regular when you came in, you will by the time you leave.
It didn't take long before owner/bartender John Williams picked up a deck of cards and laid a black velvet mat on the bar top. Over the course of the next hour, we saw cards disappear and reappear inside of a lemon, decks change designs on the fly, pairs of cards merge into a single, double-sided card and more.
At one point, Williams had all of us sign and date a card, then he inserted it back into the pack and dramatically tossed the whole thing to the ceiling. All of the cards dropped back to the floor, save for the signed card, which stuck, surrounded by dozens of other signed and dated cards. A cool trick, yes, but it also made the visit seem special, with our card now a permanent fixture on the 4 Three Nine's ceiling.
The plan was to have a drink or two and be on our way. We ended up staying for quite a while, chatting magic and downtown St. Pete with Williams, and sampling a variety of beers. I'm rarely as engaged during a bar visit as I was there, which is partly a function of the small space but also largely due to Williams' friendliness and excellent and entertaining card skills.
The 4 Three Nine is not the place to go if you're looking for a wild night out, but it's perfect for small groups, especially if the members of your party have an affinity for illusions. I hope that I don't spoil the "secret" of this place, as a big part of its charm is its inherent exclusivity, but I just can't help spreading the word about such a unique find.
[email protected]; @WordsWithJG.