If you spend any time in downtown St. Pete, you've no doubt noticed the rise of the building murals, culminating in last fall's SHINE Festival, which brought a dozen or so large-scale works to town. Murals quickly have become one of the town's visual highlights, adding a colorful, lively feel to the neighborhood, as well as some street cred for a city gaining national recognition for its arts scene.
A little farther south, buildings tend to fall back into the strictly utilitarian look that we've become accustomed to, which is why El Gallo Grande stands out so boldly — a flash of saturated, vivid colors against a plain, mostly residential backdrop.
Although El Gallo Grande — "the big rooster," if you're wondering — is a bar and restaurant, it's probably most well-known for its murals, courtesy of the Vitale Brothers: Johnny, Paul and cousin Bruce. The Vitales have beautified businesses across the bay area for the past couple of decades, and at El Gallo Grande, their work is as much a part of the business as is the food and drink.
The biggest and boldest works are on the exterior, from the giant tagline "That Mexican Place," to a striking portrait around back of legendary Mexican actress María Félix, adapted from a promotional poster for the 1950 film Doña Diabla. El Gallo Grande is painted onto rusted metal siding, hinting at the retro kitsch that you'll find inside the restaurant.
To me, a visually interesting interior plays a big role in how much I enjoy spending time in a place. You can have great food and drinks, but if they're served in a bland environment, there's not much reason for patrons to stick around once they're done eating. El Gallo Grande is very far removed from this description. I could spend all day there.
Simply put, it's colorful. Very, very colorful. From the mismatched, brightly painted furniture, to paintings of luchadores, dancers, roosters and skulls, El Gallo Grande gives you plenty to look at.
There's a reproduction of La Calavera Catrina, José Guadalupe Posada's iconic, early 20th century etching, as well as several depictions of painted sugar skulls, both immediately recognizable symbols of Mexico's Día de los Muertos holiday. Inverted lamp shades hang from the ceiling, directing colored lights down to the heavily lacquered tables, some of which are repurposed doors salvaged from the old Dalí Museum.
There's a good deal of authenticity to it all, to be sure, but it's also a distillation of Mexican pop culture, viewed from a domestic perspective. I've more than once seen the name of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez — director of From Dusk Till Dawn — mentioned in describing El Gallo Grande's look, and I only wish I were the first to make the observation. It's "Authexican," as the restaurant's website notes — a stylized, tongue-in-cheek approach to an authentic Mexican cantina.
The drink program has changed a bit in the time since El Gallo Grande's opening in 2014, but I think it's in a good spot now. There are six house cocktails, house-made sangria, six drafts (a mix of local and Mexican brews), a diverse wine list and a hefty selection of tequilas.
Speaking of interiors, how's this for bold: all of the six house cocktails are tequila-based. This absolutely cracks me up; I think it's fantastic. There's a house margarita, a Jarritos-based Paloma, the jalapeño-spiced Fuego y Hielo ("fire and ice"), a cucumber-cilantro cooler, and El Rey — a potent, premium margarita made with El Mayor Reposado and Florida Old Reserve orange liqueur. Strangely, El Gallo Grande's sangrita — usually a sweet-savory chaser to straight tequila shots — is actually a mix of frozen margarita and sangria. Hey, whatever works.
The drinks are generously strong and extremely tasty, which would be reason enough to pay a visit to El Gallo Grande. The colorful, funky design, however, elevates it to a must-visit.
You won't find these murals along Central, but El Gallo Grande makes venturing a few blocks down the road an entirely worthwhile proposition.
— [email protected]; @WordsWithJG.