On an ordinary, balmy night, Geneva and I parked near the seawall and walked across the street to the Ponce de León Hotel, a 1920s-era landmark that was St. Petersburg's first major hotel on the waterfront.
Nowadays, the hotel is just as well known for Ceviche, the restaurant located at its base. We followed the bright red glow emanating from the thin, street-level windows of the lower-level bar and descended a small brick staircase into Ceviche's new cocktail lounge, Ché, which opened late last month.
Normally, I like to wait at least a few weeks after a new place opens before I visit (to give the staff time to work out the inevitable kinks), but Ché is not entirely new; Ceviche has run popular live music nights in its "basement" bar for years now, with Ché representing a remodel/rebranding more than anything. I got a tip that Ché had launched a new Latin-inspired cocktail menu, and I could hardly think of a better fit for the current weather, so it was an easy exception.
Inside, the place was dark. It reminded me of the Peppermill Fireside Lounge in Vegas, only with red neon instead of purple. Dark, intimate, and cool, in a way that's hard to build into a place by design. In Ché's case, this is partly due to the unusual building structure, with a lower level more akin to something you'd find in Chicago or Brooklyn than in St. Petersburg. It felt a little "underground," in both the literal and figurative sense.
The interior shot straight back, leaving room for a bar along one wall, lantern-lit booths along the other, and a large dance floor in the middle, facing a tiny, low-ceilinged stage where local singer and guitarist Hector Mayoral was setting up.
We'd been to Ceviche's underground bar before to check out the live music, and I've frequently been blown away by the caliber of musicianship and sound. That tradition has carried over into the new Ché lounge, featuring live music five nights a week, with regular performances from Mayoral, Jose Maria Moreno, Havana Blue and the Sombras Flamencas flamenco show. These live shows can get pretty packed and sweaty, which is even cooler with Ché's new red neon look.
Our bartender arrived, dressed in what appears to be the house uniform of floral print collared shirts, just like in the hotel bars of the Caribbean that Ché takes much of its inspiration from. While Ceviche has many great house cocktails, a full new menu has been designed for Ché, drawing from the early tiki scene of Southern California, as well as the tropical cocktails from Haiti, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
The cocktail menu — designed by local ad and design company Pyper Young — is absolutely gorgeous, consisting of thick, ring-bound cards, each of which has a cocktail on the front with tasting notes, ingredients and history on the back. It may seem odd to focus on the physical menu itself, but between the fantastic, functional design and the historical background details of each cocktail, I could've spent a lot of time working on the thing.
We started with the Tropical Itch, a Joe Scialom creation for the Caribe Hilton from 1957, and the East 8 Hold Up, a more recent vodka-Aperol-pineapple-lime-passionfruit affair created by London-based bartender Kevin Armstrong. True to form, the Tropical Itch had the spirit-forward potency of the classic tiki cocktails, while the East 8's inclusion of Aperol as a foil to the otherwise fruit-heavy taste gave it a refreshing complexity, with just a slight bitterness.
Next up was the Zombie, the 1934 classic borrowed from Don the Beachcomber, and this, we were told, has a one-per-customer limit. It took a while to come out, but when it did — complete with tiki statue-shaped glass — we found it worth the wait. It's an authentic Zombie, and the one-per-customer thing is probably not a joke.
Finally, the M-1, another Scialom libation, but this time created for the London Hilton in 1964. This was an interesting mix: Famous Grouse Scotch, Cointreau and a generous serving of fresh tangerine juice. Smoky and citrusy. I couldn't imagine it fitting in better in the London Hilton than it did at Ché during a hot May night, honestly.
Ché offers a different take on cocktail culture than you'll find at other great spots in town, like the Mandarin Hide, Cask & Ale and Proof, in a building that probably even served some of the same cocktails back in its own heyday. From its physical location, to its live music to the tightly focused theme of its cocktail program, Ché is one of the more notable spots in downtown St. Pete. After our visit, I'd say the new look and direction is off to a good start.
[email protected]; @WordsWithJG.