Sunday, May 27, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Bar review: Unwind at Room 901 in St. Pete's Edge District

Downtown St. Petersburg has it all when it comes to drinking spots. Sports bars, speakeasies, world-class breweries, dives, wine bars and every kind of restaurant you could hope for populate the ever-expanding downtown landscape.

The westward spread of drinking and dining establishments along Central Avenue has resulted in the opening of several interesting new businesses in the Edge and Grand Central districts, making the list of options even more comprehensive. One of the more recent entries is Room 901 — which opened as Pinellas Cru but is in the process of a name change to avoid confusion with a similarly named bar in Tampa. Right now, the sign still says Pinellas Cru, but the owners say the change to Room 901 will be complete within about a month.

Confused? Whatever you call it, Room 901 brings an impressive pedigree and unique approach to a spot that has undergone some dramatic changes over the past few years.

Room 901's space once belonged to L Train, a lesbian bar with its own movie theater. After that, it was Edge of 9, a laid-back neighborhood bar known for its big-screen karaoke. Both bars offered something a little different, but the niche location made them secrets that were too well-kept.

Now, Room 901 is in, and I'm confident that it's going to stick. Why, you ask? Because its primary strength works in synergy with its somewhat under-the-radar location. The goal of Room 901, according to owners Peg Wesselink and Tony Dodson, is to be a "conversation bar" — free of distractions such as TV, loud music, games or big crowds. You can unplug for a while, enjoy some fine drinks and have a chat with existing or new friends.

Room 901 is built on simplicity: a quiet, intentionally low-key bar in a thriving, up-and-coming part of town.

In place of TVs, there are bold, abstract wall paintings and stark, black-and-white photographs. Instead of high tops and board games, there's a large lounge area, decked out in red sofas facing each other. On the other end of the room is a brick wall with a giant framed photograph of St. Petersburg's iconic Pier as it was being demolished.

That's an apt metaphor for a bar that has stripped down the many themes, gimmicks and amenities to be found elsewhere in town, instead focusing solely on the absolute basics.

Wesselink and Dodson used to own Peg's Cantina in Gulfport, a long-running and well-loved local institution that closed last December after more than a decade in business. In its later years, Peg's became closely associated with its house-brewed beer (brewed by Wesselink's son, Doug Dozark), which eventually became Cycle Brewing, now located in its own brewery just a few blocks east on Central Avenue.

Naturally, Room 901 is closely associated with Cycle, as well as Cycle offshoot Orange Belt Brewing. You'll find beers from both at Room 901, making it a must-visit stop for local beer lovers. Room 901 also focuses on wild and farmhouse ales, with six rotating drafts and a small but very well-curated bottle list.

While many will visit Room 901 for the beer, there's also a very good wine list, with a solid mix of options from Italy, France, New Zealand and especially California.

The spirit selection follows in suit, comprised of a focused selection, rather than an extensive one. The emphasis here is clearly on whiskey (bourbon, rye, American, Japanese, scotch), but you won't find an exhaustive list for any particular category. Instead, there are three or four of each style to choose from, covering a range that neatly encompasses each.

That includes tequila/mezcal, rum, gin and even vodka, each of which comes individually or in flight form, allowing guests to appreciate the nuance between different brands of spirits that often get taken for granted. I picked a vodka flight, as vodka is something that I rarely drink neat. The side-by-side comparison of brands like Crystal Head Aurora, Snow Leopard and Reyka was illuminating, and the stark contrast added by Hophead—a hopped vodka from California's Anchor Distilling Co. (the same people as Anchor Brewing) — made for a much more interesting experience than a flight of vodka might otherwise suggest.

Keeping with the simple motif, there are two cocktails offered: an old-fashioned, and a Cape Cod. When I visited, Wesselink was behind the bar tinkering with a Negroni, so maybe there will be more soon. Either way, I absolutely love the simple approach.

There are no shortage of options in downtown St. Pete, which makes Room 901's uniqueness even more compelling. By specializing in simplicity, Room 901 offers an alternative that we may not have realized we needed.

[email protected]; @WordsWithJG

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