Friday, April 20, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Months after owner's death, JWags Saloon opens in St. Petersburg

In October, my girlfriend and I were on our way to downtown St. Pete when we she spotted a new bar on Fourth Street. It had a wall cutout in front, giving it an open look despite what appeared to be relatively tight quarters within.

The bar had an odd name, JWags Saloon, but quite a few people were mulling around and the tiny side parking lot was filled, so we decided to investigate.

We ordered drinks and asked about the name, at which point the bartender gestured toward a busy but happy-looking guy who, she explained, was the owner, Jim Wagenman. In between jokes and conversations with patrons at the bar, he was hard at work fixing the bar's POS system.

The next afternoon, I noticed an article in the paper about a Thurgood Marshall Middle School teacher killed in a motorcycle accident the night before. The teacher was Jim Wagenman, a guy who finally fulfilled his dream of opening his own bar, only to fall victim to tragedy just two weeks later.

In the weeks that followed, JWags Saloon stood shuttered but otherwise unchanged — a looming question mark about is future after the passing of its owner. I heard rumors that a plan was under way to keep the business running, but nothing substantial seemed to be in the works.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when I noticed JWags' shutter was up and people were inside drilling and painting. A few weeks later the bar re-opened under the same name.

St. Pete Beach bar owner Mike Anderson — Wagenman's friend and unofficial consultant during JWags' planning stage — and his business partner Ben Scherlis reopened the bar with the blessing of Jim's sister, who helped finance JWags, and the rest of his family. Minor cosmetic improvements notwithstanding, the new JWags is very much the same bar as the original, a conscious decision to remain consistent with Jim's vision. While JWags originally had a short bar punctuated by empty space and then a sidewalk-facing tabletop with bench seating inside and out, the bar has been extended all the way down the room. The same plain aluminum siding still covers the wall behind the bar, but a wooden case has been installed for bottle storage, backlit to create a cool effect and add some visual contrast.

The original fire-and-rescue theme remains in place, with uniform patches embedded in the lacquered bar top. The Golden Tee terminal sits at the opposite end of the bar, next to the electronic dartboard, where dart tournaments are held on Tuesdays. The custom-painted ceiling tiles are still up. There's live music on the weekends, flat screens above the bar for sports, and warm, roasted (and spicy) peanuts served with your drink.

JWags still is the kind of place you'd go to have a few beers with friends, or enjoy a seriously cheap cocktail (my Glenlivet 12-year — the most expensive drink in stock — was $5) while you watch the game or throw some darts.

It's a place that finds its strengths in simplicity. And while the man who dreamed up JWags and opened its doors won't be there to greet you personally, his bar is alive and well.

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