I used to spend a little time at Dooley's, a neighborhood dive so obscure that I can't find a reference to it when searching online. It was noteworthy mostly for stocking a secret jar of Everclear-soaked cherries beneath the bar that could be ordered on a hush-hush basis for customers with a strong stomach.
Dooley's went the way of so many of its St. Petersburg contemporaries years ago, ultimately replaced by Half Time Pub, which subsequently moved into a bigger space a few blocks down the road.
That's your 28th Street dive-bar history lesson.
What, then, of the small, anonymous space that was home to so much spilled Bud Light and stale cigarette smoke over the years? Who would rise to the occasion and keep the beer flowing for the thirsty folks along one of the most impressively drab stretches of road in the city?
The answer: not who I expected.
To be fair, my first visit to the reopened space, more than a year after Half Time's departure, was close to expectation. I stepped out of my car and immediately into a fresh pile of vomit, presumably left by the previous driver. A lady across the street promptly shouted, "Don't go in there!" I decided not to follow her advice.
Inside, I found it bore no resemblance to its no-frills predecessors. Instead, there were plenty of frills — many of which I happen to enjoy. I wasn't surprised by the format change. The name — The Vortex Bar and Game Room — gave me a pretty good idea of the concept, but I was shocked by such a complete transformation.
For starters, The Vortex has absorbed a neighboring unit, giving the bar a roomy and comfortable floor plan. That's fortunate, considering the extensive selection of games and amusements peppering the various rooms.
I'm talking Tekken 5, Blitz 99, two multicades, pinball, Skee-Ball, air hockey, pool, darts and a trove of well-preserved classic board games, including a near-pristine 1967 (!) copy of Yahtzee. There's a sign-up board for meeting and networking with board- and card-game players, so if you can't get your friends to submit to eight hours of Arkham Horror, you may be able to find a new friend who will.
There's nothing subtle at The Vortex — it's loud both in volume and neon intensity, walls decked out in floor-to-ceiling murals depicting all manner of 1990s kid nostalgia, from the ubiquitous Konami code to campy action shots of Sonic, Link, Earthworm Jim, Samus, Donkey Kong and even good old Q*Bert.
If that isn't enough to hammer in the theme, consider the variety of silver spray-painted game controllers hanging above a bar. That bar is coated in resin and lacquer, which creates colorful 3D-swirl effects down the length of it.
Maybe the naysayer across the street simply was never much of a gamer?
Kitschy nostalgia aside, The Vortex is a decent beer bar with 15 taps that range from big-name macros and quality imports to local craft brews and a deep cut here and there.
One selection that stood out was the boldly named Polyjuice Potion Magical Elderberry Plum Sour Ale from Indiana's Central State Brewing. I gather that it's a Harry Potter reference, so add that to the bar's pop-culture grab bag.
(Of course, there's a few wines on deck as well.)
I imagine the target demo for The Vortex is somewhat narrower than, say, your average sports bar, but it's an awfully refreshing option in this part of St. Pete, and it's a novel use of space in a unit previously consisting of little more than a cooler of beers, a bar, some tables and a jukebox. (Of course, there's not anything wrong with that concept).
If you've got pockets full of quarters and a thirst for some decent and reasonably priced beers, then The Vortex is calling you. If that's not your style, then there's a few sofas and a library of board games to keep you busy.
Combined with a new pizza parlor next door, The Vortex brings a shot at a new life to this once-lonely 28th street plaza. I hope to see this one sticking around for some time.
— Contact Justin Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Vortex Bar and Game Room
2329 28th Street N, St. Petersburg. (727) 592-2658; facebook.com/vortexstpete
The vibe: A spacious and varied neighborhood game bar with a surprising beer selection.
Booze: Beer and wine. Beer, $1.50-$6; wine, $4-$7.50.
Specialty: The bar's 15 taps are stocked with a rich variety of domestic macros, classic imports, local craft brews and a few surprises, like $5 pours of Founders Breakfast Stout. If you just want to get some cheap brew, Natural Light Naturdays strawberry-lemonade light lager is only $1.50 — or $1 if you agree to shotgun a can at the bar!
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily.