Historic Floridan Hotel houses a gem of a bar in the Sapphire Room

The Sapphire Room bar is inside the Floridan Palace Hotel in downtown Tampa.
The Sapphire Room bar is inside the Floridan Palace Hotel in downtown Tampa.
Published Nov. 8, 2012

Downtown Tampa is often overlooked as a worthy nightlife destination. The few bars and nightclubs are spread apart and maintain a low profile, foot traffic is limited in the evening, and most windows are dark after office hours. Still, one building along the downtown Tampa skyline has always stood out — a mysterious relic from downtown's past.

The Floridan Hotel is a paradox. It was the tallest building in Tampa from its opening in 1926 all the way until 1966. Today it's dwarfed by much taller, modern buildings standing nearby. Still, the distinctive red neon letters along the top of the building — often with one of the letters burned out — were always lit, even though the hotel closed in 1989. I always wondered what the place was like, but it was a derelict hotel, seemingly beyond repair.

However, seven years' worth of renovation can do wonders, and this is exactly what new owner Antonios Markopoulos has put into the hotel, which reopened in July as the Floridan Palace. The Floridan was always known for its opulence, and none of that seems to be missing. The guest rooms, ballrooms, restaurant and upstairs lobby bar look great, while still retaining a classic feel.

But after reading up on the hotel's history, it was the Sapphire Room that I wanted to see.

The Sapphire Room is the downstairs bar and lounge. By itself, it falls into the nicer end of fancy hotel bars, but the place also has history. It's fun to enjoy a drink in the same room where celebrities of yesteryear such as Elvis Presley, Gary Cooper and Jack Dempsey enjoyed theirs. And then there's Tony Kovach, the pianist at the Sapphire Room. Tony used to play in this same place back in the '50s, and he plays here now.

Anyone who's spent time watching old movies or reading noir fiction knows that a chat with the piano man is often the best way to gain insight into a situation. Tony told me the new Sapphire Room is as nice as it ever was, although in its original run, it was the kind of place that you couldn't even get into without a tie and jacket. Women dressed to the nines, wearing long gloves and sometimes even a hat. Today, you probably won't be turned away for casual dress, but this is the kind of place that you want to dress up for.

The Sapphire Room is large, filled with tables in a dining area sitting beneath small crystal chandeliers. Tony and his baby grand sit near the entrance, and a medium-sized bar stands to his side. Behind this bar sits one of many pictures hanging around the Sapphire Room, taken during its peak the better part of a century ago. This one depicts the Sapphire Room's old bartender, Gus Arencibia, smiling and pouring a Schlitz. The interior lighting is dominated by — what else? — sapphire-blue lights, saturating the room in a cool, smooth glow.

Due to its popularity with military servicemen and single Tampa women during World War II, the Sapphire Room was once slyly referred to as the "Surefire Room." It only makes sense, then, that the signature house cocktail would be named Between the Sheets. This Sidecar variation uses both rum and brandy as its base, joined by triple sec and both lemon and orange juice, with an orange wedge garnish. Like the Sidecar, it's a stiff drink that goes down smooth — an attribute that most likely earned it its name back in the Surefire Room's heyday.

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Of course, just about any classic will go down nicely here, under the cool-blue lights and with Tony on the piano, working his way through a few standards and favorites. Tony says it's been a slow start, but people are starting to discover — or in some cases, rediscover — he Sapphire Room. He's hopeful for a strong comeback.

It may be a piece of Tampa history brought back to life, but if you ask me, the new Sapphire Room is both fresh enough and memorable enough to create new history.