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Beloved St. Petersburg music venue Ringside Cafe has closed

The bar known for its reasonable prices, stiff drinks and strong live music lineup has shut its doors.
 
After 35 years and three different locations, Ringside Cafe at 350 First Ave. N in St. Petersburg has announced it is permanently closed.
After 35 years and three different locations, Ringside Cafe at 350 First Ave. N in St. Petersburg has announced it is permanently closed. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times ]
Published Jan. 4|Updated Jan. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — After 35 years, the popular bar and music venue Ringside Cafe has closed its doors for good.

The bar, which was known for its stiff drinks and strong local music lineup, was on its third location. It ruled Fourth Street in St. Petersburg for 25 years before it closed in 2013, making way for what is now a Trader Joe’s.

It then moved downtown, to Second Street N near Jannus Live. But in 2021 it was bumped again for what is now the 1970s-themed club Good Night John Boy. It moved a block away and reopened in July 2022 at 350 First Ave. N, across the street from Williams Park.

The iconic boxer and guitar symbol has represent Ringside Cafe for its 35-year history. The legendary bar, known for its nightly live music at 350 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg, has announced it is permanently closed.
The iconic boxer and guitar symbol has represent Ringside Cafe for its 35-year history. The legendary bar, known for its nightly live music at 350 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg, has announced it is permanently closed. [ Sharon Kennedy Wynne ]

Ringside Cafe’s 2023 New Year’s Eve party was its last, and owners have notified employees and local musicians that it has closed for good this time.

Rising prices for everything from food to insurance made its commitment to reasonably priced food and drinks with no cover charge a hard thing to pull off, said owner Greg Pugh.

“I don’t have anything bad to say. There’s nothing anybody did,” Pugh said. “I had a great long time and I’m feeling good about it and moving on. I played with the toy long enough.”

Ringside built a strong following for its eclectic mix of blues-rock, funk, reggae and pop music drawn from both local and national acts. Slide guitar phenom Derek Trucks played there in 1992. The late Billy Preston, one of the finest session keyboardists of the 1960s who played on “Let It Be” for the The Beatles, played at Ringside, as did blues greats Delbert McClinton and L.A. Jones.

The original location was founded in 1988 by the late restaurateur Linda “Raz” Bernard in an odd multilevel configuration formed out of an old amateur boxing gym that gave it its name. It was beloved for its personable bartenders and nightly music.

Pugh bought the place with his wife, Kelly, in 1993, after the first owners had done the renovation, and named it Ringside Cafe. His philosophy was to keep prices low on food and drinks, with no cover charge for bands “because we want people to come back, and bring their friends.”

He credits its success to his employees and its enthusiastic audiences that swarmed a small space to see their favorite artists.

“We had to build a bigger stage at the Fourth Street location for Roomful of Blues,” the Grammy-nominated band with a 50-year career, Pugh said. “We had a line out the door and into the parking lot and one guy said to me, ‘I’ve seen Roomful of Blues in Boston and followed them to New York. But I never expected to see them at Ringside Cafe.’ ”

After moving to its third location, the downtown St. Petersburg crowd tended to skew younger than Ringside’s typical audience. And most bars these days have a cover charge for a band and charge $15 for drinks.

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“I couldn’t see myself charging that much and living with myself,” Pugh said. “That just rubs me the wrong way even as a consumer. We can’t just push people to their limits to spend a bunch of money because everyone else is.”

The long history means that just about everyone in town has a Ringside memory. Couples met there and brought Pugh Ringside-themed cookies from their wedding. When he called the city utilities department to shut the water off on the building last week, Pugh said he ended up spending 40 minutes with the clerk who answered the phone who had to tell him all her Ringside memories.

There was live music every night and it wasn’t just any band, it was good live music, said Mike Edwards, founder of Uncle John’s Band. Founded in 1989, Edwards’ band is the reigning king of jam bands in the Tampa Bay area and named No. 3 in the country of top Grateful Dead tribute bands by the Pro Tribute Bands fan site.

A band plays before a crowd at Ringside Cafe in June of 2020 at the bar's second location near Jannus Live. It was bumped the following year to make way for the disco Good Night John Boy and moved to its third location across from Williams Park.
A band plays before a crowd at Ringside Cafe in June of 2020 at the bar's second location near Jannus Live. It was bumped the following year to make way for the disco Good Night John Boy and moved to its third location across from Williams Park. [ Pinellas County ]

Edwards, 67, said the original Ringside Cafe was primarily a blues bar so they didn’t fit in at first, but the spot eventually proved to have a solid fanbase of Dead heads. They played at Ringside every Thursday night the past 15 months.

“I was shocked. This is such a shame,” Edwards said of the closing. “We played at all three locations and they each had their attraction. It was always fun and you always knew that when you showed up you would hear a really good live band.”

With expensive high-rise condos going up all over downtown St. Petersburg, Edwards sees the live music scene moving west along Central Avenue in the city’s warehouse district, full of hip restaurants and bars that won’t get as many noise complaints from nearby residents. Uncle John’s Band has been playing shows at the Bayboro Brewing Co. on Fifth Avenue S recently, and he can see how that area might be the new music scene.

“These guys moving into million-dollar condos, I wish they would look into what they are moving into instead of complaining about it,” Edwards said. “I think the whole face of the city is going to change radically in the next four years.”