When your hospitality company has a plus sign in its name instead of an ampersand, it’s going to be a little cheeky. For St. Pete’s Hunger + Thirst Group, it means that your establishments might have a wall of “100” emojis, and cocktails might have names like Texts From My Ex.
For the group’s newest venture — replacing another H + T dig, Kings Street Food — founder Stephen Schrutt has tapped into a heavily stylized take on Old Florida, swapping well-tread takes on that theme with one drenched in neon, taking cues from seedy motels and dimly lit dives rather than mangroves, swamps and white-sand beaches.
It’s an inspired piece of branding that feels both familiar and completely novel. Another downtown bar, Saigon Blonde, comes to mind. It employs a similar approach with its take Southeast Asia, filtered through the lens of the Vietnam War and several layers of artistic license to create a nostalgic and beautiful setting inspired by a time and place that was mostly neither.
This time, it’s artificial turf, plastic motel keys and a giant flamingo painted on the wall of an outdoor patio lined with pool furniture. The color palate outside is a mix of pastel pinks and blues, while the interior is dark and moody, soaked in green and blue neon light reflecting off of the black-and-white tiled floors.
It should be ugly and tacky, and it is, but in a strangely compelling way. If you’ve ever felt an attraction to crummy old motels and booze-soaked holes in the wall, you’ll immediately get what No Vacancy is up to. The real thing: not pleasant. A stylized reimagining of the real thing: extremely cool.
I did some digging and found a little background on the folks behind the bar’s design and branding. There’s Lisa Gilmore Design, whose pop-art flamingos can be traced to Mandarin Heights. Wax & Hive’s work is on full display at The Avenue and Park & Rec, two other Hunger + Thirst properties. Creative Arts Unlimited? Saigon Blonde? It’s all coming together now.
With all the talk on branding, you may be wondering if this place serves drinks, too. It does, and at two bars (indoor and outdoor), no less. I probably don’t need to mention that frozen drinks and tropical tiki cocktails are in the mix, but I will mention that some of them come in wonderfully preposterous glassware, including ceramic pineapples and shark’s mouths, and a giant copper flamingo that serves as a punch bowl for the bar’s multi-serving options.
To be fair, The Bends did the whole reimagined Florida dive with booze-heavy punch-bowl drinks thing in this neighborhood first, but No Vacancy is eager to fill any remaining space in this genre, complete with a patio DJ spinning bass-heavy house music and a target demographic whose lived version of Old Florida isn’t far removed from the cartoonish, postmodern version depicted at No Vacancy.
Now, a criticism. The cocktail program at No Vacancy is great on paper, but the execution is still a little loose in these early stages (the bar just opened last month). There seems to be some variation on how the drinks are made depending on who’s making them, and some of the advertised flavors — the apricot and pineapple of Go Down South; the lavender and peach of Peach, Don’t Kill My Vibe — tend to get buried under too much booze, making the final product a little unbalanced, if still tasty.
Other drinks are right on the money, like the frozen Feeling Nauti, which miraculously pulls off a successful pairing of Espolon reposado tequila with Campari, orgeat syrup and lime, grapefruit and pineapple juices. (Order it in one of those ridiculous ceramic mugs.)
There are some really ambitious drinks on the menu. Some are an unusual combination of ingredients — See Ya Later: Jack Daniels, falernum, mango, Angostura — while others are more extreme, like Rock Out With Your Conch Out: Buffalo Trace, Jäger, Grand Marnier, lemon, orange, passion fruit and Angostura, topped with Joosy Froot IPA from Tampa Beer Works.
Is that last one any good? If you have $60 and a few friends to share a punch bowl, order it and let me know.
With the level of polish put into the design and branding of No Vacancy, it won’t be long before the inevitable early kinks are ironed out. That’s no reason to stay away in the meantime, though — if the bar gains any popularity above its opening hype, then its name will be downright descriptive.
Until then, I’d advise a first-hand look to experience a strangely beautiful version of Florida, romanticized in garish neon and 1990s nostalgia.
— [email protected] Follow @WordsWithJG
937 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg. (727) 544-6018 facebook.com/novacancystpete
The vibe: A neon-drenched cocktail bar and patio with a retro Florida theme.
Food: Sides, snacks and entrées, $4-$13; desserts, $7-$8.
Booze: Beer, wine and liquor. Beer, $3-$6; wine, $6-$7.50 by the glass and $30 by the bottle; liquor, $6-$11.
Specialty: The bar’s punny, inventive cocktails are worth a look, like Tropic Like It’s Hot (Dobel tequila, Yellow Chartreuse, lime, cucumber, jalapeño and Hellfire bitters) and the frozen Feeling Nauti (Espolon reposado tequila, Campari, orgeat, lime, grapefruit and pineapple). If you’re with a group, check out the fishbowl (serves two) and punch bowl (serves four) cocktails.
Hours: 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday-Sunday.