With its mascot, a mounted buffalo head named Manny, decked out in streamers and a shiny party hat, the Mandarin Hide celebrated seven years of serving cocktails on Central Avenue last Thursday night.
Opened in October 2010, the cocktail bar is largely credited with ushering in the craft cocktail movement in St. Petersburg. But while it's a staple in the current market, it wasn't always. Once upon a time, it was the new kid on the block.
It's hard to tell by the way the bar's recent birthday party shaped up. People packed in for free cocktails, and the celebration kicked into full swing pretty quickly. Most of the partygoers have been to the bar with the big-city feel, with its sophisticated menu and antler chandelier, before.
Mandarin Hide owner Tony Casoria admitted to being nervous when first opening the "quirky, classy" bar. The name didn't make sense to a lot of people, and craft cocktails weren't really big in St. Pete yet. Most people, he said, were drinking vodka sodas or Bud Light, and that was about as creative as things got.
The bar was the first in the Tampa Bay area, according to co-owner Ryan Griffin, to introduce the Moscow Mule, that ubiquitous vodka-ginger beer cocktail characterized by its copper mug that now seems have a place on every cocktail menu. It was that cocktail, Casoria said, that converted people and got the ball rolling.
Now the bar top is coated in hammered copper that matches the mugs, and the owners have moved on to finding new ways to push the scene forward.
Recently, the friends, who attended the University of Florida and also co-own Tampa's Rock Brothers Brewing Co., released a Copper Horn Single Malt India Pale Ale to pair with scotch — Glenfiddich's single malt scotch finished in IPA casks, specifically. They and other owners Blake Thompson and Ryan's father, Bill, are constantly looking for new ways to innovate.
"Evolving," Casoria said about what makes their business successful, "and staying involved."
They send their bartenders to training in New Orleans, he said, and have sent them on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. They even hold internal competitions to decide which new drinks go on the menu.
Over the years, the craft cocktail scene has expanded. Cask & Ale opened up nearby, on the corner of First Avenue and Third Street; former Mandarin Hide bartender Jarrett Sabatini recently opened Intermezzo Coffee & Cocktails on Central Avenue and 11th Street.
While most places now have a cocktail program ("Thank god," Griffin said), Casoria and Griffin insist that there's no competition between the bars; they all ultimately expand the culture, which "pushes the whole scene" forward, Casoria said, and works out well for everyone.
But Casoria and Griffin still enjoy their status as an institution. No longer the new kid but rather the "old cocktail bar on the block," Griffin said they teach classes and stay active with local businesses.
For all their years here, they still have some secrets left to uncover.
Like the story behind the name and the giant buffalo on the wall. That's something you'll just have to come in and ask about, Casoria said. And, he added, you'll probably get a different story every time.
Contact Carlynn Crosby at email@example.com.