1. Bars & Breweries

Bars at the Birchwood are high on cocktails, ambience

The walkways are lit with color-changing lighting at Canopy rooftop bar.
The walkways are lit with color-changing lighting at Canopy rooftop bar.
Published Dec. 24, 2013

It's been a while since I've had a really good cocktail. There's been so much going on in the beer scene that I can scarcely find the time to work cocktails into the mix, which is a shame because there are some great bartenders doing really nice work.

For a good, classic cocktail, I used to enjoy popping into Packard's, the downstairs bar at the old Grayl's Hotel in St. Pete. When I stopped in for a farewell drink on the night it closed for good, the bartender told me of the elaborate plans the new owner had for the place, which involved rebuilding the entire hotel from the ground up, modeled after its original 1924 dimensions, only a little taller.

The plans included a fancy restaurant and wine cellar, as well as a rooftop bar with sweeping views of Beach Drive and the Pier. It all seemed pretty ambitious — and I've learned from experience that ambitious plans rarely live up to the eventual reality — but I made a mental note to check out this new place, the Birchwood, when it opened.

It actually did open this year, and as soon as I reached the front sidewalk, I could tell that it may have pulled off its ambitious plans after all. The Birchwood is divided into two bar-and-restaurant combos. On the second floor, with sidewalk café seating outdoors, is Birch and Vine, an upscale restaurant with a full bar and extensive wine list. The main dining room is dark, polished and very attractive, with oversized, plush booths and hundreds of bottles of wine on display in the glass-doored cellar that lines the wall.

It's certainly a nice spot for a fancy dinner or a special night out. But the Birchwood has another bar and restaurant upstairs, and this is possibly its biggest draw, as well as most unique attribute. Past Birch and Vine is an elevator that will take you up to the fifth-floor rooftop bar called the Canopy. It shares a cocktail and wine list with Birch and Vine, but instead of the more elaborate, sit-down dining offered downstairs, the Canopy's menu is focused on spruced-up pub fare.

And while Birch and Vine is tough to beat, aesthetically, The Canopy has an extra wow factor, by way of panoramic views of Beach Drive, the holiday decorations in North Straub Park, and the Pier. The open-air bar features a canopied bar in the back, private cab­anas on the side, and a long lounge area stretching between the bar and balcony facing Beach Drive.

The lounge area is made up of artificial turf — a surprisingly cool touch — long rows of sofas, and fire pits in the middle. Honestly, this is one of the most interesting environments I've enjoyed a cocktail in lately.

Speaking of which, the cocktails are indeed excellent. The beer list is decent, featuring 10 drafts and another dozen or two in the bottle, and the wine list is spectacular, featuring 20 wines by the glass and a few hundred more by the bottle. But the cocktails — man, they're good.

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I tried the Lavender Dream, which features Stoli Blueberry, house-made vanilla syrup, lavender water, lemon juice, fresh blueberries, and a lavender-vanilla sugar rim; as well as the Crown Jewel, a mix of Crown Royal, Frangelico, Rhubarb liqueur, and Luxardo cherry juice. Absolutely fantastic. The prices are on the high end, as you might expect, but for a special occasion, the selection, quality and environment are hard to beat.