1. Bars & Breweries

Members-only @Cost Bar aims for exclusivity in St. Pete's bar scene

The @Cost Bar in downtown St. Petersburg. Can members-only hack it?
The @Cost Bar in downtown St. Petersburg. Can members-only hack it?
Published Oct. 16, 2014

Every new bar seems to promise an original concept, but coming through on such a promise is a different story. You can play with décor, themes, specialties and niche products all you want, but promising to revolutionize nightlife is a surefire way to oversell your brand.

@Cost Bar, the new kid on St. Pete's 500 block, is interesting as both an example and an exception. Like many new bars, it comes with a few unrealistically lofty expectations — its Facebook page ambitiously pegs it as a destination for "socialites, celebrities and entrepreneurs;" its website features cinematic video clips of downtown St. Pete set to a slick, electronic beat; and annual VIP memberships are currently available for $2,000.

At the same time, it really is a one-of-a-kind concept.

@Cost is a members-only bar, which is a format not entirely out of place in New York or L.A. But to my knowledge, it's the first of its kind in the bay area. For all the exclusivity and glamor implied by its members-only status, @Cost is actually built around a pretty unpretentious and simple premise: selling all products available at the bar, well, at cost.

You can buy memberships in durations ranging from daily to the aforementioned annual VIP. With the exception of the one-day pass, all memberships allow you to bring a guest. Memberships for men are about twice as much as the prices for women, but I'm going to forgo the commentary on that one. Once you have your card, you can visit the bar at any time and drink at cost. It's not a gimmick, either — the drinks really are sold at cost, as are tobacco products, like hookahs and cigars.

Say you purchase a one-month membership ($40 for men and $20 for women). The average beer price is about $1.25, while glasses of wine are mostly in the $2-$4 range. Now say you bring a guest, visit the bar three times in a month, and buy three drinks each per visit. Your bar tab is going to be somewhere around $40-$60 for the month including tip, which brings the total to under $100 for two people for three nights at the bar. That's less than $17 a visit, after tip. If you're strictly beer drinkers, make that around $10 a visit. That's a good deal.

Even better, these aren't prices for bargain-basement hooch, but for solid beers like New Belgium's Fat Tire, Saint Arnold's Lawnmower Beer, Blue Point's Hoptical Illusion and Bold City's Duke's Cold Nose Brown Ale. For wine, there's a range of varieties and vineyards. Even a bottle of legitimate Champagne like Collet Brut will only set you back $40 or so.

But @Cost aims to be more than a good bargain. Remember, this is supposed to be a place where celebrities might hang, and where people might want to pay for VIP memberships that will help them skip lines to get in the door. So how does it stack up?

Well, it's an attractive place. The @Cost folks have done a good job of redecorating the old Sake Bomb space, filling the bar with plush booths and candlelit tabletops, hand grenade-shaped light fixtures and something like half dozen sofas to reinforce the loungy vibe. @Cost also utilizes projectors extensively, with picture and video projection themes changing nightly to give the bar a different feel each time you visit. I'm not sure it would fly in a club in Paris, but it wouldn't be out of place amid the chic spots on Beach Drive or across the bridge in SoHo.

In all, @Cost is a cool-looking space with a nice atmosphere and a unique concept. Will it reach all of its lofty goals? Probably not, but it's good to aim high, and @Cost's enthusiasm is commendable. Will it offer good value to its members and provide a new flavor of nightlife in downtown St. Pete? Yes, I think it will.

I'm very interested to see what sticks and what doesn't at @Cost. When I first found out it was a members-only bar, I'll admit I was skeptical. But with this combination of setting, selection and price, @Cost offers a level of exclusivity that may actually be worth paying for.