Downtown’s bar shift

The Indy closes, The Bends opens.

click to enlarge BENDING BAR: Crissy Gerow tends bar at The Bends' grand opening Saturday in St. Petersburg. - DRUNKCAMERAGUY.COM
BENDING BAR: Crissy Gerow tends bar at The Bends' grand opening Saturday in St. Petersburg.

It was 10 p.m. on Saturday night, and for the first time in eight years The Independent Bar in downtown St. Petersburg didn’t buzz with the clinking of craft beer glasses. Soft lights, illuminating a red glow onto the street, remained dark. Patio chairs where friend and foe shared memories sat stacked inside.

The Independent Bar in St. Petersburg, lovingly called the “Indy” by regulars, isn’t closing — but it also isn’t coming back. A divorce between owners Veronica and Johnny Vellines gave the Tampa Independent Bar and brand to Veronica and the St. Petersburg location to Johnny. It was an amicable and mutual agreement.

“Veronica is kicking butt over in Seminole Heights,” John said recently. “She’s Miss Independent and I’m Mister something else now.”

The split means Johnny is remodeling, revamping, rebranding. Out with the old and in with the new. But what if we don’t want something new?

Wednesday night Johnny threw a staff appreciation/closing party at The Independent. All drafts were $5, pump the remaining kegs till they run dry. Familiar faces circulated through the crowd, sipping draft brews and lamenting.

“Where are we going to go now?” a friend of a friend moaned.

Back before St. Petersburg had 3 a.m. drinking hours, downtown was a slightly different place. Locals could go to the Indy for a laid-back environment, and it was one of the first stops for those in search of a good craft beer.

Johnny isn’t revealing too much about plans for the new bar, but he does say that it won’t be The Independent.

“I’m not 100 percent sure yet but it’ll definitely be different from The Independent,” he said. “I’m a beer dude so that will continue, but we’ll also have more approachable beers as well.”

Understandable. But the people, who loved the Indy and the aesthetic it represented, weren’t there for approachable beers. On Wednesday, conversation buzzed about the changing bar tides in St. Petersburg. Drama tinged the air about how Vellines handled the closing/remodeling. Some staff felt more slighted than celebrated.

“Have you been to The Bends yet? We’re about to leave,” a friend invited. After slugging back one last Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ ale, adventure ensued at the latest bar in the ’Burg.

The Bends is not The Independent. It is its own brand of bar, described on its Facebook page as “a classy dive bar in St. Petersburg, FL.” It's on First Avenue North in the former space of ARTpool (the vintage boutique and gallery now on Central) in the newly dubbed “edge district” on the outskirts of downtown.

A portrait of Tom Selleck’s mustachioed mug is framed and illuminated behind the bar like a deity of coolness. Luckily no one in the bar is sporting Magnum P.I. shorts — yet. One last drink at The Bends somehow turned into a special shot of tequila from a bottle with no familiar name and a Tecate for $5. The Bends is full liquor with several specialty cocktails (i.e., the Moscow Mule) and a fair selection of drafts.

In the back are an old-school sit-down dueling Pac-Man table game and a Simpsons pinball machine that seems to give endless turns. Note to self: Bring more quarters next time.

The atmosphere at The Bends is utterly fresh, but not quite squeaky clean, a good thing for any “classy dive.” The clientele is young, gritty and local. The Bends is close enough to walk from downtown, but far enough that the chances of running into an Affliction-shirted Ed Hardy fist-pumper are slim to none.

Those that loved The Independent will undoubtedly explore Johnny Vellines’ new bar once construction finishes. But The Bends is ushering in a new vibe, in a new St. Petersburg, vibrating with the urge to create and seek shelter from all that is mediocre and safe. Plus, it offers the greatest line to start any good story. “So I was staring at this portrait of Tom Selleck’s mustache and then …”


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