Looks like some people have recognized that downing cocktails in a beautiful environment devoted to the task is the just and inalienable right of everyone who tilts back a glass. No need for an upscale restaurant or hotel lobby to provide the setting — cocktails should be their own reward.
Maybe that's why downtown St. Petersburg is now home to two new lounges — Mandarin Hide and Ruby's Elixir — that are both glorious backdrops for a glass and garnish. Which to pick depends on your personality: Do you want to be part of a scene, or one of the crowd?
There's something mysterious about the name Mandarin Hide that's reflected in the space itself. The 10-foot-tall wooden door leading into the place just adds to the aura, separating the majestic interior from the hubbub of Central Avenue's busiest block. A soaring wall to the left is divided into a diamond pattern, each geometric section anchored by a dim sconce that seems more decoration than mood lighting, and a long padded bench runs along the wall, straight to the back of the narrow room.
To the right is Mandarin Hide's gorgeous bar, long and sleek, backed by a checkerboard of premium bottles, chalked lists of available spirits, cabinets of glassware and a taxidermied bison bust jutting from the raw brick behind it.
It all comes together in an ambience that's just the thing for mixology that references the past but flirts with innovation.
Take Tito's Pig, for example, one of the small list of signature cocktails. It transforms a sweet and simple vodka drink into a serious cocktail, thanks to the addition of a bright burst of jalapeño heat tempered by cool cucumber. Bulleit Bourbon comes mixed with homemade ginger ale loaded with tingling vegetal spice, and the French 75 brings England and France together by layering citrusy gin with a generous slug of sparkling wine.
Mandarin Hide also has a very brief but evocative selection of wines by the glass, mostly focused on American vintners, and a list of beers that's loaded with better mass-market brands and the occasional craft brew.
Go on a Wednesday and the place is lit with dozens of candles, arranged in groupings on the bar, tucked behind bottles and artfully arranged on every available flat space, some scented to fill the air with a whiff of vanilla and sweet spice. Some nights also feature small bands up by the towering front windows, tending toward atmospheric jazz that just heightens Mandarin's already entrenched cool vibe.
Down the block and around the corner, Ruby's Elixir has a much different vibe. More wide than deep, its tables seem to spill out onto the sidewalk through three sets of wide-flung double doors, and a red glow emanates from the interior. Step through one of the French doors and it's a maze to get to the bar, a sturdy and weathered place to stool up for a drink if you don't want to brave the sea of padded club chairs around the tables.
Here, everything is focused on the small stage in one back corner, the low ceiling funneling attention toward that brightly lit spot. Ruby's features live jazz and blues five nights a week, music that becomes the point of the lounge instead of just another decorative element. Get the band playing, and Ruby's becomes a raucous, vibrant spot that pulls people in from the sidewalks to join the crowd.
Cocktails here are more old-fashioned and less fussy, largely geared toward classic standards backed up by a very good selection of premium liquors. There's also a better selection of craft brews on tap than at Mandarin Hide, perhaps because the cocktails are more musical accompaniment than the reason for the whole endeavor and therefore don't care about internal competition.
But Mandarin Hide's scene is not an exclusive one — the blend of luxe and downscale elements makes it comfortable enough for anyone to adopt. And Ruby's isn't just for the foot-stomping hoi polloi — the music is too good and the cocktails are too fine for that.