New bar Saigon Blonde aims to be "an escape" in downtown St. Petersburg

Inspired by '60s-era Vietnam, the immersive experience is expected to open this week.

click to enlarge The logo for Saigon Blonde, located between St. Pete's Tamiami and late Fortunato's Italian Market. - Courtesy of Wax & Hive
Courtesy of Wax & Hive
The logo for Saigon Blonde, located between St. Pete's Tamiami and late Fortunato's Italian Market.

St. Petersburg local Peri Bandazian has transformed a former bar and lounge on Central Avenue into a tropical, immersive destination downtown. In the 2,500-square-foot digs most recently home to LUX at 265 Central Ave., Bandazian’s Saigon Blonde — inspired by ’60s-era Vietnam — expects to open sometime this week.

Intentionally mixing history and fiction, the narrative look of the new bar features design elements like commissioned artwork and custom fixtures to create “a surreal setting unlike any other in the Tampa Bay area.” The owner partnered with Pinellas Park’s Creative Arts Unlimited, Inc. and St. Pete’s Wax & Hive to bring Saigon Blonde to life, and much of the art, which is a crucial component of the bar, was done by local contemporary realist Jean Michael Fait.

“We’re trying to create a unique experience,” Bandazian said in a statement. “It’s an escape.”

Saigon Blonde has five distinct areas for patrons to enjoy — showcasing symbolism and memorabilia, among other decorative details such as woven bamboo-covered walls and nods to folklore: 1) The outdoor walk-up bar. 2) The front bar with tiki totems and murals, plus an inventive cocktail menu that references the Pacific Rim in flavor and color. 3) Highlighting a sultry feel, the downstairs lounge with hanging lanterns, paintings and plush furniture. 4) Fashioned from an old plane wing, the intimate, dimly lit military bar toward the back. And 5) The VIP-like loft lounge — accessed through a narrow staircase and around a bend to overlook the downstairs lounge and front bar — with more plush furniture a muraled ceiling.

A full-bar selection is poured no matter where guests decide to hang, alongside the added bonus of cocktail service in both lounges. Bar manager Jenna Conway and program co-creator Jason Dyer are behind the specialty drinks at Saigon Blonde, which are driven by light, refreshing original recipes (think ingredients like rambutan purée).

The watering hole sources its produce from St. Pete wholesaler Farm Fresh Produce, while spirit makers like St. Pete’s American Freedom Distillery supply the area-made booze. What’s more, a collaboration is planned with Made Coffee, as are several local drafts and Vietnamese brands.

“It’s Pacific Rim cocktails — fun, accessible, colorful — we’re incorporating everything in the Pacific Rim and then into California surf culture,” according to the owner.

Cocktails are served in everything from traditional glasses to fresh coconuts. However, keeping pace with the city’s recent abandonment of straws and other single-use plastics, Saigon Blonde plans to offer disposable drinkware at the outdoor bar — specifically, a plant-based bioplastic — as well as paper straws, primarily by request, while exploring additional ways to decrease their environmental footprint.

And as if the bar’s admiration for St. Pete wasn’t prominent enough, there’s talk of Bandazian teaming up with her Vietnamese fusion neighbor on the 400 block, La V, to provide Saigon Blonde patrons with bar eats.

“I wanted to make something that’s different, that’s interesting and unusual,” the owner said. “Even if you don’t know the meaning behind everything you’re looking at, it will make you ask questions. It’s not your run-of-the-mill bar.”

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