St. Pete has a new gay watering hole

By : Aaron Drake
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St. Pete has a new face in town. From the looks of it, she’s sassy, wacky and eager for her guests to enjoy a night out. Punky’s Bar & Grill, 3063 Central Ave. at 31st St. N, is the city’s newest gay bar, set for a soft opening before Thanksgiving and a larger celebration in December.

“We’re excited to be in the Grand Central District,” says co-owner Brian Longstreth, owner of Gay St. Pete House and a longtime activist in St. Pete’s LGBT community. “In addition to several bars and restaurants, there are realtors, CPAs, attorneys, home décor, antiques – it’s still one of the largest concentrations of LGBT-owned businesses in the country.” He joins co-owners Lynn Deibert and John Burt, who are also local residents and proud members of the LGBT community, in starting Punky’s. The 3,200-square-foot, 150-person maximum capacity establishment was formerly home to Jimbo’s Joint.

The name comes from the nickname of Longstreth’s close friend’s late mother – and the Punky depicted as a matronly but fun Doris Day-meets-Dame Edna figure on the bar’s signage should give future patrons some insight into the bar’s persona.

The restaurant’s new menu will feature an extensive choice of sandwiches, burgers, salads, appetizers, and potentially nightly dinner specials like prime rib, steak and seafood. Patrons will find Punky’s open for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. till 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights. The kitchen will be open late nights and the interior dining area will turn into a dance floor with a live DJ after hours on weekends. Guests can look forward to jazz brunch Saturdays and drag diva brunch on Sundays.

The bar will have approximately eight beers on draft and 18 varieties of wine, while serving up house specials Punky’s Punch, Punky’s Pink Lemonade and at least one other rotating cocktail, along with the usual bar favorites, 2-for-1 specials and frozen drinks, once the establishment has its full liquor license come December.

With some LGBTs crying that the closing of neighborhood staple Georgie’s Alibi in September was the death knell for gay bars in the city – and social media apps to become the new norm – Punky’s is a much-anticipated new gathering spot for the city’s LGBT community. Though it will be “welcoming to all,” as Longstreth says, it is very much a gay bar.

“I think there are still a lot of people that enjoy being in a ‘gay bar’ that is a little more welcoming than they used to be and not as scary for non-gay people,” Longstreth says, which piggybacks on Georgie’s reputation as a joint where any and all on the Kinsey scale were welcome and many straight folks even thoroughly enjoyed. “Everyone I’ve talked to is excited about it. I don’t think the gay bar is dead. When Georgie’s opened back in 1999, that was a pretty big evolution for a gay bar to have windows, a patio and food to begin with, so hopefully we’re taking it to the next level with a little more effort on the food and live music.”

As opening day approaches, the hubbub from the community continues to be positive, with two people stopping to interject how anxious they were for the bar’s opening during Longstreth’s sit-down with Watermark – one guy even voicing his excitement while stopped at a red light in front of the building.

Longstreth noted that Grand Central District Association and City Council have also been supportive, even enthusiastic, about the bar’s opening. “Everybody kind of hopes that it will become an anchor like Georgie’s used to be, and it will help Central Avenue continue to grow.”

When asked if it was his intent to replace Georgie’s as the neighborhood favorite, Longstreth responded that he does intend to carry the torch – but with a few changes. “Obviously there’s going to be some comparisons, similar menu, several employees, but I think we’re going to try to do things a little differently, focus more on the food, a little more focus on live music and bring back lunch everyday – of course being on Central Avenue will help.”

Longstreth, who started a GoFundMe for Georgie’s Alibi employees who had a nine-day notice before the restaurant shut its doors, welcomes aboard many familiar faces among the 35 workers on the bar and kitchen staff, including Punky’s chef Frank Costilli Jr., who was previously a chef and manager at Georgie’s.

“I think nightclubs are starting to struggle more and more, and I think that’s one of the reasons we wanted to put a little more focus back on food,” Longstreth continues. “The layout of the building will allow us more efficient food service than Georgie’s could, and a larger patio will be more inclusive for outdoor dining.” The expansive awning-covered outdoor patio with purple picnic seating where guests can play Cornhole is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. A sizable parking lot and ample street parking are a bonus, as is not being in close proximity to a residential area which proved to be another challenge for Georgie’s.

But most importantly, Longstreth assures that Punky’s will continue its involvement in the community with the ability to do catering and host special events, community fundraisers, drag shows and charity Bingo.

“And we’re looking forward to starting some new neighborhood traditions in the area,” Longstreth adds.

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