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St. Pete’s best-kept secret: The Ship’s Hold is downtown’s quiet star

St. Pete’s best-kept secret: The Ship’s Hold is downtown’s quiet star

The interior of a bar

St. Pete’s best-kept secret is also the bar leading the way in the city’s burgeoning cocktail culture. The Ship’s Hold, hidden behind a pair of wooden, unmarked doors, is an oasis downtown, and the team behind the bar is constantly crafting some of the most creative (and tasty) cocktails anywhere in the region.

An enjoyable (and not insignificant) part of my job involves going around town to different restaurants, bars, and events. Invariably, those visits lead to conversations about our favorite places in St. Pete, what’s new, and what’s coming soon.

When talking to serious craft cocktail bartenders and spirits enthusiasts, I get the same response every time I mention my favorite spot for rum, amaro, and cocktails: “Oh, you know Ship’s Hold?”

You’d think it was a speakeasy with a tightly guarded password the way many people (especially those in the hospitality industry) speak of it as if it’s a secret; as if it’s something to be revered and spoken of in a whisper at the loudest.

In reality, you can walk right in any time you like. During operating hours, anyway. And provided you know the address (37 4th Street North), since there’s no sign on the door. But for those who already know – well, if you know, you know.

It’s fitting, of course, that a place named for the literal underbelly of a ship remains, metaphorically, below the surface. And it is doubly appropriate that the things happening behind those doors are quietly fanning the flames of the entire city’s cocktail culture.

Craft cocktails merge with laid-back vibes

Creative cocktails

Today, there is a crew of five running the ship, as it were. Partner Joey Frasco, Executive Chef and bar lead Rob Camera, Bita Gorgzadeh, Brian Fuller, and the newly-on-board Harry Hays make up the bartenders that lead the way, a Dream Team of talent, knowledge and creativity that combine to craft drinkable pieces of art on a nightly basis.  

At any given time at The Ship’s Hold, there are hundreds of rare rums, amari and other obscure spirits, as well as dozens of house-made syrups, shrubs, tinctures, gastriques, and various other pickled or fermented delights. The rum and amari collections alone, individually, are among the biggest in the southeast. And just as all those ingredients change, so too does the cocktail menu the staff creates together.

The newest menu at The Ship’s Hold just came out, featuring a few of their old standards (Fire and Brimstone is always a crowd-pleaser), as well as new concoctions, house-made RTD cocktails, carefully crafted mocktails, a beautifully presented sidecar, and plenty more. They even have specials planned every Tuesday night for the new season of Vanderpump Rules.

And that, oddly enough, may be the best example of what you, and anyone with an of-age, government-issued ID, can expect at Ship’s Hold: whatever you want.

“Come as you are” is overused, so it’s more of a “drink as you like” vibe. It’s a place with something for everyone; where you can have cocktails unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before, or you can pick from bottles of Fernet Branca, knock back Jeppson’s Malort served hot, or roll with the always ice-cold Natty Lights on tap.

“We want to be the place where you can get a shot and a beer and have some conversation, or get a martini you can’t find anywhere else,” Joey explained.

Culinary and cocktail worlds collide at Ship’s Hold

A bartender pouring drinks

For all of the words above, the most important – and impressive – part of what’s being done at Ship’s Hold is the quality and creativity of the cocktails. We’ve already discussed the house-made ingredients (something the staff spends hours upon hours crafting in their free time), but where they truly blur boundaries and explore new worlds is the fusion of culinary tastes with mixology expertise.

Rob is a perfect example, taking a leadership role in both the kitchen and the bar. Harry joined The Ship’s Hold after years in leadership at Il Ritorno, one of the most celebrated restaurants in the region. Brian recently incorporated chai masala into recipes. And in fact, one of the most popular drinks on the menu, M-My Chareauna, was invented after Bita had her first taste of Gochujang sauce at 9-Spices Hot Pot and decided she had to include it in a cocktail.

Elsewhere on the menu? Curated and designed by Harry, the new Tom Kha-Tail is inspired by Tom Kha soup, made with rum and kaffir lime-lemongrass-ginger syrup, and milk washed using cream of coconut. It’s a creation Joey dubbed “a real triumph,” and “easily one of the most groundbreaking cocktails on this menu.”

The Hoisin Poisin, meanwhile, is one of the most unique and delicious cocktails I’ve ever tasted. It’s created with reposado tequila, Amaro Angostura, hoisin shrub, soy sauce, and chili oil, poured over toasted sesame-coconut ice and garnished with a peanut butter-sweet potato crisp. Yum. Wild, but yum.

“We’ve kind of bridged things,” Rob said, speaking from his dual culinary and cocktail position, “and whatever we do for drinks, we can use that to make desserts. And vice versa.”

The Ship’s Hold is a quiet leader in St. Pete

People toasting

That dedication to experimenting and pushing boundaries is part of why The Ship’s Hold has built the reputation it has within the service industry and hospitality world in St. Pete. They’re not trying to be better than anyone. They’re just trying to be great, and they have the freedom to take chances as they do so.

They talk things out. They bounce ideas off each other. They make things, taste them, maybe tweak them, and then serve them to a curious clientele. The crew takes chances and embodies the idea of craft.

The final product is proof of concept – that trusting talented individuals and a cohesive team to do what they’re best at results in an impressive finish.

“It’s safe to say we’ve been one of the leaders in cocktail culture since we opened,” Brian admitted. “But more good places are popping up, and we want that. For us, it’s about continuing to push our boundaries and challenge ourselves to stay in that conversation as the city grows.”

And in doing so, they say, the key is also remembering who they are: a bar for everyone. Things are a bit more advanced than Cheers when it comes to the cocktail menu, but just as important as the ingredients inside the glass is the experience of the guests inside the bar.

There’s a reason the most commonly ordered drink at The Ship’s Hold is “make me something.” This is a group of bartenders who love the challenge; they love getting to know the person on the other side of the bar and making something they’ll love. It’s the rare place where they actually get more excited if you don’t order off the menu.

“No matter how good your cocktails are, if the atmosphere isn’t welcoming, no one wants to come,” Harry said. “It’s just as important as cocktails.”

Besides, as Bita always so eloquently explains things, they’re just excited about what they do, and they walk in every night hoping to have some fun.

“We like making cool shit,” she deadpanned.

The Ship’s Hold is located at 37 4th Street North in St. Petersburg. They are open 6 pm – 3 am every day except Thursday (Lab day) 7 pm – 3 am. Visit their website for more.


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