If you ask most people where they would think the oldest bar in Florida is, they might guess it to be St. Augustine. Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously European occupied settlement in continental United States. I'll admit being a little disappointed to learn that the oldest bar in the state only dates back to 1903 and is way up in Fernandina Beach, just North of Jacksonville. When we started this quest of visiting the oldest bar in every state, I was looking for real colonial history dating back hundreds of years, and Florida should have it! Once again though, I was happily surprised and thoroughly impressed with the beauty and history of The Palace Saloon!
Stepping through the wooden swinging doors and crossing the tile mosaic floor into this restored turn of the century gem quickly alleviated my skepticism. The grand hand carved mahogany mirrored bar, underneath the molded red and gold tin ceiling and hand-painted murals on the walls gave the overall regal ambiance that must have impressed the regular patrons including the Rockefellers and Carnegies in her earlier years. The original owner, Louis G. Hirth, wanted a gentleman’s club different from the town's seedy bars, and as a major seaport at the time, his Palace became the watering hole of the very wealthy. It was even the first hard liquor establishment to serve Coca-Cola and was presented with a chin dispenser for the syrup by the company’s founder. Hirth was a shrewd businessman. Anticipating the demand for liquor right before prohibition, he rented storehouses and stocked up on hard liquor bottles. People lined up by the busload to purchase liquor up until the very last minute before the law went into effect.
Painstakenly remodeled in the fifties, the Palace retains its beauty, while offering a much more casual, almost “divey” atmosphere. In fact, I even had to take a picture of the now antique but operational cigarette machine they had. It must be twenty years since I’ve seen one of those! I ordered the house specialty, a well-poured Pirate’s Punch. While Bruce and I sipped our drinks and admired the antiques, a friendly couple sitting next us struck up a conversation. Pam (Big Red) and Clyde were fascinating to talk to as Palace insiders. Pam had her first drink at the Palace and even bartended there over the years. I really enjoyed her ghost story of Charlie, a Palace fixture having bartended there for 50 years, whom still in his afterlife watches over the bar. She recalled cleaning up after a long shift and being alone, coming back out to the bar to find two glasses of whiskey mysteriously waiting for her on the bar. Apparently Charlie was rewarding her with a well-earned end of the night toast!