Anyone who knows me knows that the old Stubbies & Steins was near and dear to my heart. It was where I got my beer education. Chef Kevin Keller was doing damn fine rotating food specials. They had the best friggin’ fries in town. It was my Cheers, and I helped disassemble the place when they closed down. For some time, the space remained empty and serving as a reminder to many of countless drunken fun nights.

Now at long last, a worthy successor to the space has arrived. The original Stubbies side of the building (9 West University Avenue) has been reborn as Madrina’s (Spanish for “godmother”), a Cuban-inspired cocktail bar that has fast become the latest hot spot in town and what I believe to be the best bar in town. From the same folks who brought you Crane Ramen, and the venerable TJ Palmieri (formerly of 2nd Street Speakeasy) at the helm, they’ve completely transformed the spot. The original floor from the old Stubbies is still there, but there’s not much else beyond that. The top of the bar shelves are decorated with Cuban Santos statues, black cabinetry and bar top runs the length of the narrow space with bar height conversation tables, black and white decorative tiles, and Empire-style chandeliers are set against dim lighting. All these elements combined make Madrina’s a beautiful space that’s about as classy as Gainesville bars get.

But they’re not just a pretty face. The drinks are as the kids would call “fierce” and in some cases quite literally “lit.” The standard menu of drinks runs about $9 per glass, but they do happy hour between 4 PM and 7 PM and have $5-$6 specials every day. Their bar boasts a large selection of spirits including about 40 different types of rums. On the menu are the classics like a Pina Colada and a Mojito, in addition to drinks like the Carajillo (whiskey, coconut cream, horchata, and Opus Coffee’s nitro cold brew coffee), the Santiago Swizzle (gin, lime, honey, chartreuse, beet shrub, and mint), and The Juan That Got Away (mescal, ancho verde, mango, lime, pineapple Jarritos, and tajin seasoning). Off-menu requests are welcomed as well, you just have to ask. A small selection of cigars is available as well and can be smoked on their small outdoor area out front.

However, we must talk about the daiquiris and the Chupacabra (we’ll get to that in a minute). Please do not miss the daiquiris here. If you are not familiar, it’s basically a frozen alcoholic slushy and they are spectacular. You’ve got the Classic made with two types of rum, lime, and sugar. Then there’s a Carrot variety with carrots (duh) and lime, the Mulata (rum, crème of cacao, lime, sugar, cacao nibs), and my personal favorite; the Banana that uses rum, fresh bananas, crème of banana, lime, and grounded coffee beans. Trust me on the coffee beans, it works incredibly well with the bananas. These drinks are deceivingly potent, not overly sweet, and are really refreshing in the muggy Florida summer.

But perhaps the crown jewel of their cocktail repertoire is the Chupacabra, named after an urban legend of a reptile-like creature that kills goats and drinks their blood. Miami people, you know what I’m talking about. Except the one at Madrina’s is much easier to stomach, slightly less deadly, and served in a giant copper upside-down pineapple. At $18, it’s meant to be shared between two people, contains 3 types of over-proofed rum, vodka, lemon and lime, hibiscus, passionfruit, spiced honey, and bitters. I’m told that they’re going even crazier now and rolling out The Supercabra available in two sizes; $32 for an extra large version in a giant copper swan that serves 4 people and $48 for an extra extra large version in a massive pineapple that serves 6 people.

While this all may sound a little gimmicky, they’re genuinely great drinks made by some of the best bartenders in town. TJ makes regular trips to Cuba to learn from a new generation of bartenders carrying on their traditions and to explore the rich cocktail history of the island. He recently became only the third American to compete in the 200-year history of the El Floridita “King of the Daiquiri” competition in Cuba. In addition to the stellar group of in-house bartenders, TJ is also known to bring some of his very talented buddies into the fold on occasion. Philip Khandehrish, one of Miami’s most respected bartenders and the guy that helms the bar at The Setail Hotel, and Christian Delpech, a 19-time World Flair Competition champion who has been featured on the Food Network, Ellen, Travel Channel, and E! (look him up on Youtube) have already made guest appearances. Julio Cabrera of the Regent Cocktail club, who has named America’s Most Imaginative Bartender and featured on the cover of GQ magazine, is TJ’s mentor and has been known to pop in from time to time as well.

Madrina’s is open from 4 PM to 2 AM on Tuesdays through Sundays. The space does get very loud, so I would recommend going early in the week or right at opening for a less hectic experience. Those who want to get crazier should go on a Wednesday for “Havana Nights” featuring live Cuban music that starts at 7 PM. Be forewarned though, it gets packed and there’s only one bathroom.

The reinvention of downtown continues with Madrina’s, and if it’s an indication of what’s to come, I’m stoked. This is THE bar to visit.

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© 2020 by Ken Peng & Ken Eats, LLC. Title image courtesy of Jesse Adrian Scanlon Media.

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