If you grew up in Pensacola or lived in the area in the 80s or 90s, you more than likely remember the staple of the city’s underground music scene, The Handlebar. Whether you have only been once to see a big name perform as they passed through town, stopped in occasionally to catch a local band perform or were one of the regulars, you likely ended up staying for the good company, sometimes-cold beer and great music.
The name “The Handlebar” most likely conjures up images of some sort of biker bar, and rightfully so, but the iconic Pensacola dive was a place for everyone. The truth is that the Handlebar served as a melting pot of styles and genre, with live music that included everything from heavy metal and punk rock, to pop, folk and even country.
The stage of the iconic dive served as a platform for local up-and-coming artists and traveling bands alike. Several artists, now world-renowned, have played on The Handlebar stage during the start of their music career, including the likes of Run-D.M.C., The Replacements and Suicidal Tendencies.
Since The Handlebar opened its doors in 1983, it has served as a community gathering space for all types of crowds. For most of its life, the local dive was owned and operated by Pensacola-natives, Sue and Jimmy Lamar III. After the building caught fire in 2001, it eventually reopened, but ultimately closed its doors for good in November of 2018. When The Handlebar hit the market, it caught the attention of Kathy Sandstrom and her husband, Chris McKean who are now co-owners of the new space.
Sandstrom and McKean are both Pensacola natives, each with their own connection to the dive. Back in late 80s and early 90s, the couple were regular patrons of the bar, with McKean even performing with his band in some of his own shows at the venue. In 2019, Sandstrom decided to purchase the bar in hopes to flip it, but was approached by individuals in the community who urged her to restore the building. After recalling her and her husband’s fond memories at the bar, Sandstrom and McKean began the process of restoring the neglected old bar off Tarragona Street back to its original glory, but this time, with a few upgrades.
“Our goal is to bring smaller bands and local acts and re-create the scene that the Handlebar once had,” Sandstrom said.
“We bought the building back in 2019 and at the time it was vacant and the intention was just to trade the real estate,” Sandstrom explained. She recently retired from an investment firm in Chicago after 25 years and moved back to Pensacola with her husband.
The fond memories that the couple shares and unwavering support from the local community have served as the inspiration behind the restoration.
Back in the day, a typical night at The Handlebar consisted of guzzling down multiple cans of lukewarm PBR, playing a few rounds of pool and chatting with some friends—or making new ones. Perhaps you selected a classic rock song on the jukebox before the band came on. As you stood around waiting for the show to begin, you would notice the hodgepodge of quirky decor thrown up on the walls.
When the band took the stage, people crowded around them, dancing, singing, and, most importantly, having a good time. The walls shook with every note played. The scent of stale cigarette smoke wafted through the air, clinging onto your clothes until the next trip to the laundromat. If this scent and a headache from the loud music followed you home, you knew you had a good night.
The bar served wine and beer in a single community room with plenty of open space to provide a clear view of the stage. The building’s simple brick and mortar design was splashed with black graffiti and decorated with vintage photos that hung crookedly on the walls. At the north end of the bar, was a piano that was rarely (if ever) played adorned with a Pet Rose plaque and a skull capped with a Bud Light sign. The true beauty and glory of The Handlebar lied within its imperfections.
New owners Sandstrom and McKean are dedicated to bringing that same familiar feeling into the newly-restored space, and have developed a team to help them in the restoration and re-opening process. Sandstrom and McKean personally recruited each of the individuals working to bring the bar back to its glory days, including. General Manager Robert Goodspeed, Bar Manager Jess Laws and East Hill Building and Design Creative Director, Adam Myrick. The team’s ultimate goal is to breathe new life into the space, while also capturing the same hole-in- the-wall vibe and fostering that same sense of community present in the dive’s earlier days.
The Handlebar has received a makeover both inside and out, with renovations such as an updated courtyard with additional tables and seating, new branding, a fresh coat of paint, brand new restrooms—four of them to be exact—and, last but not least, an amenity the space previously lacked and everyone is sure to appreciate…air-conditioning!
The outdoor courtyard served as a quiet place for conversation for those that needed a break away from the commotion inside The Handlebar’s walls. It has now been renovated to include room for more outdoor seating. The brick building’s exterior boasts a fresh coat of gray paint that gives the space a modern and contemporary feel.
Things will feel a little bit different inside the building as well. Most notably, the air-conditioner and the additional restrooms. The revamped space will also be smoke free and will feature a newly-designed bar space, complete with full drink menu.
Back in The Handlebar’s glory days, you were lucky if you could get your hands on a beer that was actually cold. Now there will be a full bar offering well drinks, cocktails and a variety of local craft beers, primarily sourced from Pensacola’s breweries. According to Sandstrom, sourcing locally was important to the team and their mission in order to help foster the sense of community and welcoming vibe they want to achieve.
The musical aspects of The Handlebar will remain the same—the venue will serve as a welcoming place that provides a platform for musicians of all genres. Local and traveling artists alike are invited to play at the venue. The Handlebar’s general manager, Robert Goodspeed, seeks to keep the musical aspects of the bar consistent with those of the past.
“We’re going to be that home for the local artists and the up and coming artists, in true fashion, the same way that the old Handlebar was,” Goodspeed said.
Sandstrom wants to fill a gap within the scene, “We fit a niche that doesn’t exist today for the smaller bands that are touring across the south, we have a venue small enough for them to play. There’s not a lot of other places like this one around.”
The team’s greatest mission in the restoration of The Handlebar is to bring people together. Regardless of which subculture you fit into, The Handlebar was a place for everyone. The new owners are seeking to continue providing this inclusivity in a time where we need it most.
“We kept the walls, we kept the stage placement and size,” Goodspeed said. “I think when people come in they are going to really feel that we stuck to as much of the true shape and style of the building as possible, and hopefully think that we just made it really cool.”
“We want to keep the spirit of the original The Handlebar, the community, the vibe,” Sandstrom added. “But the building itself needed some major upgrades, and it was time to add a few nice things, like clean bathrooms and an actual liquor license, and just do some upgrades.”
With the final pieces of furniture being brought in and art being hung, the bar is set to reopen the second week of August.
“The first shows are going to really stick to making sure that we cultivate the local crowd and get those bands playing in front of big audiences. I think that people will care a lot about us opening again, so the beginning is a good chance for them to relive the old experience and create the new,” Goodspeed explained.
The first show to take place on the remodeled Handlebar stage will be headlined by Acid Dad and Cavae, an alternative-rock band from New York that’s about to embark on their tour throughout the country with a stop in Pensacola on August 13. Second on the lineup is pons-hardcore band Vagrants. The band played at The Handlebar numerous times in their early years and are originally from Pensacola. The band performed in their very first show at The Handlebar and were one of the last acts to play on The Handlebar stage before its doors permanently closed in 2018. Since their start at The Handlebar, the Vagrants have signed with New York-based record label Equal Vision Records, and now tour performing at various venues across the country. The band will return to The Handlebar to perform on August 19 to commemorate the re-opening of the iconic Pensacola venue, where they held their very first gig.
If you have been keeping up with The Handlebar’s reopening online, you may have noticed that the team has done a complete rebranding on their social media and website. A new, sleek logo provides a professional feel to the venue’s online presence. The all-new website at thehandlebar850.com, has been updated to match the bar’s new branding and revamped logo.
The website also features a complete list of upcoming shows and other events, along with the ability to now directly purchase tickets online. For more information and to buy tickets to the shows mentioned above, visit thehandlebar850.com. Be sure to follow @TheHandlebar850 on Instagram and Facebook to receive the latest updates and potential show additions.