Florida Keys Business
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Long live Viva Zapata
Storied bar reopens after 18 years

Cherished haunts change hands. Landmarks become legends with each real estate transaction. Locals bid farewell and then move on, finding a new favorite barstool or claiming the corner table in another café.

The landmarks live on in aging photographs and rum-soaked recollections, but they never come back. Well, usually.

The long-shuttered building at 903 Duval St. could be the exception. Fans still dangle from the sky-high ceiling, circling lazily above a simple wooden bar and some hand-me-down tables.

There are no fancy frozen cocktails, but the drinks are cold and comfortably priced.

Oh, and the chalkboard sign out front says it all - Viva Zapata.

It's back. After 18 vacant years, and countless murmurings about its future, the legend lives on.

An investor bought the property about five years ago with plans to lease it out to whomever for whatever. But no agreement was ever reached. Once the owner replaced the roof, and upgraded nearly everything inspectors evaluate, he decided to reopen it as Viva Zapata and see what happened.

"People who remember it walk by, see the sign and start screaming to their friends, 'It's back. Viva Zapata is back,' " said general manager Kris Koshiol, eagerly walking through the surprisingly cavernous property that once featured an in-ground pool in the courtyard outside.

Property records for the building start in the 1940s, but Koshiol places its construction around 1910. It is said to have housed in various decades both a bordello and a speakeasy.

Around the side, facing the courtyard, an elegant grand double staircase leads to a second floor.

By the 1980s and '90s, Viva Zapata was an immensely popular locals' bar and Mexican restaurant, claiming a mention in a 1993 New York Times travel feature about Key West:

"In a town with many fountains, the one that takes up most of Viva Zapata's patio may be unique -- it spouts from a full-scale swimming pool, otherwise unused (although a waitress tells us that sometimes cats drink from it). Colored lights play on the water, tiny bulbs twinkle in the trees and pleasantly muted electronic keyboard music provides a soothing background," wrote Sarah Ferrell.

Today, Koshiol envisions a return to the simple grandeur of a local watering hole.

Though the spacious kitchen has been brought to code, Koshiol, for now, is planning to welcome a variety of food trucks to the courtyard, so he can concentrate on running a simple bar.

"I've already gotten requests from Fantasy Fest candidates to hold events here," he said. "And we're lighting up the courtyard so it will he ideal for weddings and other events, what with the staircase for photos.

"Our motto is, 'Keep it simple, stupid,'" he said. "The owner gave me $1,000 to get the place open, and we did it on July 26, with a $200 booze order, cups, straws and mixers."

So far, so good.

"People remember it," he said. "They're happily coming back. It'll take some time, but we want to make this place whatever they want it to be."


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