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Gainesville's once-hopping downtown area is set for a rebirth
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Bill Moffitt, left, stops by the Monkey Barrel on Tuesday afternoon with Kimberly Richmond, right, Ireland Stackhouse, and Kristin Stackhouse (obscured) for a quick meal at the downtown Gainesville restaurant and bar.

Just a few years ago, downtown Gainesville was hopping on Friday and Saturday nights, with music pumping on different corners of the square and people spilling out the front doors of bars onto sidewalks.

As the decline in the economy hit, the array of nightlife spots began to disappear.

But lately, if you head down to the square you can feel a sense of life coming back.

Monkey Barrel reopens

The Monkey Barrel, a mainstay since the 1990s, has reopened under the original ownership.

"Really what it is - it's not a chain, it's not just a pizza restaurant, it's not just a bar," said owner Chris Jones. "It's funny. I feed people lunch up here, and people come and drink beer here. Then they come with their families, and the kids play games and run around. And then the drinkers come in, then the band comes in. And it's kind of like it changes all day long."

What isn't changing is the pizza.

"The pizza is the same, but we cook it a little different because I've learned how to cook pizza better and how it should be," said Jones, who has added bottles of honey to the tables for guests to dip the warm wheat crust.

"A breath of fresh air" is what Michael Huffstatler, a bartender at Monkey Barrel, called the news of Monkey Barrel's reopening.

"It's good news to everybody really," he said. "Just a nice pub-style, good selection of beers. ... You can sit back, have a couple drinks and eat some good pizza."

When Jones decided to reopen "The Barrel" he knew upgrades were needed in the old building on Washington Street. So the kitchen was remodeled along with the bathrooms and the bar. But the eatery has kept the atmosphere with 12 beers on tap.

"You have a niche, but it changes all the time and you've got to keep coming up with new ideas even if they don't work," Jones said. "Victory Stout is replacing Guinness; so far the results have been good."

There will be entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights with plans to add other events during the week.

"No set style of music; I try to play all kinds," Jones said. "I've had jazz in here, blues, reggae, bluegrass, anything."

Around the square

There are other changes afoot around downtown Gainesville.

Elmos Italian Kitchen, right around the corner, recently got its liquor license.

Mellow Mushroom will be opening its doors this summer on Green Street, less than a mile away.

According to Joe Burnett, executive director of Mainstreet Gainesville, Atlas Pizza will open soon, and there also is a possibility of a new tenant in the old Boiler Room location on Spring Street.

Then just a few miles away a new nightclub, The Palace, has opened on U.S. 129. The club will feature dance music on the weekends according to owner Mike Walton.

Regional events