Cocktail Issue 2018: Bartenders, other industry pros weigh in on Tampa Bay's bar scene

Everything from where they grab a drink after work to their fears for the business.

click to enlarge Downtown Tampa's Anise Global Gastrobar was named in our survey among the most underrated bars. - Michael M. Sinclair
Michael M. Sinclair
Downtown Tampa's Anise Global Gastrobar was named in our survey among the most underrated bars.

Twenty. That’s how many questions CL asked a mix of bar owners and managers, bartenders and other industry pros in a recent survey we sent around about Tampa Bay’s bar scene — just in time for our annual Cocktail Issue.

In addition to our own curiosities, we borrowed some questions from our sister publication, Nashville Scene, which conducted a similar experiment with its restaurant community last year. Then we circulated the survey to more than 100 email addresses (phew!) in early January, generating a 10 percent response rate and a wide range of replies regarding everything from where the respondents go to grab a drink after work to their fears for the bar business.

In exchange for their honesty, we granted anonymity to the participants, under the assumption that they’d be more truthful if names and workplaces weren’t attached to their answers.

Now, if you want to get to know the drink-slingers battling in our HighBall cocktail competition on a more personal level, check out the advertising supplement in the middle of this week’s issue. But the collection of responses below is a completely separate project, featuring different participants and different Q’s and A’s.

Here’s what the folks behind some of our favorite local watering holes had to say.

click to enlarge Rock Brothers does a solid Old Fashioned. - Courtesy of Rock Brothers Brewing
Courtesy of Rock Brothers Brewing
Rock Brothers does a solid Old Fashioned.

Best cocktails they’ve had recently? Shout-outs went to four Tampa sippers — the Sidecar at CW’s Gin Joint, Mise en Place’s Morningside Heights, margaritas at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and Old Fashioneds from Scooby Olivier at Rock Brothers Brewing. “Surprisingly, a piña colada,” responded one bartender, and a bar manager chose Hell Hath No Fury (a concoction of rye, peach liqueur and smoked honey credited to bartenders at NYC’s Cafe Luxembourg, who ostensibly invented it to pay tribute to bar regulars — the actors who played sexy lawyers on The Good Wife).

The most underrated bar? There’s the Red Dog, Cheap and Haven in South Tampa, alongside the VFW Post 424 in Seminole Heights, Ybor City’s Boneyard, downtown Tampa’s Anise Global Gastrobar, and Smokin’ 19 in St. Petersburg.

The most overrated? MacDinton’s — a popular hangout with locations on both sides of the bay — was named a couple of times, as was Harbour Island newcomer American Social Bar & Kitchen. Additional mentions went to Hooters, Tampa’s Franklin Manor and Fodder & Shine, and The Bends, The Canopy and Park & Rec in downtown St. Pete. But respondents got creative with answers like “anywhere with a vodka feature” and “any bar that doesn’t invest in training their staff.”

Where they drink after work? “Home” and “at work” were among the responses, as well as South Tampa’s Bel Mar Tavern, Ybor City’s Reservoir Bar, Gin Joint in downtown Tampa, and Gaspar’s Patio Bar & Grille in Temple Terrace.

What about on date night? One bartender heads for Hyde Park Village’s bartaco, and a second spends time at the nearby Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club in SoHo. Their other plans for the occasion — downtown Tampa’s Hotel Bar, “bar hop on St. Pete Beach” and Rick’s on the River in West Tampa — sound like a dang good time, too.

click to enlarge One bar owner's go-to for food is Maritana Grille. - Courtesy of The Don CeSar
Courtesy of The Don CeSar
One bar owner's go-to for food is Maritana Grille.

Favorite spots to eat? Casual and high-end joints, including Rococo Steak, Copper Shaker and TacoSon in St. Pete. A bar owner said it’s a toss-up between Tierra Verde-based Tony & Nello’s or St. Pete Beach’s Maritana Grille at The Don CeSar. In Tampa Heights, Ulele is the go-to for two participants. “Fast food” even received a plug, in addition to Tampa’s venerable Bern’s Steak House, Sakana, Rooster & the Till and edison: food+drink lab, plus Casey’s Craft Bar Kitchen in Lutz.

Their best bar stories? “The best ones are always getting to serve famous people drinks,” according to one bartender. Two replies were “too many to choose one” and “those are best told over a bar” — good point. And, as expected, one of y’all majorly went there: “People peeing on themselves.” Just... sigh.

The kind of cocktails Tampa Bay is missing? Answers were split. A few bartenders believe the region has cocktails pretty well-covered — “I think we’ve got it all,” as one of them put it. Respondents also weighed in with “more fusions,” “focus on pisco,” “beer cocktails!” and “elegant, sophisticated and classy.”

Bar trends they want to disappear? A couple of participants wouldn’t mind the demise of frosé, a slushie-style creation dubbed “a horrible use of truly great wine.” Others went for drink orders, most of which are usual suspects — vodka sodas, vodka flights, shots and well liquors. Even specials weren’t safe, as a bartender called out $1 beers and $10 all-you-can-drink happy hours. “Pretentious bartenders” were identified, along with deep-pocketed chains: “The Olive Garden. Applebee’s. Outback. Carrabba’s. And every other shitty corporate restaurant that spends money on commercials and not the product we consume.” Someone did play devil’s advocate, saying, “None really. Let people do their thing.”

click to enlarge The Hub is still rockin' in downtown Tampa. - Brian Mahar
Brian Mahar
The Hub is still rockin' in downtown Tampa.

Bars they can’t believe are still open? MacDinton’s, Tampa’s Anchor Bar and — surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending whom you ask — The Hub. “Ciro’s, but happy that they are” was an unexpected response with a twist, while this rounded out the answer pool: “Bars and restaurants should only be opened by bar staff and hospitality workers, not idiot bankers. I could give you at least 20.”

The ones they wish were still open? Seriously, may Ybor never forget the gem of a bar that was “Fuma Bella (sadface),” or the historic district’s late Flirt Night Club for that matter. One bartender misses Big Shots, too, a St. Pete pub formerly on 49th Street.

Neighborhoods most underserved for drinking? Well-rounded replies that point out the need for more (or, well, more diverse) options on either end of the bay: Safety Harbor, Beach Drive in downtown St. Pete, Tampa’s Westshore/Gandy area, Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights, St. Pete’s Old Southeast and Kenwood neighborhoods, Largo, and “most of SoHo lol.”

Local bartenders they’d like to see launch their own places? Two bartenders volunteered themselves, joining nominations such as Brenda Terry (Tampa Yacht & Country Club), Kyle Ewing, Uli Hernandez, Roger McQueen (Gin Joint) and Garrett Radler (Front Porch & Bart’s Tavern).

The ones they’d ask to make their last cocktails? Again, Roger McQueen and Uli Hernandez. Daniel Bareswilt (Gin Joint), Dylan Clements (Craft Bar Kitchen), Tim Ryan (New Banana Boat & Car Bar), the awww-inducing “my wife,” and “Ocean Prime bartenders” were also submitted.

How do they handle visits from celebs and other well-known public figures? The majority agreed they treat these patrons like everybody else. Honorable mentions go to “amazed” and “pretend I have no idea who they are.”

Is it ever appropriate to ask bartenders for their numbers? Although it was close, responses leaned more toward no than yes. Someone threw in a caveat, too, greenlighting the proposition once the customer has established a friendship with the bartender.

click to enlarge Most respondents weren't in favor of no tipping. - Pixabay
Most respondents weren't in favor of no tipping.

Their thoughts on the trend toward no tipping? One bartender called this question “ridiculous.” However, as another person noted, “This is a very complicated subject. I like the idea of a straight cost of drinking/dining that includes a tip, but I don’t see too many owners that truly appreciate their staff and will do the right thing by them.” Largely, participants said that doing away with tipping would be a bad move for all involved, for several reasons. 1) “It’s the biggest reason to be in the business!” 2) “The more tipping decreases, the worst (sic) service and drinks you will get. I put passion into my cocktails, but if someone stiffs me, I don’t even try to make their drink taste remotely pleasant.” 3) “Tipping is what allows bar/restaurant owners to maintain appropriate labor costs to keep the business open.” 4) “In other countries, the tip is included in the sale price. Here in America people don’t quite understand that and would probably complain a lot if tipping was taken away.” A bar manager reiterated that no-tipping policies would be a hindrance to the industry unless an establishment has a system in place to compensate for the loss, “but prices will rise.” As far as more perspectives go, a respondent was on the fence about whether the trend is good or bad — “Not sure, but it would probably increase pay equity in restaurants. Currently, kitchen staff is often underpaid” — and one bar owner believes it’s a positive thing, adding, “Service should always be good!”

How accommodating should bars be to ever-increasing special requests? “Nope” and “not at all” mingled with “always accommodate,” “as much as possible” and “very accommodating,” as well as “somewhat” and “to some extent” — offering gluten-free items and a vegan menu, for instance. Longer answers weren’t in short supply, either: “Depends on the bar, but overall if it’s trending and it fits within your brand, then you should do it for business purposes”; “If it’s the type of establishment that would like to cater to that, then go for it”; and “I do think bars should take care of our customers. I also feel strongly that you can’t please all the people all the time. Be true to your concept and stay aware of your neighborhood.” Oh, and lest we forget, “This whole gluten-free thing is way out of control. They should just stay home.”

Is Tampa Bay oversaturated with bars? A couple of bar owners thought so, with one referring to an excessive amount of “chain bars (T.G.I. Friday’s, Applebee’s, Bonefish, etc).” But the opposite opinion was backed in a number of ways. Some spoke of variety, albeit in conflicting contexts: “No, but it is oversaturated with sports bars. More variety in offerings and atmosphere would be welcomed”; “No, there is so much diversity in all the bars”; and “I don’t think you can have too many bars. Variety is the spice of life!” Others used the region’s reputation as a tourist destination as their defense: “This is Florida. Tourists need things to do” and “Due to the fact [that] it’s a tourist area, I think it’s just fine.” And — though two participants said “never enough” and “always a great problem to have” on the topic of oversaturation — a second pair of replies didn’t see it that way: “No, but the bubble is going to burst” and “I think Tampa is fine due to how spread out the neighborhoods are. St. Pete is at a dangerous level due to most being on or around Central.”

Fears for the industry? This is interesting. We’ll let the pros take it away. “The demand for craft everything gets so complicated that our inventory gets overly expensive and ticket times are exorbitant.” “DUI liability coming back to the bar owner.” “Too many novices jumping in without skill, focus and poise” and “Lack of knowledge with the growth of bars and the numbers employed. Never great to have guest more knowledgeable than the staff.” “The internet.” “The future of tipping.” “I think there are a lot of great hospitality workers and not enough good, honest owners and operators. Everybody needs to make a living and should have good quality of life.” “Self-serve bars” (St. Pete is set to see the debut of its second pour-it-yourself concept in spring). And “That it’s killing us all a little faster than other industries.”

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