Anna Lopez

Ex-Planet Intern, Editorial Assistant, Genuine Cutey-Patootie

click to enlarge Anna Lopez - Bud Lee
Bud Lee
Anna Lopez

BEST LATE-NIGHT READING SPOT
Blackhawk Coffee Café

Most people would argue that reading is a solitary activity. And while it does take only one person to turn the page, I, for one, sometimes like to add a social element to my reading. That's what makes the Blackhawk Coffee Café such a great spot for late-night reading. When I don't feel like sitting at home to devour the latest Anna Maxted novel or to attempt Paradise Lost, I grab my book and head to the café nestled in Old Hyde Park Village.

Blackhawk is an ideal reading venue. The lighting is bright enough — definitely never too harsh. It's a spacious place made up of two sizable rooms, but the way the tables and numerous leather couches are arranged gives you the sense that you can curl up in a cozy nook. Even though I always try to stake out some indoor territory, plenty of seating in Adirondack-style chairs is available outside for those who wish to smoke or simply enjoy a warm evening.

Besides great atmosphere, Blackhawk offers a selection of tea and coffee drinks, as well as yummy desserts and snacks, to appeal to any palate. And unlike most other area cafes, here you can enjoy a bottle of beer or a glass of wine while flipping through a magazine, chatting with friends or people watching. Even better, the friendly staff won't kick you out when the sun goes down; they're open till 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and right up till the midnight hour on Friday and Saturday.

Blackhawk Coffee Café, Old Hyde Park Village, 1628 W. Snow Circle, Tampa, 813-258-1600.

BEST PLACE TO PREVIEW MUSIC
Borders Books, Music and Cafe

There's nothing like awaiting the newest CD from your favorite band. That appointed Tuesday finally arrives, and after a quick visit to the record store, the new album is in your hot little hands, ready for a first listen. For a favorite band, there's no need for deliberation before purchase. But what about those groups that don't make it to your personal top five, or even 10? What about musicians who pique your curiosity via magazines or word of mouth, but never get radio play? How do you decide whether to blow $15 for a questionable album?

The answer lies in the music section of Borders bookstore. Digital listening stations tucked amid the rows of CDs allow customers to hear song excerpts from nearly any album in stock. Don the headphones, run the barcode of the CD in question under the listening station's scanner, and you can listen at your leisure. When you preview one CD by a particular artist, the listening station will provide a list of other albums you can hear by the same artist. You don't need to wait for a Borders associate to help you, and you can listen to as many albums as you wish, provided no one else is waiting. Even if you don't go home with new music, at least a trip to Borders will satisfy your curiosity and keep $15 safe and snug in your wallet.

Digital listening stations are found only at the Borders Books, Music and Café located at 909 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa, 813-874-5722.

BEST PLACE TO DO SOME GOOD
The Humane Society of Tampa Bay

With thousands of animals coming through its doors every year, and just a few paid staffers, the Humane Society of Tampa Bay welcomes the help of volunteers to be as successful in their efforts to aid animals as they can possibly be. Potential volunteers must first fill out an application and attend an orientation before getting involved, but they are soon able to help in many different areas. Volunteers can work directly with animals in the shelter, doing anything from cleaning to assisting with pet adoptions. They can keep residents informed by handing out information at community events, or they can help plan special events that raise money for the shelter and its myriad programs. Whatever your talent or interest, the Humane Society of Tampa Bay is bound to have a need that you can fill. Volunteer coordinators and fellow volunteers alike are friendly and dedicated, and always very appreciative of your efforts. The Humane Society is a great place to spend some spare time to make someone's life a little better — even if that someone is on four legs.

Humane Society of Tampa Bay, 3607 N. Armenia Ave., Tampa, 813-876-7138 or www.humanesocietytampa.com.

BEST HAIRSTYLIST
Jess Browder

I have cowlicks, and I'm not afraid to admit it, especially since I've been lucky enough to find someone who knows the secrets to taming the unruly buggers. I was referred to Jess Browder by a mutual friend, and since my first great haircut with her, I've been a faithful and satisfied customer. Jess works her magic out of Cassandra's, a full-service salon on West Shore Boulevard, where I can generally get an appointment within the same week that I call. Though friendly and full of good stories, Jess readily gets down to business. She knows hair and doesn't hesitate to be honest: She'll tell me what will look good or what won't, what my hair can and can't do. Like a good bartender, Jess knows me and knows what I like; I trust her and don't feel the need to watch her like a hawk as she clips my crazy hairline into shape. Every time I leave her chair and walk out the door having paid a reasonable price, I look and feel like a new person. And when I inevitably receive a compliment on my haircut, I smile and happily tell the inquiring party my secret weapon: Jess Browder.

Cassandra's Salon and Day Spa, 3301 S. West Shore Blvd., Tampa, 813-831-3300.

BEST SLOW-NIGHT BAR
Red Dog Bar and Grill

Mondays can be hell. And yeah, Tuesdays, too. So when it's time to relax or let off some steam, it's nice to find a place where I don't have to get all dolled up and fight for a spot at the bar. Red Dog Bar and Grill is just such a no-frills bar to banish early week stresses. Besides the beer and the friendly bartenders, there's plenty to keep you occupied, and on a slow Monday or Tuesday night, it's easy to try your hand at any of it. Golden Tee takes up one corner of the bar, and the far end of the place holds two pool tables, an air hockey table, a Foos ball table, and a couple of electronic dart boards. Every wooden-plank booth has a board game or two to keep you busy if you'd rather avoid the traditional bar games. A large deck outside is ideal if all you really want to do is chill. No matter how you spend your time at Red Dog, you can choose anything from The Cult to Creed on the jukebox to accompany your evening. Things heat up later in the week, with the crowd spilling into every available space, so hit it early in the week if you're looking for a laid-back environment.

Red Dog Bar and Grill, 3311 W. Bay to Bay Blvd., Tampa, 813-835-4347 or www.thedogrocks.com.

BEST LATE-NIGHT MENU
Bella's Italian Café

Few places in Tampa can cater to people's food and drink cravings in the wee hours like Bella's Italian Café. And I would still think that even if I didn't work there part time, which I do. Bella's comes out on top for a veritable smorgasbord of reasons. The restaurant's late-night menu kicks in at 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and midnight on Friday and Saturday, and includes items from the regular menu varied enough to satisfy even the most undecided visitors. Bella's usual appetizers are available, including the simple yet splendid bruschetta and the more exotic carpaccio. Tiramisu and the decadent Vesuvio, along with a handful of other tasty desserts, will quiet the yearnings of a pesky sweet tooth, while an order from the selection of regular salads is perfect for the guest who desires something a little lighter. Bella's really captures the award, however, with both half-price pizzas and calzones baked in a wood burning oven, and a late-night happy hour that offers two-for-one mixed drinks or glasses of house wine. The pizzas and calzones deliver delicious flavor, and the personable bartenders mix some mean drinks, but the bargain makes everything taste that much better. A late-night trip to Bella's Italian Café and your stomach — and wallet — will thank you.

Bella's Italian Café, 1413 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, 813-254-3355.

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