Practically everything in South Tampa has become chic and expensive in the past decade — even once-ridiculed south-of-Gandy locales. If it weren't for the recent real estate plunge and looming recession, there might not be any place left in the area where working-class folk could afford to live or find a $3 cocktail. Don't get me wrong — I love my overpriced SoHo apartment, dining at South Howard Avenue establishments like Ciccio & Tony's and drinking homemade sangria at Ceviche. It's also nice, though, to frequent a nearby blue-collar joint like the Tapper Pub.
The bar and grill has served the locals strong drinks and greasy grub since 1967. Located in the ancient — by Tampa standards — Britton Plaza strip mall, the Tapper is by no means a destination spot like, say, the Tiny Tap Tavern. University of Tampa students and hipsters don't seek the place out when looking to rub shoulders with the proletariat. No, the Tapper mainly caters to those who reside in the few remaining affordable houses, apartments, duplexes and trailer parks that surround the tavern.
I enter the Tapper around 8 p.m. Saturday. The door is propped open, and I detect the unmistakable aroma of cigarette smoke — stale and new — before I reach the threshold. The bartender makes eye contact with me moments after I walk inside. She's not impossibly gorgeous like the men and women who work SoHo nightspots — but attractive in an approachable way. I lean my elbows on the counter. Although the bartender is in the middle of taking someone else's order, she gives me the look that says, "I'll be with you in a second." It's a simple gesture, but one that I appreciate as a customer.
"Hi, what can I get you?" she asks with a friendly smile.
"A rum and coke, please," I answer.
"What kind of rum?" she replies. Spiced rum turns my stomach, so it's an inquiry I appreciate if the server doesn't automatically register a rum and coke as including Bacardi Silver (or the similar-tasting well-brand Ronrico).
"Silver rum," I say. "Well is fine."
The Tapper Pub has devices on its liquor bottles that apparently track how much booze is dispensed in each drink. This means no strong pours, regardless of how much you tip, how often you patronize the place or how long you've dated the bartender. Conversely, it also equates to evenhanded, consistent cocktails — that's what I receive, at least.
My friend, we'll call her Helen, and Sal, join me a few minutes after I get my drink. We occupy one of the cushioned booths that line the wall opposite the bar. There's a pair of pool tables in the rear of the narrow room. The jukebox blares a bad mix of '90s metal, including a Limp Bizkit number.
"Why are you guys so quiet?" Helen asks Sal and me. "You guys need to pep up."
But it's not happening. We're hurting from a long day that included not just drinking — but physical exertion. I have much greater endurance these days when it comes to the former. The combination of the two has me feeling like I just spent a night on the town with Britney Spears.
Creative Loafing sponsored and entered two teams in Saturday's 3rd Annual Field Day held at Fowler Fields on USF's Tampa campus. Sal and I were on a squad dubbed McLovin. We did OK. No one on our team took it too seriously. The old athlete in me, though, refused to half-ass the few events I signed on for, despite my horrid chest cold and, well, hangover.
Problem is, I haven't exactly kept myself in the best shape in recent years. It's been more than a decade since I wrestled for Tampa's Gaither High School. Back then, I could easily zip through a competition like the human wheelbarrow run, an activity our grappling team did over and over during practice to build cardio and upper-body strength.
Saturday afternoon, with 300 people watching and ample amounts of beer, cold medicine and Red Bull coursing through my veins, I crawled across the 25-yard-or-so lane on my arms as fast as I could, beating most of the contestants, many of whom were strapping college students. After the event, though, it took me about a half hour, two beers and a cig to finally return my heart rate to normal. At the Tapper, hours later, I'm ailing.
"See those ladies over there," Helen says, pointing to a pair of middle-aged women chain-smoking and drinking cocktails. "Their names are June and Kathy. They're always here, probably been here all day."
Helen grew up near the Tapper, in a working class neighborhood south of Gandy. She has a successful career, could afford to live almost anywhere in Tampa, but bought a house within walking distance of her childhood home. "When I was a kid," Helen remembers, "I used to call here to get a hold of my mom."
She takes a pull from her bottle of Bass and adds: "You know, the Tapper isn't the greatest bar in the world or anything, but if you're a South Gandy girl like me, it's a place you always feel comfortable."
Tapper Pub, 3832 Britton Plaza, Tampa, 813-839-7845.