I'm sitting in a metal folding chair on my back porch at an hour long past last call, having one more beer and smoke while giving serious thought to the supreme bar.
I've been around drinking establishments since childhood, thanks to my dad's restaurants and bar in Pennsylvania. I've frequented Tampa Bay pubs and saloons for more than a decade and have written about my nightlife adventures for five years. There are numerous factors that make one spot more appealing than another. But few destinations, if any, have everything I'm looking for on a night out. This frustrates me.
What if I could pull a Dr. Frankenstein and combine the best characteristics of my favorite local watering holes to create the ultimate bar? Here's the list of must-have components I made the other night, which will be continued in the near future. Once the notepad came out, the ideas just kept flowing — like the drinks do when you have a lot on your mind.
Location. Here's the most subjective item of the bunch. Unless you're married and like to drink far from a spouse's prying eyes, you probably prefer enjoying happy hour within walking distance of your home — or at least you should if a DUI isn't your idea of a good time. This rationale has dictated my past nine apartments, all of which have been a short stumble from at least three bars. So for me, the ideal bar would be in SoHo. But if Tampa Bay ever gets an affordable mass transit system that runs 24/7 — I can't afford weekly cab fare for trips to and from, say, downtown St. Pete — the dream drinking establishment could be in any reasonably safe neighborhood close to a train, bus, or shuttle stop.
Service. It's a beautiful thing to get off work, park the car, walk to the Tiny Tap Tavern and have Kelly the bartender greet me the moment I walk through the back entrance while she reaches for my beverage of choice. Sexy servers in skimpy outfits are fine, but ultimately, I want a bartender who introduces herself (or himself — the male servers at Mangrove's, for example, are a fine crew) by name when I sit down, asks my name and remembers it along with my drink order. The barkeep should be an efficient, knowledgeable mixologist, one with a friendly demeanor who, at the same time, is not afraid to lay down the law when some asshole needs to be 86'ed. A bartender like Kelly, who runs a tight ship and engages the Tiny Tap regulars with worthwhile conversation, is an excellent example.
Menu. Problem is, when I'm in the mood for a Jameson and soda, the Tiny Tap Tavern, only licensed for beer and wine, won't do. Full liquor, a decent grape selection and a wide array of domestic and import draft beers like Guinness are mandatory features of my dream bar. Tasty pub grub — burgers, shepherd's pie, crispy chicken wings, salads, etc. — available right up to last call, is another essential element. Drinking shouldn't be done on an empty stomach. There are countless occasions where I would've extended my stay at a bar if only it had a better food selection than potato chips and Slim Jims. MacDinton's in SoHo, for instance, has a consistent menu with an Irish bent. The kitchen closes around midnight, but on weekends J's Grill stays open for business in the parking lot until everyone filing out has had a chance to soak up all that alcohol with a deliciously greasy burger, hotdog, bratwurst or meatball sub.
Setting. A dimly lit interior is a hallmark of any worthwhile bar. Drinking or dining under bright lights make me feel like I'm back in the school cafeteria — an experience I don't wish to recall during a night of revelry. A large, wrap-around wooden deck with ample ashtrays — like the one at Limey's on Fourth Street in St. Pete — is important for us smokers. I'll take the trade-off of not being allowed to puff away inside so that the place can serve food — Limey's also has good grub, by the way — as long as there's a nice patio for me to get my nicotine fix. Of course, nothing beats a beachfront view at sunset like the one offered from the second story of Caddy's on Treasure Island. Inland bars with enough property can improvise. Credit the sprawling Green Iguana on Anderson Road in Tampa for making good use of a glorified retention pond.
OK, due to space we're going to have to cut the list short — I know, we haven't even gotten to jukeboxes, TVs, games, or restrooms — but it will be continued soon. Perhaps with suggestions from you, reader. What would your ultimate bar feature? Submit your suggestions via e-mail to [email protected] or post a comment to this story in the Food section at tampa.creativeloafing.com.