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Barfly: Tiny Tap Tavern keeps it real in SoHo

Casey Powell bear-hugged a middle-aged couple as they waltzed through the back door around 10 on a Friday night. Bartender Donna Imel smiled at the regulars, grabbed them Budweiser drafts that cost a mere $1.50 each while they were still catching up with Powell.

That's typically how people are greeted at the Tiny Tap Tavern in Tampa. It's a small concrete block building that resembles an ancient gas station, bunker or itty-bitty jail. While the rest of SoHo caters almost exclusively to the hip and rich, the entertainment district's oldest drinking establishment manages to appeal to everyone. From senior citizens to University of Tampa students, people of all ages and backgrounds congregate at the Tiny Tap Tavern.

"Right where you're sitting is where (Tampa Bay Rays manager) Joe Maddon sits," bar owner Powell said. "We keep his own private stock of beer here for him."

A signed Maddon jersey adorns the wall. Nearby is a signed rookie-year picture of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, Powell's buddy since their days at Plant High School. On any given night, chefs and servers from world-famous Bern's Steak House can be found at the bar chain smoking and sipping from cans of PBR.

Super-cheap suds and inexpensive wine, affordable billiards and a killer jukebox rife with classics by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline and Tom Waits are all part of the Tiny Tap's appeal. But it's the charmingly disparate diehards and affable staffers who truly make the place special.

"Welcome to the Tiny Tap," reads a sign near the bar. "If you drink to forget, pay before you drink."

Orrin Powell, Casey Powell's father, bought the Tiny Tap Tavern in 1974 and pretty much ran it right up until his death at age 77 in 2004. Then his wife, Fae Powell, and Casey's wife at the time, Valerie Powell, took over. "Mom kept asking me to retire and run it," Casey said.

So he did, retiring from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in June 2007. He has managed the bar with the same firm but fair hand as his dad famously did. Casey's broad smile, hearty laugh and easygoing demeanor puts everyone at ease.

He tells of lawyers running their practices from the bar, retired military men dropped off by their wives at 9 a.m., and losing one of the Tiny Tap Tavern's most beloved customers right there in his favorite corner stool.

Jerry Anderson worked the night shift at Kalupa's Bakery and Deli on nearby South MacDill. He slept in an apartment across the street above Hugo's. Anderson spent the rest of his time largely at the Tiny Tap.

Last year, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Tiny Tap hosted a covered dish Bucs party just as it always does when the team plays an away game.

"I was planning on having a Thanksgiving dinner at the bar for those who didn't have anywhere else to go," Powell recalled. "Jerry was saying how he would bring fresh dinner rolls and pies."

Powell left, and 20 minutes later they called and said he died.

"I tried to give him CPR," Frank Wadsworth said quietly. Two other men at the bar nodded solemnly. At Tiny Tap Tavern, everyone is like family.

"That's why I can never sell this place," Powell said. "Plus, that's not what my dad would ever want."

Got a bar suggestion for Wade Tatangelo? E-mail him at wtatangelo@ hotmail.com.

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Tiny Tap Tavern is at 2105 W Morrison Ave., Tampa. (813) 254-3872.

Barfly: Tiny Tap Tavern keeps it real in SoHo 07/15/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 15, 2009 5:30am]

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