When the Ikea store opened last spring, it meant Tampa had arrived. • Now Brandon has arrived, too. The evidence? The Rack Brandon. • An offshoot of the popular South Tampa sushi bar and billiards lounge, the Rack Brandon became only the second Rack location when it opened Jan. 25. Take that, Westchase. Who's hip now, downtown St. Pete? • Brandon, with its ubiquitous churches and conservative leanings, is becoming a nightlife hot spot. The trend makes sense, given the town's booming population. In 2000, Brandon had 77,895 residents. In 2007, that number had risen to 95,468. This year, it's expected to increase to 107,570. • The Rack joins dozens of Brandon area bars, giving east Hillsborough County residents options that are closer than their favorite Tampa haunts. • The bright orange, 9,000-square-foot building sits in a W Brandon Boulevard shopping plaza with a Publix and a Burlington Coat Factory. Twice the size of its South Tampa counterpart, the former Piccadilly Cafeteria includes two bar areas, a dining room with sushi bar, plus lounges with pool tables and Nintendo Wiis for rent. Female servers wear tight jeans and big, sparkly earrings. On weekends, there's a wait in the dining room.
The Rack Brandon has the same owners as the original Tampa Rack, which opened on W Platt Street in 2002, and will follow many of the same drink specials and industry nights. The menu even offers Platt Street Cheese Steak and Davis Island Iced Tea.
Owners are already on the lookout for a third Rack location in New Tampa, Orlando or Ocala. "The key to success is multiplicity," said Rack vice president Tom Golden. "(The Rack Brandon) is our model. This is what we want to model from now on, what (future Rack restaurants) are going to be."
The owners are even considering adding Wii rentals to the South Tampa location. Imagine that: Brandon, a model for nightlife.
The Rack isn't the only new adult playground in the Brandon area, stretching from east Tampa to Riverview. Several suburban nightlife spots opened in 2009. Like Rack Brandon, many are 21-and-up at night.
In April, after a troubled history, the building at 2016 Town Center Blvd. reopened under new ownership as Boomerang Martini Bar. The club's weekly programming includes live music, comedy shows and live broadcasts by Wild 94.1, Maxima 92.5 and 95.7 the Beat.
Then in November, Taiga Lounge celebrated its grand reopening under new ownership. On Saturday nights, the two-story bar at the corner of Causeway Boulevard and Falkenburg Road resembles an Ybor City dance club with bottle service in the VIP room, hookah rentals on the patio and music loud enough to shake the floors. On a recent Saturday, with the parking lot nearly full, a group of girls parked across the street and shuffled across six-lane Falkenburg Road in their stilettos, eager to pay the $5 cover. It was 1 a.m.
"People are shocked that this is here," said owner Marc Linscheid, who modeled Taiga after a club he owns in Chicago and after his favorite Tampa nightspots, including the Kennedy.
And in December, the popular Green Iguana Bar & Grill opened a sixth location in Riverview's upscale Winthrop Town Center.
‘We just partied out in the cow fields'
Brandon has long had low-key watering holes. O'Brien's Irish Pub followed up its original Tampa tavern with a Brandon location nearly a decade ago. Brandon Ale House, also part of a chain, opened on W Brandon Boulevard in 1996. Whiteys Fox and Hounds on E Brandon Boulevard, whose Web site touts itself as "Brandon's ONLY REAL Irish Pub," has been around since 1991.
Brandon native Mike Weaver, a driver with Brandon Taxi, remembers even further back.
"The area's changed a lot. There was nothing for us to go hang out at when I was growing up," mused Weaver, 44, on a cold January night as his taxi van idled with the heat running outside Green Iguana. "We just partied out in the cow fields."
Weaver and the other Brandon Taxi driver on duty, Wayne Cates, were confident they'd end up driving people home that night. They always do. The convenient thing about partying in Brandon, Cates said, is that there's plenty of free, secure parking. Had too many dollar drinks at Green Iguana? Take a cab and leave your car in the adjacent Publix parking lot. One too many martinis at Boomerang? You car will be fine at Borders next door.
Spending so much time outside Brandon bars, the taxi drivers have noticed a pattern: "When a place first opens, it gets real busy for a couple months, then people go back to their original (hangouts)," Cates said with a laugh. "I don't think that (Brandon's nightlife) has really amped up any. I think the crowds just even out from one bar to a new one."
Darren Denington disagrees. A longtime Brandon resident and chamber of commerce member, Denington owns Service With Style, a secret shopping company that evaluates many of the area's bars and restaurants. According to Denington's observations, the number of suburbanites going out on the town has increased. But the upswing has less to do with 20-somethings than with middle-aged residents, Denington theorizes.
"The generation before, they grew out of going out very quickly. But the mid-30s and 40-year-olds still enjoy going out and having nightlife," said Denington, 40.
Many of the club patrons are lifelong Brandon residents. But on occasion, nonresidents seek out Brandon as a nightlife destination.
Sophia Love drives about an hour from her Largo home to Boomerang Martini Bar twice a week.
"I love the atmosphere. It's an older crowd, more mature. You don't have to worry about the stupid stuff that (goes on) in the rest of the clubs," said Love, 28, on a recent "Tickle Me Tuesday" comedy night. "Everybody here is about just being grown and sexy."
The hard sell
Not everybody is sold on the idea of clubbing in Brandon. Boomerang in particular was met with skepticism when it opened.
After four name changes and a 2007 shooting at the club (then called Fluid) that killed a bystander, owner Kyle Kwik went on a marketing blitz to rebrand the club. He has also increased security. Everyone is searched upon entry, there's a dress code to "eliminate the bad element," he said, and ladies are escorted to their cars. "It was an uphill battle, but I think we've done very well," Kwik said.
Security issues aside, other Brandon area bars face their own challenges. Green Iguana got a noise complaint when it first opened. To avoid a similar problem, Taiga limits its rooftop music to two small speakers.
Other hurdles are harder to overcome. Brandon needs more minority-friendly bars, some patrons say. Traffic stinks, say others. It's too spread out. Bar-hopping on foot is impossible.
Another problem: At Jackson's Bistro and Blue Martini at International Plaza, people dress up. That's not always the case in the suburbs.
"Here, I can go out with a T-shirt and jeans on," said Brandon resident Nathan Dufresne, 26, who wore a white polo shirt to a recent Tuesday trivia night at O'Brien's. "There (in Tampa), you're always trying to look a little bit better — make sure your shirt's pressed. . . . It's like church, your going-out clothes. And here, it's so much more laid-back that you're not really trying to impress people."
Hence, dress codes. At Rack Brandon — and South Tampa, for that matter — no oversized clothes or men's tank tops are permitted after 10 p.m.
"There are still people in Brandon that want to come out in nice clothes. Maybe they kept all their clothes in their closet because there's no place to go in Brandon," said Branko Milosevic, general manager of Rack Brandon. "Now there is a chance to put your nice clothes on and get out."
Times news researchers Will Short Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.