Friday, November 24, 2017
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Coolest bar in Tampa Bay? That depends...

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I vowed that I would never, in my writing career, start a story with "Webster's defines ___ as …"

But there I was, pulling up an online dictionary. The assignment? To find the "coolest" bar in Tampa Bay for tbt*'s Ultimate Bar Guide. But what constituted cool? Was it a special drink? A vibe? A playlist? Lighting? Something less tangible? What does cool even mean?

So, yeah, I looked up cool.

Moderately cold. Lacking in warmth. Lacking ardor or friendliness. Marked by restrained emotion and the frequent use of counterpoint. Producing an impression of being cool; specifically of a hue in the range violet through blue to green.

No help.

• • •

Other journalists and writers have elected "coolest bars" before, locally, nationally and globally. In 2007, one said it was Mahuffer's in Indian Shores, a dive with walls lined in old ice skates and car seats. In 1999, someone proclaimed it to be the Fountainhead Lounge in Atlanta. Then there were the coolest bars, literally — the ones made of ice in London and Sweden, where you could lean against a frozen bar and shoot vodka from an ice glass.

New York magazine has sussed out the best drinking holes in the city, but even it used categories. First date. Scenester clubs. Karaoke bars. In the Big Apple, people mention club maven Amy Sacco in the cool discussion. She was behind Bungalow 8, a now-shuttered bar where celebrities battled to get inside. A new version called No. 8 was profiled in June by the New York Times. In both cases, the key to cool was buzz and exclusivity.

How does that sensibility relate to Tampa Bay? If you want to sip a Moscow Mule in a dark corner in St. Petersburg, there's Mandarin Hide on Central Avenue. You might walk right past the door if not for the chandelier enclosed in the birdcage on the sidewalk. It's intimate inside, and bartenders make any drink you desire. They'll ask if you like sweet, sour, or both, and if its your birthday, they might light a bottle of champagne with a sparkler.

If you're talking secrets everyone knows in Tampa, there's Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club on Bayshore Boulevard. You need a password to get in, but it's not hard to get. There's an extensive menu of artisan cocktails, a list that grew from 12 to 40 choices in just over two years. Ciro's bartenders travel to New York and New Orleans for cocktail conventions. They constantly read books to stay fresh.

The biggest bar trend Ciro's beverage director Bob Wagner has seen lately in big cities, he said, is the service of craft cocktails at a high volume — more bartenders doing specialty drinks for more people. No matter how many people know about Ciro's, though, the atmosphere of fedoras and suspenders make it feel more 1920 than 2012.

"We give you that vibe of you're doing something wrong, like back in the time of Prohibition," Wagner said. "You won a prize by finding it and getting inside."

• • •

If dark and secretive is cool, what about a place that leaves the door wide open to the street outside? On a recent night at The Independent in St. Petersburg, warm air wafted through the bar and guys huddled around a long picnic tables in the middle. It would be filled in a few hours with hipsters, people who knew cool before cool was cool.

Here, indie music and beer reign. You ask for Reissdorf Kolsch or Delirium Tremens or Old Engine Oil. The Independent is for people who want to avoid the flashing, popped-collar club scene but still maintain some style. And if we're using big-city bars as the threshold for cool, it's worth noting the Independent got a mention four years ago in the New York Times.

"We haven't changed much in seven years," said bartender Mat Chamness, 33, after he poured a Saxo Belgian pale ale into a goblet. "I like a bar that doesn't play Hootie music. I understand food service, but you can't have dogs, and I love that you can have dogs in here."

On the other side of the bar, a 6-year-old German Shepherd named Ruby took a nap on the cool floor. She was with her owner, Tina Smith, a hairdresser who also loves The Ale and the Witch. For her, low-key is cool, though at 53 she says her tastes might be different.

"If it's a trend, I probably won't go."

An hour later on Beach Drive, an attractive couple sat at the swanky bar inside Cassis American Brasserie, where you can order infused liquors, blood orange cosmos and muddled blackberry cocktails. The couple sipped bright concoctions out of teetering martini glasses, seemingly worlds away from any of the other so-called cool bars.

But they looked cool, too.

• • •

Cool.

Marked by steady dispassionate calmness and self-control. Free from tensions or violence.

I called an expert. Dustin Hughes of Land O'Lakes picked up the tbt* Ultimate Bar Guide in 2009 and saw our list of the 100 best bars in Tampa Bay. He decided to go. To all of them. He had to know cool.

His pick was old favorite Fuma Bella in Ybor City. He loves the small space, the drinks, the calm atmosphere. But he also spends time at Octave, a St. Petersburg karaoke bar where you'll find a gamut of old guys singing doo-wop and young people rapping Jay-Z. Five years ago he would have said Hyde Park Cafe or The Kennedy. But Hughes is 30 now. His concepts of "cool" have changed.

"You get older, you look for more laid back, you start to care about, do they have a good bourbon selection? Not, do they have bourbon for $2?" he said.

In the end, some bars are better than others, better for different people. But cool is fickle. It changes with the season, the neighborhood, the very second. And that is cool.

Very good. Excellent. All right.

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