Tuesday, January 23, 2018
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Fort Knox: At this low-key beach dive, beer's as good as gold

In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby, my girlfriend and I found an injured bird that had evidently fallen from a tree and was unable to fly. We carefully moved it into a small box and headed down Gulf Boulevard to drop it off at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a shelter and medical facility for injured birds ranging from the small one we brought in (a flycatcher, we learned) to hawks, pelicans, owls and woodpeckers.

On the way, I noticed a small bar, inconspicuous but for a massive neon sign hanging above the entrance that read "Fort Knox". This piqued my interest on several levels. For one, I love this kind of low-key local bar. I'm also a huge sucker for this brand of old-school kitsch that the old-school neon sign — bright green and in a 1960s western font — alluded to. And the name: Would there be some sort of theme in play? If so, what?

I recently had a chance to stop in and take a look around, as there were no injured birds in my immediate vicinity, and I was in the mood to have a drink with as few frills as possible. Fort Knox seemed like the place.

I opened the front door and walked into everyone's favorite archetypal drinking establishment — the classic American dive, complete with the dense cigarette-laden air that invariably accompanies it. Everything seemed in order: pool table, golf and bowling arcade games, pinball machine, jukebox, tables with vintage baseball cards lacquered into the surface, and a rectangular, three-sided bar in the back.

The bar and wall behind it were constructed of unfinished wood, while the rest of the interior consisted of stone walls and columns, as well as wooden railings in the entryway — a very classic, old-school look. The bar top was hand-painted, with a mural depicting a desert and mountain scene — cacti, deer, a frontier fortress — decorating the length of it. I was surprised to see a long row of windows against the street-facing wall; natural light in the daytime is often scarce in such establishments.

For a weekday, the place was steady. The clientele was heavy on regulars, though I got the impression that beachgoers stop in frequently, judging by the "shirt, shoes and pants required" designation on the door. Either that, or this place gets wilder than I expected.

The folks at the bar appeared to be sticking to the simple stuff, with draft beers and basic cocktails scattered across the bar top. The lone exception was a large, burly guy with a Harley shirt and a handlebar mustache — he downed the remainder of his glass of red wine, shaking the leftover drops into a glass of water and then turning the glass upside-down on a coaster.

The simple approach seemed like the way to go, so I ordered a Scotch and soda to work on while I checked the place out. The bartender was a serious-looking fellow, and he poured drinks about as quickly as I've ever seen. Maker's and Coke, whiskey ginger, a bottle of Bass — all were out on the bar and sitting on a coaster before you could blink twice. The pour was generous, especially noticeable when I ordered a neat Jim Beam Black and received a rocks glass more than half full of bourbon.

A beer cooler built into one wall was decorated to resemble a vault; at this Fort Knox, cold beer is probably as close as you'll get to gold bricks. That's quite all right, especially when considering how cheap they come — no beer will put you back more than $4, and even top-shelf spirits don't break the double-digit mark.

Fort Knox ended up being just what I was looking for: A simple, laid-back bar serving honest drinks at a price that wouldn't sting too badly. For a round of drinks after a beach day, or simply a night out with friends, Fort Knox offers a well-tested and trusty formula; its strength is in its simplicity. That can be a real breath of fresh air, if not in an entirely literal sense.

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