As Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong pointed out 30 years ago, things are tough all over. Americans are eating out less today than they were even 6 months ago, and it's not such a broad inference to think that this trend has crept into the bar scene as well. It's difficult to thrive as a small bar in hard economic times.
Several watering holes near 66th Street and Ulmerton in Largo have come and gone in recent years, and it's easy to see why. There are many to choose from, but there are few residential areas, and strip-mall bars generally don't have the same draw enjoyed by a downtown area or entertainment complex. Opening a bar here is guaranteed to be a challenge.
La La's Brew House is one of the area's newest challengers, opening at the beginning of this year in a space previously occupied by a handful of different bars over the past decade and a half. In recent memory, it's been Bar One45, Whistles, and Beer Goggles. A chrome plate behind some of the beer taps pays unintentional homage to the space's history, bearing the faint outline of Whistles' bawdy, probably-not-printable slogan.
But La La's is not quite the same as the bars that have come before it. Owner Michelle Richards and her husband, general manager and occasional bartender Louie Ward, have really put a shine on the place, making it one of the tidier and more welcoming bars in the immediate vicinity. It's not much to look at from the outside, but inside it's colorful and friendly — a good mix to please both longtime regulars and mere passers-by.
The interior is made up of a long, straight bar on one side and an area on the other side filled with a pool table, a group of high-tops, and a stage for live bands and karaoke. In between is an island bar, atop which sits a massive, mid-century traffic light. Two smaller traffic lights sit behind the bar, establishing a unique de facto theme.
The term brew house doesn't always have a clear meaning. Sometimes it indicates that a bar has an in-house brewing operation, other times it denotes a focus on serving a variety of different brews. La La's falls into the second category, with a selection of craft beers on draft and in bottles that's modest in comparison to other area beer bars, but relatively impressive in the surrounding bar landscape. La La's may not be the ultimate craft-beer lover's paradise, but it's a friendly outpost for quality beer in an area where frosty mugs of domestic light lagers still reign supreme.
La La's is also a music venue, primarily featuring shows organized by Tampa Bay Hardcore, a group of promoters and musicians involved in the local hardcore punk scene. This unlikely pairing has made La La's one of the more active venues in the area for punk shows, although other genres and styles are welcome as well.
On most nights, however, La La's is simply a neighborhood bar with a handful of good beers (most served in the proper glassware, even!) and a friendly, conversation-centered atmosphere. The TVs and music are kept at a low volume, and the staff always seems engaged with the patrons. When we stopped in, Louie was working the bar and we spent much of the time chatting about everything from politics to music, and of course, beer. Although I get the impression that much of the bar's patronage consists of regulars, we felt welcome right off the bat.
It hasn't been an entirely easy ride at La La's, though. A previously-popular karaoke night on Thursdays was recently put on hiatus due to low attendance, and the bar still serves a primarily daytime crowd, likely inherited from generations of bars before it. The weekend concerts and Saturday video bowling crowds (yes, really) keep the bar going, but there's plenty of room to grow.
Despite the challenge inherent in operating a small strip mall bar on Ulmerton, La La's has quite a bit to offer. I, for one, hope to see the same name on the sign out front for a long time to come.