Saturday, June 23, 2018
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Looks prove deceiving at unexpected beer oasis

I'm constantly on the lookout for diamonds in the rough. Every once in a while, I'll stumble upon something completely unexpected — a casual restaurant with an outstanding signature cocktail list, a liquor lounge with an impressive Scotch selection or sometimes just a plain old bar with exceptional service and an interesting atmosphere. I don't find them often, but I always look forward to the next discovery.

A friend of mine recently moved to Tampa's Forest Hills neighborhood, and when I paid him a visit, he suggested that we stop into the local bar: CJ's Tavern, a place about as non­descript as you could imagine, both in name and looks.

The small, stout building on the side of a mostly residential stretch of Linebaugh Avenue looked like any other roadside biker bar, with the exception of a marquee under the main sign boasting a selection of "over 100 craft and import beers." It sure didn't look like the kind of place with 100 of anything, much less craft and imported beers, but if my ongoing search for hidden gems has taught me anything, it's that looks can be very deceiving.

The scene inside was consistent with the rough exterior: A dimly lit, low-ceilinged dive, with bare plywood walls on one side, painted black walls on the other, a pool table nestled in a tiny enclave in the back, and a horseshoe-shaped bar in the corner. The clientele is primarily of the biker and walking-distance resident variety, and a TouchTunes jukebox played classic-rock tunes at a comfortable level. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, at least until I took a look behind the bar.

No liquor or even wine is served at CJ's — just beer. But here, "beer" goes way beyond chilled pints of Budweiser draft. No, the marquee didn't lie — there were seven beers on draft and easily another 100 in the cooler. Sure, the Budweiser and Bud Light taps were right there where I expected them, but they were joined by Young's Double Chocolate Stout served on nitrogen, Magic Hat's Hocus Pocus Pale Wheat Ale and Southern Tier's 2xIPA.

I was so surprised by the cooler selection that it took me a good five minutes just to decide what to get. The range was wide, with a nice selection of beers and styles from all over the world. In keeping with the working-class vibe of the place, you'll find the major domestic light lagers in the cooler right alongside beers from Unibroue, Samuel Smith's, Chimay, Victory, Innis & Gunn, Green Flash, and others. Three Philosophers and Rochefort 10 are among what I would have considered to be the least probable beers to find at CJ's Tavern, but there they were, right on the top shelf.

Despite the inexplicably great beer selection, CJ's has all the features and comforts that you'd hope to find in a good neighborhood bar. Two electronic dart boards, a pool table, a Megatouch console, a fully loaded jukebox and plenty of space at the bar. I'm told there's also live music on occasion.

Our bartender was very personable and also gave me a solid tip: craft beers are $1 off after 11 p.m. It just kept getting better and better. Even without the $1 discount, many of the beers were priced fairly low. If you stop in, I suggest checking on a few of these, as you may be surprised by what you'll find. I've now visited CJ's twice; on one trip, they had $5 pints (!) of Southern Tier Pumpking, and on the other, $6 bombers of Blue Point RastafaRye. It pays to ask.

This just goes to illustrate the importance of keeping an open mind. What may appear to be just another anonymous neighborhood bar might have a surprise inside worth finding. At CJ's Tavern, that surprise is an excellent beer selection in a somewhat less-than-striking package. For the dive-bar aficionado who knows his or her beer, it's really the best of both worlds.

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