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Let's lift a mug to memories of Bennigan's

Nine area Bennigan's, including my personal favorite on Dale Mabry Highway just north of Interstate 275, closed Tuesday as the chain's parent company filed for bankruptcy.

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Before Ybor City exploded, before the first drop of concrete was poured at Channelside and really before South Howard became SoHo, it was a can't-miss spot: a combination restaurant/sports bar/hangout that drew throngs.

You could say the same about the Bennigan's in St. Pete Beach and Brandon — and the one at Tyrone Square once had a dance floor.

But the Bennigan's on Dale Mabry, officially known as the Stadium Bennigan's, was the most popular. For years, it ranked among the chain's top performers nationally, once boasting of being No. 1 in wine/beer sales and No. 2 in food sales.

I've had good times — and one bad night — at the place my friends and I commonly refer to as the Mons Venus Bennigan's.

It often proved to be the perfect launching pad before a game at the old Tampa Stadium, or the stopoff after a Bucs victory. It became a zoo on St. Patrick's Day, and I'm not just saying that because they had to expand the serving area with a chain-link fence in the lot.

It also turned into a wild and crazy place most Friday and Saturday nights back in the day. After all, we called it the Mons Venus Bennigan's because the dancers from next door would stop at the bar either before or after a shift.

Friends who moved to Colorado still ask me about the "stripper Bennigan's."

Combine that with a large contingent of University of Tampa students and, well, let's just say it had an ambience you probably wouldn't find at the Bennigan's in Peoria.

When I covered prep sports in the 1990s, it was our Friday night spot.

There are too many stories to tell, but here's one: A sports writing buddy always ordered the Turkey O'Toole sandwich with no honey mustard, only to receive a sandwich with honey mustard.

This happened on two or three consecutive visits, so we convinced him the girl was doing it on purpose because she had a crush on him.

He worked up the courage to ask her out as we goaded him on, only to discover she had a boyfriend. I'm still laughing.

The one bad night? My prized 1996 Honda Accord was stolen out of that parking lot. Four 14-year-olds crashed the car into a telephone pole the next day, and it was never the same.

I eventually overcame my bitterness and returned to the watering hole for more good times, always putting "the Club" on my car.

It was the place I sought solace on 9/11.

Why? Maybe because this Bennigan's belied its status as a chain fern bar. It had a funky flavor, a landmark location and servers I can still recall, like Stacy. Oh, and it had the Monte Cristo. Yummm.

Longtime staffers waited on a cadre of regulars, and I'm sure folks on both sides had heavy hearts Tuesday.

I feel bad, too, but I don't go as often as I once did. New places, new responsibilities and the disappearance of the deep-dish apple cobbler and Asiago chicken pasta from the menu all reduced my visits.

I last went by in March before a Yankees spring training game, and if nothing else, I can at least say my car was there when I walked out.

I didn't even use "the Club."

That's all I'm saying.

Let's lift a mug to memories of Bennigan's 07/29/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 1:51pm]

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