Thursday, June 21, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Bar Rescue: Tarpon Springs' Bridge Lounge gets the Taffer touch

It should come as no surprise that I'm addicted to Bar Rescue, a reality TV show on Spike that features Jon Taffer, a veteran food and beverage industry consultant instantly recognizable for his loud on-screen tantrums and tough-love persona.

Negative criticism of the show is usually some variation of calling Taffer a blowhard who takes bars with "character" and flips them into flavorless, cookie-cutter businesses — glorified Applebee's. Fans argue that he starts with struggling bars that are rapidly losing money and turns them into establishments that stand a chance of repaying debt and staying in business. Sure, he yells a lot and occasionally breaks things dramatically, but it's reality TV.

Occasional bombast aside, Bar Rescue often gets it right. Some "rescued" bars come out of the process with new directions, concepts and themes that truly click. This is the case with the Bridge Lounge, an enduring locals spot in Tarpon Springs that's the subject of an upcoming episode.

The Bridge was purchased by the Cladakis family in 2003 and has been operated by the family since. The family patriarch, Bill — known affectionately as Mr. Bill — passed away last year, leaving the bar under the operation of his children, who subsequently worked with Taffer and company to breathe fresh life into the fading, smoky dive.

The Bar Rescue formula typically involves a complete rebranding, but in the case of bars with especially strong family connections, Taffer sometimes opts to keep the name, as he has done with the Bridge. This serves as a dramatic plot point in the episode's narrative, but after the cast and crew are gone, it can also be a nice, sentimental touch that patrons and staff will appreciate down the road. I may be a sucker, but I found the giant boat mural outside (the boat is named Mr. Bill) and the portrait of Mr. Bill himself next to the bar's entrance genuinely moving.

Now, this is Tarpon Springs, and you know the Bar Rescue folks couldn't resist cramming as much local flavor into the project as possible. Step into the bar and you can't miss it: an assortment of wall-mounted sponges (fortunately not nearly as corny as it sounds), pastel-toned maps of North Pinellas waterways, a terrifyingly large lobster exoskeleton in a mounted trap, and even a wooden ship's wheel mounted to the railing surrounding the upper-seating level.

The Bridge Lounge is a tiny place, but the conversion of its former, horseshoe-shaped bar to a tighter, low-profile setup really helps. The interior is filled with dark-stained wood and fun little accents, such as rope-wrapped columns and a whiskey barrel facade for the bar.

The drinks are cleverly themed, utilizing traditional Greek spirits such as ouzo and Metaxa in concoctions named after family members. Mom Harriet has an ouzo-and-Peychaud's twist on the screwdriver, while daughter Crissy has a refreshing, gin and cucumber number bearing her name. Other daughter Anna has an ouzo-tinged take on the Long Island to her name, while fiancee John Daly — the pro golfer, as it turns out — even has a drink on the menu, featuring his own brand of flavored vodka. Son Manny is the inspiration for the Doctor's Orders, a tiki-style drink made with exotic Falernum syrup, and the late Mr. Bill has a fantastic, cocoa-coffee-hazelnut dessert shot named for him.

There's also a house wine or two, as well as a dozen beers on draft. In the latter category, there are selections from Cigar City, St. Pete Brewing and Miami Brewing. The Bridge Lounge kept its name, but Taffer added a simple tag to the sign outside, making it officially "A Locals Bar," and the prices agree: beers and wines are all under $5, and even the specialty cocktails are just over $6.

Forget the prices, though — the Bridge is as true a locals bar as they come. It's small but welcoming, a place where you could while away as many hours as you'd like. The renovation has made it more comfortable and compelling, which is about as good an outcome as I can think of.

The Bridge Lounge — nee the Bridge Lounge — has not received a generic flip treatment. It has simply been revamped into a bar that the Cladakis family can continue to be proud of. The screaming and drama of the soon-to-air Bar Rescue episode will be fun to watch, certainly, but the important thing is that the bar's fresh look makes it a lot of fun to visit, too.

I'd consider it rescued.

[email protected]; @WordsWithJG

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