I racked my brain for a premise from which to start this article that wasn't based on finding an "escape" from Ybor City. I'm aware that my Ybor City coverage very frequently leans in this direction, and I hate to be repetitive.
However, the reason the Lion's Den appealed to me in the first place was very much because it offered an escape of sorts from Ybor. It's only removed from the main drag of Tampa's infamous party district by a flight of stairs, but if you're an old grouch like me, the change of pace created by that small degree of separation is quite welcome.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with Ybor nightlife. Sometimes it's exactly what I'm in the mood for. But even then, it's pretty nice to have a place to take a reliable breather — even if it is, ironically, in a cigar bar — when you tire of the crowds and the noise.
If you remember the James Joyce before it moved into the old Mema's Alaskan Tacos (RIP) space, you'll recognize the Lion's Den. It's a bit more dressed up now, with an overhaul that transformed the space into a laid-back lounge and cigar bar, where you can watch the game, enjoy some very premium spirits (more on that shortly) and have a chat with the truly friendly staff and patrons.
Being a more relaxed spot in the thick of Ybor gives the Lion's Den a bit of a clubhouse feel. This is no doubt helped by the Lion's Den crew, which really make guests feel at home.
This was my first visit, and I wasn't in the bar for more than 20 minutes before owner Brian Willingham struck up a conversation, which evolved into multiple, wide-ranging discussions involving other patrons and the bartenders. To someone who just stepped in off the street, we may as well have all been longtime regulars.
While the service is on point, I think the real story is the spirit selection. There are some decent beer selections in the cooler, and a token variety of wine is served, but man — if you want a lineup of premium, ultra-premium and lesser-seen spirits in Ybor City, I'm not sure you'll find any place to beat the Lion's Den.
It's a cigar bar, so naturally, the selection is very whisky-centric. Single malts and premium blends, American whiskeys of several varieties, and a solid pick of Japanese whiskies make up the vast bulk of the booze list at the Lion's Den.
But you'll find no shortage of brandies and Cognac, cordials, tequila, rum, boutique gin and even some high-end vodka. Although there are typically a couple of featured cocktails up on the board — currently, I'd recommend the Nightlife Paradise — there's no cocktail list. Instead, you'll have to chat with your bartender, which is more fun.
After enjoying a glass of the sublime Nikka Coffey Malt whisky, I went this route and ultimately settled on a rye manhattan, featuring Carpano Bianco (a floral, white vermouth usually paired with gin) in place of sweet vermouth. I would never have thought to order that on my own, and it was excellent.
Oh, and the Lion's Den is also home to the Cigar City Barbershop, which bills itself as a "speakeasy barbershop." I can't vouch for the services, but the concept is intriguing. A barber shop hidden in a cigar bar?
In a way, the Lion's Den is hidden within Ybor City. It's right there on Seventh, only a short flight of stairs (or elevator, if you've had a few too many) away from the expected hustle and bustle, but it's quite a different experience than you'll find at most places in town. It's a chilled-out spot in a decidedly un-chilled part of town, and I'm glad that I found it.