Sunday, December 17, 2017
Bars & Spirits

Bar review: At Johnny's, watch sports with a craft beer

I'm not a big sports fan, though if I do want to catch a game, a sports bar is as good a place as any. Most specialize in things like towers of Bud Light, with a few token craft offerings that generally are uninspiring to the serious beer drinker. The alternative is a beer bar or brewery tasting room, but these often are — thankfully, I might add — not great places to watch sports.

The intersection of these two interests lies in places like Johnny's Taphouse & Grill, a Tarpon Springs sports bar that also keeps a pretty mean draft list.

Tarpon Springs hasn't traditionally been known for its beer scene, with its most popular bars tied into the Sponge Docks tourist area along ­Dodecanese Boulevard. Greek wine, ouzo and Metaxa are all far more common options in that part of town.

But Tarpon's beer community has grown in recent years, from the arrival of beer bars like 701 Taphouse and Tarpon Tavern, to the opening of a new brewery (Silverking) in the old Tarpon Springs jail, to the upcoming move of longtime local brewery Saint Somewhere to a new Belgian-style taproom downtown.

Opened a year ago as Johnny's Fillin' Station and Tap Room, Johnny's Taphouse is a craft brew-centric sports bar founded by John Stamper. Stamper started brewing beer 30 years ago, according to his restaurant's website, and he opened his first beer bar in 1994 with nine beers on tap.

Johnny's Taphouse & Grill triples that figure, with 27 rotating, local-heavy taps. Saint Somewhere and Silverking are frequently on the list, and new breweries are occasionally featured in tap takeovers, like the recent ones held for Trinity's Escape Brewing and Palm Harbor's de Bine Brewing.

Inside, Johnny's has a feel that's somewhat typical of a large sports bar. Laminate floors, picnic benches, textured metal along the front bar and, of course, plentiful TVs above the bar and along the entire restaurant perimeter.

There's a rustic touch here and there, such as Edison bulbs suspended from reclaimed wood pallets bolted into the ceiling, or house-infused vodkas with little chalkboard signs designating the flavors: mango, cucumber, kiwi, pineapple, blueberry.

Overall, you could imagine it as a sort of spruced-up, indie Hooters that serves lots of good beer.

Of course there's room for improvement.

When I visited, the service was friendly but also a bit aloof, a sentiment that seems to run throughout online reviews. In our case, my girlfriend inquired about a featured beer from Escape Brewing, which was described to her as, a "little darker, and not bitter at all."

It ended up being an IPA.

Simple things such as educating all of the staff on new arrivals is extremely important for beer bars that want to be taken seriously. If I order a Jai Alai at Winghouse, I don't expect my server to know how many IBUs it has; I'm just glad they have something worth ordering. At a place like Johnny's, where local craft beer is truly a focal point, I expect the staff to be on top of the product. That's a minor gripe.

The management seems to be involved — with frequent social-media updates and interactions — so I would expect stuff like this to be worked out over time. The location is great, there's plenty of room, the beer selection is on point and a new tiki bar will be a neat feature. (Stamper got his hands dirty personally during construction of the outdoor, air-conditioned tiki bar, which is expected to be finished within the next week or two.) Overall, I'd say things are looking up.

In the meantime, Johnny's Taphouse & Grill is a reasonable option for beer drinkers and sports fans alike. The two go so well together, yet they often travel in different company. Johnny's bridges the gap, offering a varied tap list with many local options, as well as an environment that will feel like home to sports-bar regulars. It's not perfect, but I think it's likely to continue to improve, further breathing life into Tarpon's growing beer community. — [email protected]; @WordsWithJG

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