Thursday, September 20, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Bar review: O'Keefe's Tavern in Clearwater

It wasn't until we were almost pulling into O'Keefe's that my girlfriend realized it was the wrong bar. Originally, the plan was to visit a similarly named spot — O'Keefe's Softails Pub in Seminole — which she had heard offered a great Thursday ladies night special. I got it mixed up with O'Keefe's Tavern, a long-running Irish pub and restaurant near downtown Clearwater.

We could have turned around, but this O'Keefe's seemed plenty interesting in its own right, having run continuously as a bar in this location for more than 56 years. Even more interesting, the bar has been owned by the same family for three generations. I could wait until next time to figure out what "softails" means.

Built in 1961, O'Keefe's Tavern has gone through a long series of additions and renovations, including a gloriously old-school dining area known as the Cedar Room that was damaged when a truck ran into it in the early '70s. A large nude painting from that era is still on display, with a visible tear from the accident.

Today, O'Keefe's is comprised of a large island bar, two spacious dining rooms, an outdoor patio and an attached tiki bar. The interior has that lived-in feel that you can only find in long-running, successful establishments. I don't mean "lived-in" as a euphemism for "decrepit"; it's more like a family home that has been well-tended over the decades. Indeed, that's not far from the reality of the business.

While some modern amenities — like personal TVs embedded in the booths of the dining area — give O'Keefe's a sports bar feel, there's no mistaking the extensive woodwork, various nooks, Tiffany-style lamps and other details that go along with the classic American neighborhood bar and restaurant. Add in some green backlighting behind the bar and in display cases, as well as a few Guinness ads, and you've got an unobtrusive Irish pub theme on top.

I was surprised that I'd never been to this place before. With a 56-year run and counting, this qualifies as a bona fide Clearwater institution. There are regulars aplenty, many of whom the bar staff know by name, and by drink. There's an annual St. Patrick's Day party that's one of the biggest in the state; a digital countdown clock to March 17 hangs near the bar.

The bar stocks all the classics, with a little extra on the whiskey side. There are several Bushmills, some Jameson, Michael Collins. A reasonable number of American whiskeys and some decent scotch, like the Glenfarclas 10-year.

There's a decent selection of wines, as well as just over a dozen beers on draft, including, of course, Guinness on nitro. O'Keefe's stocks a few locals, too, like Jai Alai from Cigar City and Reef Donkey from Tampa Bay Brewing Co.

Although I'm generally not a fan of sweet drinks, I decided to take up our bartender on a new drink advertised on the marquee out front: a midori martini. As expected, the citrus vodka and midori drink was quite sweet, but it was also surprisingly strong. Generous pours, and reasonable prices. Good by me.

Continuing on to the $5 drink menu, I noticed a green theme. The Shocking Shamrock's Captain Morgan, blue curaçao, pineapple juice and ginger beer give it an electric blue-green hue, while the Spiced Green Appletini is more of an implied green, with Smirnoff green apple, sour, apple juice and Fireball. Even the Bloody Mary plays along, using Effen cucumber vodka in place of regular vodka.

So it's not exactly a high-end cocktail joint, but the drinks are fun and it's hard to argue with the price. The service, based on an admittedly small sample size, was also a big plus. It's easy to see why there are so many regulars.

I'm not sure if I'm in the market for a massive St. Patrick's Day party, but for an average weeknight in the meantime, sign me up. I love these kinds of classic bars that have been kept up throughout the years without losing their vintage look and feel. It took a simple misunderstanding for me to check the place out, so let's chalk another one up for happy accidents.

Contact Justin Grant at [email protected] Follow @WordsWithJG.

 
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