Of the bay area beaches, Clearwater Beach is undoubtedly the most popular, and the intersection of Causeway Boulevard and Mandalay Avenue — that hellish roundabout — is the epicenter of its popularity.
Since the Clearwater Memorial Causeway is the only road to the beach from the mainland, the amount of traffic that businesses in the immediate area enjoy is nearly unimaginable. You could probably pull in six figures operating a lemonade stand on the corner.
One of the bars that clearly benefits from the tremendous Mandalay Avenue traffic is Surfside Taphouse. If you've ever been to Clearwater Beach, you've driven by Surfside, and I'd be willing to bet that it was pretty packed. I can't remember passing the place without a full patio.
I've been curious for a while: is this place a legitimate beer bar — taphouse is regularly thrown around pretty lightly — or is it another typical beach bum watering hole, buoyed by a can't-lose location?
From the street, Surfside occupies a fairly small unit in a strip of beachfront shops. There's a small patio out front for sidewalk drinking and people-watching, and an island bar that serves the patio as well as the much-larger interior area.
Inside, it's nice and open, with wood floors, an array of high-tops around the bar area, and a long dining area in the back. There are TVs positioned all around, giving every seat in the house a good vantage point for sporting events.
I wondered what the deal was with the cages on their ceiling fans. It's a unique look, but I'm not sure if it's an aesthetic that one would choose without real utility. After observing a few of the patrons, I came to the conclusion that the cages are probably there to prevent drunks from standing on tables and throwing their arms into the fans overhead. Maybe that's a bit fanciful, but it's a Clearwater Beach bar, and let's face it — Clearwater Beach bar tourists seem to have a penchant for getting sloppy.
Add in nightly live music and you've got a recipe for a decidedly not-chill night at the beach. I visited on a Wednesday evening and it may as well have been midnight on a Saturday. During the day, I imagine the scene is quite a bit more sedate, but if you come at night, expect a party.
As far as the taphouse designation goes, Surfside is correctly billed. There are just shy of 50 beers on draft, which is pretty remarkable. Some will surely complain that a sizable chunk of these drafts — perhaps 20 percent — are macro beers and typical imports, but considering the location, Surfside has done a lot to appease the average beachgoer while still providing ample options for beer-hip locals.
One curious aspect of the beer selection is that it doesn't appear to rotate much. The printed menus are somewhat permanent, with only a few spots left open for seasonals and variable selections. This makes sense: since much of the clientele are tourists, a static tap list allows Surfside to stock a large number of representative local brews (nearly half of the beers on draft) along with big-selling crowd-pleasers. Surfside Taphouse may not be the top beer bar in Clearwater, but it's certainly the best on the beach.
Surfside also keeps a thorough cocktail list, including drinks served in actual pineapples. There aren't many surprises on the list, but you will find some darn tasty margaritas, mojitos and frozen tropical drinks. The pours are generous, too — a nice touch for a bar that could probably get away with the standard sugary, watered-down cocktails that beach bars tend to specialize in.
Tourists will pay a premium for drinks that are a short walk from the beach, but Surfside wants the locals to come back, too — in fact, you didn't hear it from me, but word is that the bar offers a discount for locals.
Beer drinkers arriving at Clearwater Beach won't need to dig very deep to find a solid selection of brews — just take a right at the roundabout and you're there.
— [email protected]; @WordsWithJG