Astute readers may notice that my range of drinking destinations extends outward from a central St. Petersburg base (barring the Gulf of Mexico, which is pretty dead in terms of bar scenes). It's not that I'm lazy, it's just that I tend to notice bars in areas that I pass through frequently.
That makes it all the more strange that I've never set foot inside the New Banana Boat, a bar that's been in operation just a few miles from my house for the decade-plus that I've been living in it. If I had to estimate the number of times I've driven by, it would be more than a thousand. Yet I had no idea what was inside.
Part of the reason likely is because the New Banana Boat looks like any old locals' dive. I cover bars like these on occasion, but they're not my favorites; there's not much to say. You can only extol the merits of such places in so many ways before you run out of things to say. That's the paradox of the dive bar: it has value precisely because there's nothing to it.
But the New Banana Boat is almost close enough to be my neighborhood bar; I couldn't leave it a mystery any longer.
The New Banana Boat is the fourth in the Banana Boat lineage, with this incarnation more than a decade in business. Hey, "new" can be relative. There's mention of an additional Car Bar on the sign out front, which is a second, loosely racing-themed bar in the back of the building.
The first thing I noticed is that the Banana Boat is larger than I expected. From the street, it looks like a cramped, smoky dive, but it's actually pretty spacious inside, with each of its two bars offering ample seating, as well as a number of lamp-lit booths along the walls. With the front and back doors open, the interior didn't even seem very smoky, though my clothes told a different story the day after.
The Banana Boat has clearly been around for a while, as evidenced by the wealth of knick-knacks and decorations that have accumulated over the years. There are carved-wood football team logos, posters from classic films like Casablanca and Gone With the Wind, poker-themed old-timey bar lamps, paintings of golfers and, of course, a number of ancient promotional beer signs. Backlit Italian glass blocks provide a retro glow that completes the gleeful arbitrariness of the decor.
Beerwise, you're looking at the typical dive brews: Bud, Rolling Rock, Icehouse; Sam Adams and Angry Orchard are as far into craft territory as you'll get. There are a couple of house wines. The prices are very cheap. Maybe a little too cheap, in some cases — like the 3-for-$6 wells during late-night happy hour. It's undoubtedly a bargain, but these drinks are pretty stiff to be ordering three at a time!
The liquor selection was not bad. I noticed a few oddities, like a bottle of Ouzo that was apparently a special request from a patron who enjoys doing shots of the stuff. The whiskey selection wasn't terribly high-end, but there were many options to choose from, covering a nice range of American classics: Old Grand-dad, Old Overholt, George Dickel and so on.
It's not a fancy cocktail bar by any means, but there are more than enough spirits to produce a respectable variety of simple, quality drinks.
Most of the regulars come for the generous happy-hour specials, to shoot pool or to sing karaoke. On the night I went, the jukebox was a hot commodity, with an improbably diverse soundtrack ranging from Adele, to TI, to Meat Loaf (four songs in a row for Mr. Loaf).
So the New Banana Boat is a mystery to me no longer. On the downside, it fits into the not-much-to-say category. But on the upside, it turned out to be a pretty nice spot: friendly staff and a decent liquor selection in a well-kept bar. It's not particularly exciting, but that's par for the course. Next time I'm in the market for a cheap drink that's not far from home, I know a place that will do the trick just fine.