Last week, I tackled Clearwater Beach by enjoying drinks at the Hilton's lounge bar and beachfront tiki joint. After all, Clearwater Beach is the best beach in the country, according to TripAdvisor, and the weather's only getting beachier by the week.
But let's say you want to get off the tourist path while still experiencing the Clearwater Beach vibe. You'll need to leave Mandalay Avenue, but won't need to go very far.
Right on the end of Causeway Boulevard, adjacent to that god-awful roundabout, is Clearwater Marina. It's a typical marina with boat slips, fishing charters, and a bait shop — the Bait House. It's the Bait Shop Tackle & Tavern, more specifically, which is interesting because of that last part of the name: There's a bar hidden back there.
The history of the Bait House goes back a solid 70 years, when it was operated by Capt. Ernest Barger, who owned the Li'l Tiger charter fishing boat. From the outside, it's a crusty old shack, with some bright blue trim painted in colorful contrast to the faded, weathered wood. The whole thing juts out onto the water, which flows casually underneath.
Somewhere along the line, the Bait House became known as a place where fishermen could stock up on supplies as well as a few cold beers. Why not go all the way with it?
That was the idea in 2009, when new owners Justin Pfaelzer and Christian Harms took over, adding a kitchen and expanding the rear dock to include a small cutaway bar. The tavern element is reason enough to visit, especially if it's your aim to momentarily escape the craziness a few blocks back.
A tiny bar tucked into the back of a bait shop seems like it would be a pretty well-kept secret, and it mostly is. Of course, the locals know about it, but it easily remains one of the more peaceful places to enjoy a drink on the beach.
Rather than cover bands and DJs, most of the excitement at the Bait House comes in the form of charter boats coming and going late into the evening. There's a TV behind the bar if you absolutely need some media stimulation; otherwise, it's all about the salty breeze and sweeping views of the Intracoastal Waterway and Clearwater Memorial Causeway.
The entire bar and patio deck areas at the Bait House are open-air, with just a small roof overhang covering the cozy, five-seater bar. Decorated dollar bills are plastered on the walls and ceiling punctuated by hanging tin buckets, in case anyone wants to order their beers in bulk.
The patio wraps around two sides of the bar, providing ample room to stretch out and enjoy the scenery. Whether you're a tourist or a long-time local, there's much to be said for soaking up the Old Florida vibe on a breezy day. I can't imagine it would ever get old.
Of course, it helps to have a cold beverage in hand, and the Bait House keeps 15 beers on draft, almost exclusively local.
A look at the tap handles reveals the obvious theme: Rod Bender and Beach Blonde from 3 Daughters, Reef Donkey from Tampa Bay Brewing Co., Wavemaker from Big Storm, Free Dive from Coppertail, Big Wave from Kona. Sweetwater's 420 and Silverking's Strike blond ale have tap handles shaped like fish. I haven't decided if these beers were selected specifically due to the fish theme, or if brewers — and Florida brewers specifically — just have a fish fixation. Either way, there's lots of solid beers to choose from.
On the wine side, there are seven options from California's Coastal Wines, as well as red and white sangria. Doing some early afternoon drinking? There's even a sake-based Bloody Mary. Not a bad lineup for a seemingly nondescript bait shop in the corner of Clearwater Marina.
The Bait House Tackle & Tavern is my sleeper pick for Clearwater Beach watering holes. It's walking distance from the beach, but it's miles from the accompanying party atmosphere. Back on the marina, it's all about the Old Florida vibe, which happens to pair quite nicely with a handsome selection of New Florida brews, a patio on the dock and that sunny weather that America's best beach is known for.
@Words With JG