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Cigar City, Columbia pouring local drinks for Tampa International Airport passengers

The “Leg Room” at First Flight, a cocktail and wine bar in the main terminal at TIA. The cocktail includes Crown Royal, cherry liqueur, dry vermouth and orange bitters.

Jay Cridlin/tbt*

The “Leg Room” at First Flight, a cocktail and wine bar in the main terminal at TIA. The cocktail includes Crown Royal, cherry liqueur, dry vermouth and orange bitters.

Just off the main terminal at Tampa International Airport is an exhibit documenting the airport's history, dating from its place as one of America's most modern and architecturally innovative air hubs all the way back to its early days as Drew Field.

Back then, the wood-floored terminal had only one gift shop, and above it hung a sign reading: "The finest cigars in the world are made in Tampa." Yes, even in those days, travelers to the city's biggest airport wanted an authentic taste of Tampa.

Today, wherever you go in TIA, you're likely to come across some of the city's signature flavors — and we're not just talking food. Tampa's emergence as a craft beer (and, to some degree, cocktail) hotbed is reflected in nearly every terminal, with drinks that are good enough to merit a trip to the airport even if you don't have a ticket.

Tampa International realizes this, which is why in 2012 it launched its "Friday Flight" parties inside the terminal. Tampa Bay bands like the Black Honkeys, Doll Parts and the Vodkanauts perform as travelers gawk, snap photos and sip wine and Cigar City beer. The next Friday Flight, featuring the Griswolds, takes place from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday.

Unless you're a frequent flier on many different airlines, you may never get a chance to sample all of the airport's local fare. But on a recent tour, we paid a visit to each terminal, giving us a unique glimpse at the bar scene that serves nearly 17 million travelers per year. Here are four highlights.

First Flight

The airport's main terminal will undergo an overhaul in the next couple of years, but for now, the finest place to stake out a seat and wait for arriving flights may be First Flight, a wine bar and bistro run by the staff of one of Tampa's most acclaimed restaurants, Mise en Place. You can order flights, naturally, of wine (2.5 ounces apiece), cheese and charcuterie, or you can opt for one of the cheeky but expertly crafted air-travel-themed cocktails. Try the "Leg Room" (Crown Royal, cherry liqueur, dry vermouth and orange bitters) and you'll be ready for takeoff in no time.

Green Iguana

Terminal A's signature bar and grill, the Green Iguana, may be its most eye-catching: The thatched-roof hut with a palm tree and enormous green iguana of, well, the Green Iguana. It looks even more intriguing when you see it up close; the bar sinks curiously low to the ground, as though it's made for Oompa-Loompas. Locals can debate the Iguana's culinary merits — some swear by its burgers, others would argue it's more low-key hangout than destination dining — but either way, it's probably the tiki-est location in Tampa Bay. Maybe when people enter and leave Florida, all they want is a bulbous green margarita.

Columbia Restaurant

Ask anyone to suggest an authentically Tampan dining experience, and the Columbia's got to be right up there. In addition to classics like the 1905 Salad, Devil Crab Croquette and Cuban sandwich, the Columbia serves two of the area's best drinks, a mojito and a sangria — and just like at their century-plus old location in Ybor City, you can get both by the pitcher, right in the heart of Terminal E. The Columbia also has the airport's best souvenirs — packets of sangria mix ($4.95) and those signature blue and white ceramic pitchers. Skip the postcards and seashell magnets and get these instead.

Cigar City Brewing

Terminal C is Tampa International Airport's busiest hub — servicing Southwest Airlines has a lot to do with that — so it's a fitting home for Tampa Bay's biggest dispenser of fine craft brews. So popular is the airport Cigar City Brewing that it even has "regulars" — frequent fliers who always make sure to stop by on their way into and out of town.

Like its Carrollwood brewpub, this Cigar City has a full food menu, but the beers are still the stars of the show. You can even grab six-packs of Jai Alai IPA, Maduro brown ale, Florida Cracker white ale and Hotter Than Helles lager to have wrapped up to take home. This was the first on-site brewery at a major airport, and its Tony Jannus Pale Ale is still exclusive to this location (though you can occasionally find it on tap at the brewery's tasting room).

Steve Shanks, the pub's brewmaster, has experimented with other Cigar City beers there — Florange, an imperial Belgian white; Sweet Home Chicago Stout; Drew Field IPA and more. Never heard of 'em? Maybe you need to travel more.

3 bonus tips

Don't forget the Marriott. If your flight is really delayed, saunter over to the Tampa Airport Marriott, located just off the main terminal. Its Skyye Lounge is nothing spectacular, but the hotel's relaxing lobby and panoramic views of the runways feel a million miles away from the main terminal's hustle and bustle. Plus, to help pass the time, Skyye has chess and checker boards, and the Marriott's pool deck — which is open to registered guests only, so, y'know, be discreet — even has ping pong and cornhole.

Skip the drinks in Terminal F. If you're flying from Terminal F, and you want to get your drink on, do it in the main terminal, before going through security. F, which serves American, U.S. Airways and international flights, is lacking in the bar department, with only a Chili's Too and a small Stella Artois bar the best options for alcohol.

Get your drink to go. Since the entire airport is zoned for liquor sales, you can carry your drinks with you throughout the terminal. Just ask for it in a plastic cup (yes, even the Columbia's mojitos) and head back to your gate while you wait for your plane. (You can't board with it, unfortunately.)

Cigar City, Columbia pouring local drinks for Tampa International Airport passengers 08/07/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2014 2:59pm]
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