Sunday, February 18, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Harbor Bar's new patio not its only strong point

Downtown Safety Harbor is renowned for its low-key charm: a nice, slightly-upscale community that's clean, quiet and relatively safe. To some, that would make Harbor Bar, one of a handful of bars, restaurants, and taprooms on the town's bustling Main Street, a bit of an odd duck.

Under a previous ownership, Harbor Bar — then Trotti's Lounge — developed a reputation as a dark, smoky and seedy watering hole that didn't quite fit in with the surrounding sleepy neighborhood and the palm tree-lined thoroughfare.

Last year, Harbor Bar's new management attempted to change its reputation from dreary dive to friendly neighborhood bar by cleaning up and painting the interior, putting down hardwood floors, installing a small stage for karaoke and live music, and — the pièce de résistance — striking a deal with the city to add a shaded, tropical-themed patio deck to the bar's side lot.

Under this deal, the patio would be open to the public and would only be used by bar patrons after 3 p.m. This dual-use arrangement was approved by the city, but after some local controversy, the decision was reversed, leaving Harbor Bar without a clear home for its patio. Instead of scrapping the plans, however, Harbor Bar sectioned off a part of its own parking lot and built the new Margaritaville Patio Bar right outside the front entrance instead.

The distinction between a dive and a neighborhood bar is a subtle one, and the Harbor Bar offers glimpses of the nuances that differentiate the two.

On the dive bar side, it's pitch black and aggressively smoky inside, even in the middle of the afternoon. All the familiar accoutrements are there, from the video bowling and golf to the electronic dart board, pinball machine, and pool tables. But that last detail is more telling than you might expect.

At this bar, the pool tables have fresh, clean felts, and the cues are all neatly organized on a wall rack. Although it may seem silly, pool table maintenance is a surprisingly reliable litmus test for how well a bar is kept; in the case of Harbor Bar, this minor detail is reflected in the rest of the interior.

The floors are clean and polished, the bar top spotless, and the bottles and glassware all organized and laid out attractively. Far from being a rough crowd, the staff and clientele were unanimously friendly, and most clearly knew each other. As 5 p.m. rolled around, more locals filed into the bar to meet with friends and chat over beers after a day at the office. In other words, very neighborhood.

And there's the outdoor patio. The original plan called for shade, but the parking lot doesn't offer much of that, so it's pretty hot out there. As such, the scene usually doesn't pick up until it gets cool in the evening. There's an auxiliary bar with its own TV, cornhole boards, oversized Jenga, and Margaritaville-wrapped picnic tables. I'm not sure if the patio by itself is a game changer for Harbor Bar, but it's certainly a nice option and reinforces the other improvements that have been made there.

Drink-wise, the selection is minimal. There's no wine, and the beer stock is more about price than the beer itself. The spirit selection is reasonable enough, with the exception of bourbon, where it's surprisingly good, featuring several premium and small batch brands like Baker's, Basil Hayden's, Booker's, Maker's 46 and Jacob's Ghost white whiskey from Jim Beam. The standard drinks are strong and cheap, especially during the 2-for-1 happy hour, which runs most of the day on weekdays.

On Thursdays and Fridays, Harbor Bar hosts live music, with a range of various acts booked up two months in advance. There's a pool tournament on Mondays, karaoke on Tuesdays, and Bar Olympics — a competition involving pool, darts, and cornhole that awards winners with bar tabs and other prizes — every three months. On occasion, the bar even holds wiffle ball games in the parking lot, with entry fee proceeds going to charity.

Whether or not Harbor Bar's improvements will resonate with the locals that shot down its patio plan a year ago is anyone's guess, but as an outsider with no preconceived notions of what Harbor Bar represents, I can give you my perspective. It's dark and smoky inside, yes. But when it comes to unpleasant, dirty, and unfriendly dives, Harbor Bar is anything but.

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