Saturday, June 23, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Searching South Tampa for my own personal Cheers

Here it was, Sunday night again.

In less than 24 hours, I'd be back in my rolling desk chair, banging away at a keyboard and watching the clock. It was my last chance to eat, drink and be merry before another week of work began.

Back when I lived in Temple Terrace, I knew where I'd be.

The gang would find time to head to the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club, sit out by the poolside bar, knock back inexpensive drinks and watch the Tampa Bay Rays (or Sunday Night Football, depending on the season).

No frills. No specialty menu designed by a chef from a Parisian culinary school. No superstar guest DJ, or anything remotely hip. It was homey — a step above drinking on your couch.

Eight months ago, we moved to South Tampa. The south-of-Kennedy set had plenty of bars to choose from, so many that the task felt overwhelming. I began spending Sunday nights with Netflix just to avoid the inevitable hassle of trying to find my new place in the universe.

Being born in the 1980s, of course, I want my bar to be a Cheers experience. I don't have to know every bartender's name but I'd like to feel relaxed and have easy conversation with whomever is taking my drink order. I also know that 28 and married feels too old to be dropping it like it's hot in public.

Once these basic criteria were established, the recommendations started rolling in.

First stop: Molly Malone's Irish Pub on Davis Islands.

Relaxed setting? Check. Friendly Staff? Double check. The newly opened bar didn't have loud music pumping when I went in to take a seat at the bar. Everyone spoke, even the other customers welcomed me. Definitely the closest thing to Cheers I'd been in in my whole life.

But I'm only a novice beer drinker. I've been drinking cocktails since before I was supposed to be, but beer only for the past couple of years. Malone's doesn't have a liquor license and can't offer my standard, Jack Daniels and ginger ale. So, I left the friendly atmosphere feeling warm but not tipsy.

A friend told me about the food and specialty cocktails at The Wine Exchange in Hyde Park, so it became the next stop.

The inside was packed and bustling on a Thursday night. Outside on the patio, our conversation competed with those at the other close-together tables. The rise of laughter from each corner felt like competition of merriment. Everything was enjoyable, the food, the drink, the company, the service but it just didn't feel like me. Converse Chuck Taylors, jeans and white T-shirt me.

Bar Louie at international Plaza was much closer to my unrefined self. When I'd played coed flag football on Monday nights years ago, we'd go for the wings and drink specials. Even now, nothing has changed at Bar Louie. The leather booths, wooden stools and TVs still feel like the great American sports bar. It was like being with my brothers, letting it all hang out.

Still, I had been there, done that. I needed a new place to be my place.

While walking to get a burger after work one day, the sign at Taps Restaurant, Bar and Lounge caught my attention. I passed by here daily, but I'd never bothered to go in.

Inside, the air conditioning rescued me from the light sheen of sweat that had built while strolling up N Ashley Drive. The prices are what you'd expect for downtown Tampa, not high but not a dive either. The martinis and appetizers hit the spot. Still, it was unsettling to see the shadow of my workplace looming in background. Potentially sitting across the bar from a supervisor? Maybe next year.

There were some almosts after that. Nothing came as close as Taps, but every place felt like one I'd love to pop into from time to time.

Maybe I didn't need one bar. Maybe I could just be happy spreading my love of alcohol and casual conversation around.

On a whim, I went and sat at the bar of Irish 31 before watching a movie. The waitress told me about the specialty cocktail menu, made recommendations based on what I usually drink and talked a little bit about me for a minute.

Friendly staff? Check.

As I waited for my Twisted Carmel Apple Martini, the dozens of conversations around me rose several decibels. Some were interesting; most were just working people letting off steam and celebrating the end of the day. I was roped into one or two and met some genuinely nice folks.

Relaxed setting? Double check.

Then, as I sipped with my eyes locked on an Ultimate Fighting Championship event, the acoustic guitar started in, covering everything from Jessie J's Price Tag to Foster the People's Pumped up Kicks. We were clapping and singing along and watching TV and drinking and eating and smiling and smiling and smiling.

Finding your bar is 10 percent what the bar offers and 90 percent the people inside. In Irish 31, the mid-20s to late-30s set gets together to commiserate, celebrate and communicate.

I dig it. I know I'll be going back.

Look for me some Sunday at the left corner of the bar.

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