The dive bar is a cornerstone of American drinking culture, and a direct offshoot of this classic watering hole is the shopping-center tavern, which transports the crusty, smoky dive bar into an anonymous strip mall.
You know the type — cruise up and down any major road and you'll find plenty of them. If you drive down U.S. 19, it almost seems like there's one in every shopping center. At first glance (and even second) Clearwater's Fat Cat Tavern appears to be just another one.
If you're willing to investigate further, as the mysteriously enthusiastic online reviews of Fat Cat prompted me to do, then you'll find that this place is actually a cut above, offering most of the things you love about a classic dive, while omitting many elements that you could just as easily live without.
Fat Cat's exterior is characteristically plain, with a standard corner storefront entrance and a small patio on the side. Inside, it looks much like any other no-nonsense bar. Beer and banners line the walls. Flat-screen TVs line ceiling perimeter, further enhancing the sports bar vibe. There's a Megatouch and a Golden Tee, and a back room with a claw game and pool table. It's all very normal; you could even call it generic.
But Fat Cat has a few extra touches to explain its customer loyalty and good reviews. First, there's no smoking inside, which automatically gives it a cleaner vibe. Secondly, the place is really clean! The wall opposite the bar is filled with plush, semicircular booths that are much nicer than the rickety, worn-down tables you might be accustomed to; the floors don't stick when you walk on them; and the bathrooms appear fully functional, with little of the filth and grime that we've all come to expect.
And then there's the drink selection. Sure, you can easily get a cold Bud Select draft here (and at $1.25, it's cheaper than you'll pay at most places), but there are 23 other beers on draft, including a half-dozen imports, several solid craft options, and even a few local beers. Cold Storage and Cigar City are near-ubiquitous nowadays, but you don't see Pair O' Dice's Little Joe Oatmeal Stout, Rapp's Dunkelweizen or Barley Mow's Lamplighter in just any old dive. You also have options. Beers come in 12-, 16- and 23-ounce pours, as well as pitchers if you have a group or are just extremely thirsty.
The wine selection is limited to a half-dozen house wines, but the liquor selection is reasonable, with more premium spirits than I expected. I was shocked to learn that on the night I visited, premium whiskeys — and there were some good ones — were only $3. On other nights, specials range from $1 margaritas to $2 Long Island iced teas to $1.50 select domestic bottles. Even on non-special nights, the most you'll pay is $6 for the top of the top.
Not surprisingly, this makes for a pretty lively business. The regular clientele seems to be steady, and the event calendar is pretty full, ranging from solo guitarists like Rick Powell and rockabilly band Hairdresser on Fire to trivia and karaoke nights. Of course, sports play big on the weekends, and there are plenty of TVs, a full menu, and good drink specials to bring in fans.
Fat Cat Tavern is a roadside shopping center bar, but it's a good deal friendlier and cleaner than most, and that seems to be serving it pretty well. In a business where generic, unremarkable bars suffer from a low survival rate, Fat Cat is going on its fourth year in business. I figured there had to be something that set this place apart from the rest, and after visiting, I have a good idea of what it is.