For such a small stretch of road, the Howard Avenue portion of Tampa's SoHo district is home to a diverse range of businesses. For bars alone, there's a neighborhood pub, a hookah lounge, a couple of craft-beer taprooms, an Irish mega-pub, an ultra lounge and more.
One of the first SoHo bars was Mangroves, a swanky restaurant opened nearly 20 years ago that doubled as a nightlife hotspot (pretty much the norm for most businesses open late in SoHo). This year, Mangroves was bought out, closed for remodeling and reopened as Sunova Beach, adding a "beach" bar to the roster.
Some would consider Mangrove's a hard act to follow. It was a longtime player on the street, and the scene was somewhat upscale. In other words, it wasn't a spot where you would necessarily envision a beach bar, and that's not even taking into consideration the landlocked location.
As crazy as it seems, though, a casual beach bar might be the right twist for Howard Avenue. On a recent early evening, it could have passed for the real thing, with a humid breeze passing through the open-air bar, condensation dripping down the side of my Long Island iced tea. A comically small patch of sand between the patio deck and parking lot seemed mostly symbolic, but if you squinted hard enough, you might think you were on the intracoastal, rather than in the middle of SoHo.
Sunova Beach isn't one, or even two, but three bars in one. The familiar Mangroves interior is mostly intact and features a downstairs bar and upstairs loft with a bar of its own. These areas are open on the weekends and for private parties, and they feature a pretty excellent selection of premium spirits. The bourbon and scotch selections alone are worth a look. At the entrance is a classic photo booth, but this one is linked up to social media, so you can post your party pics online in real time.
The main attraction, however, is an indoor-outdoor island bar facing Howard Avenue. The long bar spans a wooden patio deck and features a row of TVs in the middle. There are splashes of lush, sub-tropical foliage around the perimeter, adding to the beachy vibe.
The theme is nice, but Sunova Beach has more to offer. Mangrove's chef Trey Taylor stuck around during the transition and has created a characteristically creative menu for the new digs. Even the most basic bar snack — hand-cut fries — comes with a choice of more than a dozen dipping options. The tamarind BBQ sauce is outrageously good.
While the beer selection is fairly pedestrian, there are some interesting wines to choose from — including a full champagne menu — and several cool cocktail options. For example, there's a rotating selection of house-infused vodkas, a handful of specialty cocktails, punch cocktails served in oversized "fishbowls" and cocktails that incorporate both spirits and beer or cider.
Sunova Beach also boasts some pretty serious specials. Two-dollar beers and well cocktails can be had most days during special happy hours, and on Wednesdays, flights of four premium whiskies are available for $20. Even on Saturday nights, when the SoHo nightlife is in full swing, many big-name spirits go for a mere $4. The prices at Sunova Beach are a bargain, no doubt.
A beach bar certainly isn't the first thing that comes to mind when I think of SoHo, and the switch from a long-running, half-fancy restaurant to a patio bar where flip flops and drinking out of a fishbowl seem perfectly normal is a bold one. But Sunova Beach has enough to offer in the way of affordable yet creative food and drink that I think it might catch on just fine.