Rarely does the mercury dip into the 30s and 40s in Florida, but when it does — as it has the past couple of weeks — it's not hard to spot cold-blooded Sunshine Staters scuttling for warmth.
But just because it's cold outside doesn't mean you have to stay indoors — especially when your favorite watering hole or hangout has an outdoor fire pit. The flames are both hypnotic and romantic, the perfect accompaniment to a cool night of long talks and sweet drinks. Every bar or restaurant with an outdoor patio should have one. Right?
But when I set out in search of a cozy fire pit on a couple of recent 50-degree nights, I learned fire pits in Florida are rarer than you'd think. Even places that have them don't light up every night, and those that do douse the flames at seemingly random hours — 8 p.m. at some spots, midnight at others. You never really know, so it's always best to call in advance.
For example, Whiskey Joe's in Tampa has fire pits right on the beach; pull up your chairs and gather 'round for warmth. But when we visited on a recent Thursday, we were told they were off because it was "too cold" (huh?), and they'd probably stay that way all weekend. It's too bad, because the outdoor tiki bar's thatched-roof huts, stage and sandy setting have the makings of a perfect beachfront evening. Maybe when the weather warms up, we'll go back.
Flaming pits are more common on the sandier and more popular Pinellas beaches. The biggest may be outside the Tate Island Grill at the Sandpearl Resort. This enormous, rock-ringed pit, circled by about 20 Adirondack chairs, sits right on the sand, yet is largely sheltered from public view thanks to dunes and a wide swath of Clearwater Beach's finest. Located just off the resort's lavish pool area, adjacent to a deck with high-top tables, it has been known to close early in the evening, but here's the good news: The Grill's many beachy cocktails (margaritas, punches, fizzes, mai tais, spiked lemonades, sangrias) are all available by the pitcher. Perfect for sharing.
Down on St. Pete Beach, the Postcard Inn at the Beach's small outdoor fire pit meshes well with its hip, modern take on beach life. While the pit can accommodate only about eight chairs, it does sit near a ping-pong table, which is pretty neat. If things get too cold, you can retreat indoors, where the decor is even more stylish and comfy. The Inn's PCI Beach Bar is a bit of a walk, but here's a tip: You can order both takeout and cocktails at the indoor PCI Bar and Grill; just let them know you want your drink in a plastic cup so you can take it outside.
Harry's Beach Bar at the Sirata Beach Resort is more of a laid-back locals' joint. Their rocky fire pit, which has room for about 12 chairs, sits on a dining deck near one of the resort's pool areas, and during the winter months, they light it every night at sundown. If the wind picks up, you can retreat into a small cabana-style shack with a nice space heater. There's also an arcade that's open until 10 p.m., if you feel like a game of air hockey.
Farther inland, there's the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor. Yes, it's a private club, but its Osprey Bar at the Market Salamander Grille is open to the public, and worth the trip. The food and craft cocktails are great, but it's the giant fire pits on the immaculately manicured patio overlooking the links that make us want to hang out there all night. Both light up around sundown, and if you stake your territory early, you can easily fit eight to 12 Adirondack chairs around each. There's live music most nights, and the patio is available to rent for special occasions.
But if you don't want to trek all the way to some far-flung resort in search of an open flame, there are two good fire pits in downtown St. Petersburg. The first is at Green Bench Brewing, a new brewery and taproom whose most appealing feature may be its inviting beer garden. In addition to yard games like cornhole and bocce, there's a small fire pit near the back wall. They only light it up on weekends when their owners are on hand, but when the fire gets crackling, it feels like an actual backyard cookout.
And then there is the Canopy at the Birchwood Hotel, one of the 'Burg's smartest and most stylish new drinkeries. The fifth-floor rooftop bar features unmatched vistas of downtown St. Pete and Tampa Bay, and a multitude of heaters and heated cabanas enable patrons to hang out there even on chilly nights. Its three modern-looking fire boxes sit atop grass-like carpet and are surrounded by plush, South Beach-style couches. For an open-air bar, there are plenty of intimate nooks in which to cozy up.
Best of all, the Canopy's snazzy (if pricey) cocktail menu lists a handful of winter-appropriate drinks, such as the Honey Jack Hot Tottie — Jack Daniels Honey Bourbon, hot chamomile tea, fresh agave and honey and a cinnamon stick. Sip one of those with your feet by the fire, and you're looking at the ultimate cure for cold weather.