Picture a lazy Saturday afternoon, with the temps just right and the warm sunlight cascading over you as you relax with friends in your perfect waterfront bar.
For many of us, that would be some of the familiar ones around Tampa Bay: Woody's, Gators on the Pass, Rusty Bellies, Rick's on the River and just about any hotel bar up and down the beaches.
But for our quest, we wanted to find some out-of-the-way, little-heralded, rustic waterfront watering holes. They had to be smallish, come with a laid-back feel and be right on the water, not just near it. We wanted to get away from it all.
In some cases it took an assist from iPhone's Siri to reach our destination amid moss-draped oaks and cul-de-sacs. But the views and the brews at the end were all worth the drive.
Our quest was inspired by the Maximo Seafood Shack, a ramshackle (perfect!) little place at the end of a dock at the Maximo Moorings Marina. With one main table inside and just a few stools around the windows, this is one tiny oasis (though there is also seating outside). But it's the view inside that you want. A wide canal leads into the gulf, and you'll see boats coming and going all afternoon. Owner Margaret Covello serves up everything from grouper sandwiches to paella from her kitchen. In her seafood case you'll find locally caught fish and shellfish, handpicked daily from docks around the area. (In some cases, the captains cruise up to her shack and drop it off.) On weekends, she fires up her smoker and prepares beef brisket or copious amounts of wings. Not to be missed: her homemade smoked fish spread. In addition to the standard domestics, she features a decent selection of bottled imports and craft beers, plus wine.
Tucked away on the other side of the peninsula just south of downtown St. Petersburg is Fish Tales. Don't let its small sprawl fool you. Though it has two outdoor bars, you'll still feel like you're hidden away in a secret cove on the bay. Tall mangroves line one side of the inlet; busy marinas the other (it's surrounded by 11). The tiki bar, the smaller of the two, features a rail where you can eat or drink as you gaze dreamily at the boats lining the water. Look down and you'll see swim fins and goggles tacked to the deck. While it used to be known for its lack of a fried foods, it has recently renovated its kitchen and now offers the usual suspects in that genre. But go for the juicy plump peel-and-eat shrimp instead. You've got to save room for your libations, which include several local craft beers on tap.
If you've ever driven north on Interstate 75 from Sarasota, then you've probably noticed the large waterside bar to the east as you cross the Manatee River. That would be Woody's River Roo. It makes our list not because of the main bar, but because it actually has a small peninsula that juts into the river, making it a perfect rustic spot. On the island, as we like to think of it, a meandering rail bar provides ample seating if the tiki bar is full, and there's a covered area in case of rain, complete with small flat-screen TVs (hey, rustic isn't fun if you can't watch some sports occasionally, right?). The Roo has plenty of space for boats and Waverunners to tie up, and part of the fun is watching the various levels of seagoing competency on display (as if we had any room to talk!).
When you hear the name Beer Shed, you can almost picture a drive-through joint somewhere off a desolate drag of highway. But, oh, not so. This Beer Shed sits on the Alafia River, its wooden decks niched into the green banks that are populated by massive oak trees. Order a bucket of suds, fire up some tunes on the touch-screen jukebox and order up some boiled peanuts. We tell you that last tip because they don't really serve food at the Shed (though there is a snack shack nearby). The main attraction here is the Old Florida ambience and the serenely calm river flowing by. The shade's nice, too.
If you're inclined to bar hop while you're in this neck of the woods, then head over to Dixie Dockside, a short drive away. The former bait shop is nothing to look at on the inside, but outside it's all wooden decks stretching down the river bank. There is plenty of dock space for boats, though the river can be low at times, making tying up tricky. A small pack of chihuahuas rule the roost here, and there's a carnival burger wagon next door in case you're hungry. (Wait, did we just write that last sentence?)
The Anclote River doesn't get a lot of ink, but it boasts several bars and restaurants along its banks in the Tarpon Springs area. We briefly checked out Rusty Bellies and its counterpart OldCapt. Jack's Waterfront Lounge near the Sponge Docks. But both were large and didn't have the ambience we were looking for.
Just north of Tarpon, though, along the Pasco-Pinellas line, we discovered Miss Vicki's on the River. This was more like it. Rustic wood everywhere. Domestic drafts. A large oak tree right in the middle of the action. The outdoor seating area extends to benches right along the river wall, where you can take in the sights on the water. Wings and standard Florida staples like smoked fish spread are on the menu, as are the standard domestics and old-school imports like Moosehead.
Traveling back down into Pinellas, we made one last stop in our quest: Olde Bay Cafe and Dunedin Fish Market. This little find is small but charming. The big draw here is its selection of local craft beers on tap (7venth Sun is a short trip away, after all) and the fresh seafood it serves. Combine that with breezy outdoor seating area under a canopy and the lure of fun shopping in downtown Dunedin and you have a perfect Saturday afternoon.