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Ultimate Bar Guide: 14 Tampa Bay bars that feel like communities (and a few where you might fall in love)

For this year's tbt* Ultimate Bar Guide, we tallied up more than 100 reasons we love going to bars in Tampa Bay. One big reason? A sense of community. Here are 14 bars that make us feel like we're embracing the community around us, bars that make us feel at home .. and a few bars where you might just fall in love.

We're loyal customers: Nolan's Pub

Lots of bars like to claim that they're like the bar from Cheers. Nolan's Pub does this by placing a physical copy of Cheers' Season 1 DVD on display behind the bar. The thing is, Nolan's is a place where everyone might actually know your name. It's a friendly little pub in downtown Safety Harbor, and if you pop in on any given day, there's a good chance that you'll find owner Craig Davide working behind the bar. This is the kind of place that efficiently turns locals into regulars, but such loyalty pays both ways. The bar's loyalty card — the "McGillicuddy Wheel" — rewards patrons with a Nolan's T-shirt after the first completion, a name on the wall for the second, and an engraved plaque on the bar for the 10th. There are quite a few plaques on the bar, if that tells you anything. 230 Main St., Safety Harbor. (727) 400-6998,

Everybody knows our name: The Independent

On pretty much any given day, Seminole Heights residents can be seen hoofing it up and down N Florida Avenue toward the local watering hole that might as well be their personal Cheers. The Independent, home to craft beer since before that was every bar's bag, has been a gathering place for the Heights since opening more than five years ago. You can hear talk of renovation projects around the dart boards and jokes about the community email group at the outdoor tables. There's a happy hour, but most folks drift in and out at will, not beholden to specials at their place of rest. Jazz and bluegrass nights fit the colorful community and anybody who is anybody has at least one Independent jersey or T-shirt. You know, because you've to represent the home team. 5016 N Florida Ave., (813) 341-4883,

Home is where the bar is: Paddywagon Irish Pub

Robert Montgomery spends at least two hours a day at the Paddywagon Irish Pub in downtown Tampa for two reasons: It's in his building and he loves it. Montgomery, a 36-year-old finance manager, moved into the Element high-rise in 2010 and says the location of the Paddywagon is literally the best thing that has happened to anyone, ever. "It's right in the middle of everything. You don't have to deal with the STDs — South Tampa douchebags — or the craziness of Ybor City," Montgomery said. Element residents get a 20 percent discount and on any given night, you'll find at least dozen of them sitting around the bar in their work clothes or lounging around the house sweats. It's the American dream. The bartenders are inventive, giving shots names like Liquid Marijuana and making up drinks on the fly to suit their customers' whims. "Now I don't have to drink and drive. I know everyone here. This place is like my living room," Montgomery laughed. 808 N Franklin St., Suite 130, Tampa. (813) 226-4235,

We like to see and be seen: Tryst Gastro Lounge

You don't need a yellow jacket to know Beach Drive is hot real estate in downtown St. Petersburg, with restaurants like Cassis, Parkshore Grill and Bella Brava packed each Friday and Saturday night. But if you really want to be seen, hang out by the indoor-outdoor bar at Tryst Gastro Lounge. The sleek, South Beach-style cocktail lounge and bistro fills a narrow wedge of Beach's 200 Block, ensuring that any St. Pete scenesters walking to and fro have to nudge past you and your St. Germain Cocktail. Go on, throw your weight around! You're on Beach Drive! You belong here! 240 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 821-4567,

We're in the know: Fuma Bella

There are cocktail bars that everyone knows — Datz, Fly Bar, Mandarin Hide — and then there are those that fly below the radar, serving top-notch drinks to loyal clientele without courting any attention. Fuma Bella barely has any web or social-media presence whatsoever, and yet most locals still know it's Ybor City's go-to joint for smart, creative cocktails; cultural conversation; and, on Sunday afternoons, some of the best day-after Bloody Marys in Cigar City. Don't search Yelp for a menu — there isn't one. Just pop in, check out what's on the chalkboard, enjoy your drink ... and then keep it to yourself. 1318 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City; (813) 248-6130.

The old place closed: Taps and Tequila II

Taps & Tequila was a novel addition to St. Pete's Edge District, at least until it shut down about a year ago. Instead of giving up, however, the owners simply moved it a few blocks down the road to the ground floor of the Urban Style Flats apartments. The new Taps and Tequila II has everything the old one did — house-infused and super-premium tequilas, a fair craft-beer list and a full menu — but funky, retro furniture and a poolside patio add a new dimension to the rustic vibe of the original. If you liked the old one, you'll probably love this one. Bonus: the new spot is a short crawl from the Trop, and it's well known that tequila makes baseball much more exciting. 300 Tenth St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 347-3408,

Trivia night: Finley's Irish Pub and Eatery

When he fist moved to Indian Shores in 2007, Alex Cusick would drive all the way out to Brandon to partake in a night of pub trivia. This was before Tampa Bay's current pub-quiz boom, when every other dive decided to launch a trivia night of its own. "There's trivia freaking everywhere now," said Cusick, a Brandon native who picked up the trivia bug while living in California. But back then, one of the few Pinellas locations to offer a good weekly game was Finley's Irish Pub and Eatery in Largo, and Cusick and his trivia-loving wife, Amy O'Hara, quickly became regulars. A year and a half ago, the owner asked if they'd like to run the game themselves. At first they did it just for free drinks; now, with Finley's getting packed some Wednesdays (especially during snowbird season), they earn a small stipend for their effort. Cusick writes the questions, O'Hara edits, fact-checks and votes yay or nay; the winner each week gets a bottle of Fireball whiskey. "Writing trivia is kind of an art form, because the best trivia questions are the ones where, even if you miss it, you're like, 'Oh, yeah, I should have got that!' " Cusick said. "We know that we're not Jeopardy! champions, but we try to make it challenging, because nobody wants to get everything right." But now that they run their own trivia night, do they even have time to partake in pub quizzes themselves? "It's funny you say that," Cusick chuckled. "We're going out tonight to play trivia." 13477 S Belcher Road, Largo. (727) 535-7858, finleys­

We want to travel back in time: The Sapphire Room

Just walking into the Floridan Palace Hotel makes you want to order a martini. Thankfully, they've got a great one. It's called the Between the Sheets, and it's a punch-packing sipper (brandy, Bacardi white rum, a splash of Cointreau and fresh lemon juice) reminiscent of a Sidecar that the Floridan's been serving since the Jazz Age. Built in 1927, closed in 1989 and reopened in 2012, the hotel's roster of guests include Elvis Presley, Jack Dempsey and Gary Cooper, and the Sapphire Room — a popular hangout for servicemen during World War II — feels like it belongs to another era, a noirish basement lounge with sunlight peeking past the simple yet inviting neon sign. They're proud of their signature drink, too — on our recent visit, the bartender wasted no time recommending the Between the Sheets. He earned himself a nice tip. 905 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 225-1700,

We want to salute Tampa's heritage: Columbia Cafe at the Tampa Bay History Center

Draft a shortlist of Tampa Bay's signature cocktails, and the 109-year-old Columbia Restaurant's mojito and sangria would have to be on it. The Columbia Cafe at the Tampa Bay History Center only dates to 2009, but the chairs inside stood inside the original Ybor City location as early as the 1930s, making them a natural fit for the History Center. The cafe also features a scaled-down replica of the Ybor City's bar, but if you sit in the cafe portion, servers will still make your mojito pitchers tableside. Nestled on the waterfront behind the Tampa Bay Times Forum (and not far from several TECO Streetcar stops), it closes at 9 p.m., but it's still an underrated spot for a downtown lunch, drinks at sunset and Forum event pre-gaming. Inside the Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Old Water St., Tampa. (813) 228-0097,

We want to salute Tampa's heritage, with a side of Aussie Cheese Fries: Outback Steakhouse

Out-of-towners often lambaste the omnipresence of strip malls and chain eateries around Tampa Bay. Okay, fair point. Still, is it so wrong to be proud that Tampa is home to the original Outback Steakhouse? Just inside the door of Outback's Henderson Boulevard outpost is a plaque commemorating the location where Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham, Tim Gannon and Trudy Cooper launched a faux-Aussie empire — arguably Tampa Bay's most lasting contribution to global food and drink. After 26 years, Outback is still dishing out Bloomin' Onions and Alice Springs Chicken in 48 states and 21 countries, and it all started right here in the 8-1-3. We'll raise a Sauza Gold Coast 'Rita to that. 3403 Henderson Blvd, Tampa. (813) 875-4329,

The sign is just too enticing: Donk's Sports Tavern

As long as I've lived in St. Petersburg, I've been fascinated by the sign outside Donk's Sports Tavern boasting, maddeningly, that it serves "the best Cubans in town." How can a tiny sports dive possibly compete in Tampa Bay's Cuban-crazy marketplace? One day, I took the plunge. Look: It's not the equal of the Cubans at the Columbia or La Teresita. But it's still a pretty darn good, greasy sammie. And for a dank, dark dive (one that even has a smoking room with a dancing pole!), Donk's is clean and welcoming. They even have 3 Daughters Brewing's Summer Storm Oatmeal Stout on tap. Maybe they should tout THAT on the marquee. 7630 34th Ave. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 341-2070. — Jay Cridlin

We might find buried treasure: Gaspar's Grotto

Winning a chance at $10,000 in loot is a strong motivator for anyone, so Gaspar's Grotto aims to make sure you get your drink on with them for the rest of 2014. The $10,000 Treasure Hunt Contest, which began in January, gives two customers each month the chance to be among 24 who will simultaneously dig into a sandbox full of gold and jewels for one minute and keep whatever they find. All the loot left in the sand will be donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundtation. Diggers are chosen two ways: The month's highest bar tab and a monthly raffle ticket drawing. Every customer with a nightly bar tab over $100 gets a raffle ticket; the draw happens at the end of the month. The big dig is scheduled for February. If you're generous, you could just settle your tab with a barter like the olden days. We're sure your bartender won't object to a fistful of rubies. 1805 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City. (813) 248-5900,

We might meet The One: Side Splitters Comedy Club

A comedy show doesn't seem like the place for it, but looking to your left and right at Side Splitters Comedy Club just might pay off. Brittany Rae Bezzek and Patrick Shawn O'Leary were both at the club with separate groups of friends for a show by April Macie when they spotted one another at different tables. Numbers were exchanged, and the rest is history. They were married in 2013 and went back to Side Splitters quite a few times to commemorate the magic that happened that fateful night. So don't write off a night at the comedy club as a venue for meeting your soulmate. The atmosphere of alcohol, laughter and fun is always a good recipe for romance. 12938 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. (813) 960-1197,

We might get married in a bar: Sea Sea Riders

The wrap-around porch and Old Florida feel at Sea Sea Riders make it one of the best bars in Tampa Bay to say "I do". Co-owner Sylvia Tzekas can't even count the number of weddings, receptions and rehearsal dinners she's hosted in the past 25 years, but says that the connections are only getting more entrenched. "There are people who married here when we first opened who are now holding their kids' weddings here," Tzekas laughed. "It really makes you think." A community favorite and staple, Sea Sea Riders relies on its sunset and marina views, 30-and-up customer base and prime Dunedin location to keep the family-owned tradition going. "We just put out quality product and have a staff that really loves what they do," Tzekas said. 221 Main St., Dunedin

Ultimate Bar Guide: 14 Tampa Bay bars that feel like communities (and a few where you might fall in love) 08/15/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 15, 2014 12:08pm]
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