Visit Clearwater Beach's Brown Boxer on a Friday afternoon, and you might grab a burger, play some darts, talk a little Rays and Phillies with the locals.
Visit again a few hours later, and you might end up doing shots, dancing to live music and hollering over the joyous din — that is, when you're not trying to wedge through the mix of regulars, tourists and conventioneers engulfing its two bars.
That versatility is the biggest reason business has been booming since the Brown Boxer opened in 2010. Owner Jay Thomas says revenue is up 18 percent this year, and that's following a 21 percent increase from 2011. "We have not slowed down," he says. "At all."
When tbt* asked our Facebook fans to nominate their favorite bar in Tampa Bay as part of this year's Ultimate Bar Guide, we got 4,723 votes in response. The Brown Boxer was the runaway winner.
The bar's popularity is no surprise. It's already spawned two sister locations, one in Madeira Beach and another near Countryside Mall, and Thomas is scouting locations for a third —maybe St. Petersburg, maybe St. Pete Beach, maybe Orlando or Sarasota. "I'm gonna do a store a year, and if they continue to grow and do well, I'll keep going."
Thomas, a former Hooters executive, moved from Philadelphia to Tampa Bay in 2007 and spent two years searching for the perfect place to open a new bar.
"I didn't want to do the same thing that was on the beach," he says. "When I came down, there was no sports bar; there was no place to go after the beach when you showered and you and your wife, your girlfriend, went out to dinner and then wanted to get a drink. There was nowhere like that here. Everything was a beach bar."
It took a little while for the bar to establish that after-hours foothold, but now, Thomas said the bar does up to 70 percent of its business from 9 p.m. to close. On Saturdays, he says the bar brings in upwards of $30,000.
"The first time we had someone throw up on the pool table, we were like, 'Alright, we made it!'" he laughs.
The Brown Boxer does boffo business during Phillies spring training — "On a Tuesday night, we'll be jam-packed," Thomas said — but it got an even bigger boost this summer, when a USA Today reader poll named Clearwater Beach Florida's best beach town.
"A 21-year-old doesn't feel weird coming to the Brown Boxer, and a 71-year-old doesn't feel weird," he said. "Everyone gets along, and we have a good ol' time."
The Brown Boxer Pub and Grille is located at 483 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach. (727) 441-6000, thebrownboxer.com.
Rounding out the top 10 bars selected by tbt* readers
2. Nolan's Pub
They've got 22 tasty beers on tap at Nolan's Pub in Safety Harbor. Try them all and you get a free T-shirt. Do it five times and you get your name on the wall. Ten times and you get your name on a plaque on the bar. It's an incredibly welcoming place, family-run and named for the owners' 2-1/2-year-old son. They're starting a softball league with some other joints in Safety Harbor, so stop by if you're looking for a game. 230 Main St., Safety Harbor; (727) 400-6998, nolanspub.com.
3. Anchor Bar
Davis Islands is packed with locals' joints, and the Anchor Bar is a good one, with a nice selection of craft beer and scotch behind the bar. Their cocktail menu is still in flux, but the Mai Tai, made with Captain and Malibu, is cool and coconutty, with a satisfying mouthfeel. No wonder they're already planning to expand, with a site on Franklin St. downtown coming soon. 304 E Davis Boulevard, Tampa; (813) 483-4573, anchorbartampa.com.
4. The Broken Tusk
Call it St. Pete's most inclusive dive. Opened by longtime Emerald bartenders Judah and Levi Love, the Broken Tusk is an LGBT-friendly bar located far from St. Pete's LGBT-friendly Grand Central District. You can always find darts and pinball, and occasionally drag shows and bingo nights. Check out the Saturday night "Power Hour" (10 to 11 p.m.), when everything behind the bar is only $3. 4685 28th Street N, St. Petersburg; (727) 521-9514, facebook.com/thebrokentusk.
5. The Stein and Vine
Wedged between a gun shop and a Family Dollar in southeast Brandon is the Stein and Vine, a cool and cozy wine, craft beer and tater tot bar. That's right: their burgers come with tots, which you can top with chili, cheese, jalapeños, onions, sour cream, bacon and/or a fried egg. As good as the food, beer and wine menus are, the chic atmosphere and friendly conversation is the real draw. Just keep your hands off our tots. 827 Bloomingdale Ave., Brandon; (813) 655-4786, thesteinandvine.com.
6. Peabody's Billiards and Games
By day, it's one of Tampa Bay's biggest sports bars, with more than 70 TVs and giant screens, not to mention plenty of pool and foosball tables, poker and pool tournaments and other games. At night and on weekends, USF students flock here for the late-night party scene and jaw-dropping specials. Nickel-beer Tuesdays, $2 Burger Mondays, $7 liquor pitchers, $12.49 all-you-can-drink calls and wells at select happy hours ... the deals go on and on. 15333 Amberly Drive, Tampa; (813) 972-1725, peabodysbilliards.com.
7. Tarpon Tavern
Modestly decorated but immensely popular among locals, this nautically themed bar has a huge patio and some 30 beers on tap and more in bottles. It's highly rated on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, not only for its casual seafood and pub grub, but for its beer selection, one of the biggest in town. 20 N Safford Ave., Tarpon Springs; (727) 945-1000, tarpontavern.com.
8. Harry's Beach Bar
When FloridaBeachBar.com names your bar one of the top 10 beach bars in the Sunshine State, you must be doing something right. Located poolside at the Sirata Beach Resort, it's a laid-back margarita fuel-up joint on hot summer days and a rocking beach party when the fire pit warms up at night. Frozen drinks like the Lava Flow are the specialty, but try the Sirata Punch — pineapple, cranberry and orange juices; grenadine; and your choice of rum, vodka and tequila. 5300 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (855) 344-5999, sirata.com/harrys-beach-bar.
9. Blowfish Bar and Grill
Darius Rucker himself showed up to play at the opening of this Seminole bar and grill. And why wouldn't he? His Hootie and the Blowfish bandmate Dean Felber is a part owner. The former bassist nods to his '90s alt-rock past on the cocktail menu, which features drinks with grunge-era names like the Come As You Are, (raspberry vodka, Sprite and lime juice), Self Esteem (Wild Turkey, amaretto, cranberry juice and Apple Pucker) and Man in the Box (Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea, peach schnapps and orange juice). The '90s will never die! 8305 Bay Pines Blvd. N, Seminole; (727) 547-2100; blowfishgrill.com.
10. Palm Harbor House of Beer
Dunedin's House of Beer was the original, and one of the first beer bars in North Pinellas to capitalize on the craft beer craze. In addition to 50 beers on tap and many more in bottles, the Palm Harbor location has carved out a niche as a fun place for live music, trivia and bar games — everything from cornhole and tabletop shuffleboard to oversized Connect 4 and Jenga. Stop by on Sunday, when they usually have a Randall up and running — that's a high-tech device that infuses beer with flavors like cinnamon, vanilla and fruit. Mmmm. 34970 U.S. 19, Palm Harbor; (727) 784-2337, palmharborhob.com.
Information from Times files was used in this report.
The rest of the Top 40 (give or take; we had some ties)
The Ale and the Witch: One of the 'Burg's most beloved bars, it has a fresh and rotating tap selection picked out by some true beer lovers, often with live music resonating in the courtyard. For more, see Page 59. 111 Second Ave NE, St. Petersburg, (727) 821-2533, thealeandthewitch.com
Bilmar Station: This longtime Tampa sports bar is a great one, with games galore (darts, foosball, video golf/bowling/hunting and way more lived-in character than you tend to see in today's cookie-cutter sports bars. If you drink 90 beers in 90 days, you earn a spot on the Bilmar Station Wall of Foam. With a growing craft beer menu, including 20 rotating taps, it's a tempting challenge. 8501 W Hillsborough Ave., Tampa; (813) 496-8898, bilmarstation.com
Boots N Buckles Saloon: Tampa Bay's got some fine country bars (see Page 38). Polk County's answer to them all is Boots N Buckles, a hotspot for pool, line dancing and concerts by artists like Easton Corbin, Thompson Square and Tracy Lawrence. 4951 U.S. Highway 98 N, Lakeland; (863) 815-2668, bootsnbucklessaloon.com
The Brass Tap: The sleek and sophisticated World of Beer may rule Tampa Bay's urban interiors. But the outskirts belong to the Brass Tap. Its six locations are scattered mostly in Tampa Bay's suburbs, commercial drags and shopping districts, where its massive craft beer menu is intensely appreciated. Five separate Brass Tap locations (Wesley Chapel, Brandon, Trinity, Dade City and Lakeland) earned enough reader votes to rank in the top 50; add them all up and the Brass Tap would take the overall crown. It would've been a deserving winner. Soon the Brass Tap will open its first location in downtown St. Petersburg, an area already thick with craft beer bars. Will it manage to draw a crowd there, too? Based on the past few years, we wouldn't bet against it. To find a location near you, see brasstapbeerbar.com
Capitol Beer House: When Clearwater's historic Capitol Theatre reopens in December, expect this new beer bar, with 32 taps and many more in bottles, to be a prime watering hole before and after shows. 422 Cleveland St., Clearwater; (727) 449-1900, capitolbeerhouse.com
Cigar City Brewing: Tampa's premier brewery has a top-notch tasting room, with a big selection of taps — including some exclusive to the brewery and some from outside the region — plus pinball, tabletop shuffleboard and, on Friday evenings, food trucks in the parking lot. 3924 W Spruce St., Tampa; (813) 348-6363, cigarcitybrewing.com
Cheap: Cheap is more down-to-earth than its boisterous sister nightclubs Hyde Park Cafe and The Kennedy, and while some of its mojitos, martinis and cocktails may be questionably named (Mojito on Steroids? The Cougar?), they taste just fine. To help you soak it all up, the kitchen's open until 3 a.m. from Wednesday to Sunday for sushi, pizza and burgers. 309 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 258-5878, cheapinsoho.com
CJ's on the Island: CJ's bills itself as the "karaoke capital of Treasure Island," but that might not go far enough, as it offers karaoke starting at 9 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday. There's also plenty of live music, drink specials, pool and — get this — free hot dogs, starting at 11 a.m. daily. 115 107th Ave., Treasure Island; (727) 360-1760, cjsonti.com
Copperheads Tap House: The bar that brought the craft beer craze to Safety Harbor offers more than 30 taps plus bottles and wine, not to mention pool, live music and trivia on the first Thursday of every month. The most amazing aspect might be the bar's loyalty program, which offers awards for various tiers. Drink 1,000 beers, and you get a plaque on the wall and 20 percent off for life. 640 Main St., Safety Harbor; (727) 400-4721, copperheadstaphouse.com
Crabby Bill's: The original home of this local seafood chain makes our list thanks to the Loading Dock, an outdoor bar and cafe that opens at 7 a.m. In addition to a full menu of beachy fare, this beach bum's paradise has picnic tables, a pet cleanup station and monthly specials, like August's Blueberry Lemonade Smash, with Smirnoff Blueberry and blue curacao. "I like making it cause it smells good," said our bartender. And it's only $4.50. 401 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach; (727) 595-4825, crabbybills.com
Dallas Bull: Not only is the Bull Tampa Bay's biggest country nightclub (see Page 38), it's possibly Tampa Bay's largest club, period. On Thursdays, upwards of 4,000 boot-scooters pile in for bull-ridin' fun. Past live concerts have included Luke Bryan, Eric Church and Florida Georgia Line. 3322 U.S. 301, Tampa; (813) 987-2855, dallasbull.com
The Dubliner: One of SoHo's most easygoing pubs, the original Dubliner remains one of Tampa's favorite Irish bars, serving a variety of Irish beers (go on Wednesday nights, when 32-ounce drafts are just $6) and wines, plus live music Wednesday through Saturday. A second location in Citrus Park also serves liquor and has become a quality soccer-watching hangout. 2307 W Azeele St., Tampa; (813) 258-2257, thedublineririshpub.com
Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill: The inviting indoor-outdoor layout and copious TV screens make this one of the area's top sports bars. Its location across from Tropicana Field makes it, hands down, the best Tampa Bay Rays bar in the world. 1320 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727), 822-4562, fergssportsbar.com
Fly Bar and Restaurant: Led by ace mixologist Danny Guess, the bar staff is second to none (see Page 28). But good food and a rooftop deck with its own distinct flavor make it a popular downtown happy hour destination. 1202 N Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 275-5000, flybarandrestaurant.com
Freaki Tiki: Don't be fooled by the name — this is no beach bar, sitting as it does on U.S. 19 in Clearwater. It's more of a shots 'n' specials party joint, one that would fit right in on the Ybor strip. Here, you'll find sweet, silly shots like the Birthday Cake: Smirnoff Iced Cake vodka, white creme de cacao, lemon and a sugar rim. There's pool, darts, pop-a-shot hoops and a punching machine, plus a nice outdoor patio. 28778 U.S. 19, Clearwater; (727) 329-6160, freakitikibar.com
Fubar: Dark, crusty and a whole lot of fun, Fubar is a hub of activity in the St. Pete punk, EDM and indie scenes. Turbo Tuesdays helped establish a dubstep scene in Tampa Bay, and they also have a quality craft beer menu and fun events like the Church of Nintendo, when everyone can get their old-school game on. 658 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 424-1809, facebook.com/fubardowntown
Hattrick's: What Ferg's is to the Rays, Hattrick's is to the Lightning. Located in a historic brick building, Tampa's top downtown sports bar is full of jerseys and memorabilia, with great pre- and post-game noshing and drink specials. 107 S Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 225-4288, sportsbartampa.com
Hula Bay Club: It's practically hidden in a marina, but once you find it, you may not want to leave. Fine Hawaiian fare, shady dockside drinking and live parties at night — it's unique among South Tampa bars. 5210 W Tyson Ave., Tampa; (813) 837-4852, hulabayclub.com
Irish 31: The interior of this Hyde Park pub is slick and sleek, but it feels like a neighborhood pub (as one of our own writers discovered — see Page 33). There's frequent live music, and it's the home base of an eponymous running club. 1611 W Swann Ave., Tampa; (813) 250-0031, irish31.com
James Joyce Irish Pub: In its new location away from the Seventh Avenue strip, Ybor City's James Joyce has a lot going for it. In addition to the 50 taps behind the bar, there's a stellar selection of Irish Whiskey and a popular loyalty club (or, as they call it, a "drinking team"). Bonus: From 5 to 9 p.m. on Monday through Wednesday, get a 2-pound lobster for just $9.99. 1724 E Eighth Ave., Ybor City; (813) 247-1896, jamesjoyceybor
Linkster's Tap Room: This Central Florida chain (which also has a spot in Tampa) has many flat-screen TVs, a pair of Golden Tee machines and a popular text-based discount: Text a certain phrase to a certain number and you get 2-4-1 drinks. 1911 W Brandon Blvd., Brandon; (813) 654-3333, linksterstaproom.com
The Lodge: It's a friendly and SoHo happy hour and late-night favorite with a homey vibe and cheeky sense of humor. Don't miss WTF Wednesdays, featuring $5 burgers, pizza, sushi, wings and select draft liters. For more, see Page 50. 516 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 241-5634, cicciorestaurantgroup.com
MacDinton's SoHo: It's the big swingin' shillelagh of South Tampa party destinations, with an unkillable happy hour and Friday night vibe. The $10 open bar from 6 to 8 p.m. helps. A sister location in St. Petersburg also has proven successful. 405 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-8999, macdintons.com
Mandalay Grill: Located just off Clearwater Beach's main drag, it's close to Pier 60 and plenty of parking, making its indoor-outdoor bar a convenient spot to beat the heat with a bite to eat and a cool local brew (Cigar City Jai Alai and Florida Avenue Ale, to name a couple) on draft. For some shade, try to grab one of the seats in a cozy alley nook. 395 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater; (727) 441-3424, mandalaygrill.net
Mr. Dunderbak's: Even before the craft beer boom, this German restaurant and biergarten was where true hopheads gathered for beer club meetings and to find ultra-rare imports like the Belgian lambic Cantillon's Rosé de Gambrinus (see Pages 46-47) and even Westvleteren XII, often dubbed the world's best beer. 14929 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa; (813) 977-4104, dunderbaks.com
Nickel City Bar and Grille: In many ways, it's the perfect Pinellas Park dive — and that's not a bad thing. Smoky, sure, but the drinks are cheap, the dartboards are plentiful and the classic rock is always flowing. For more, see Page 62. 7658 Park Blvd. N, Pinellas Park. (727) 545-9325, nickelcitylife.com
O'Brien's Irish Pub: Brandon's premier Irish pub is actually much more than that. There's a family-restaurant feel to the place, especially on Thursdays, when kids eat free from 4 to 10 p.m. and, once a month, there's a kids' karaoke session. The rest of the week, it's a party-hard atmosphere, with live music, beer pong and tons of specials on shots, martinis and vodka drinks. 701 W Lumsden Road, Brandon; (813) 661-9688, obrienspubsbrandon.com
PCI Beach Bar: Inside or out, you can't go wrong at the Postcard Inn at the Beach. Inside, there's the PCI Bar and Grill, offering barbecue, entrees, sophisticated cocktails and a nice bourbon selection. Outside, situated between the pool and the beach, is the PCI Beach Bar, a shacklike shed full of fun surfside specialties like the Endless Summer (Red Stag black cherry bourbon, vanilla ice cream and a strawberry swirl). There are cabanas, hammocks, pool and ping-pong tables and more. You could kill a weekend here without batting an eye. 6300 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 367-2711, postcardinn.com
Social: Still new enough to be considered below the radar, this friendly and inventive gastropub has an exciting cocktail menu (try the AnTEAque — black tea-infused Hendrick's, vermouth, St. Germain, peach bitters and a twist of lemon peel) and a craft beer list with a strong focus on a diverse mix of local brews. 5226 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 525-4589, facebook.com/socialon4th
Sunset Grill: Bartender Jamie Johnson won tbt*'s 2011 Ultimate Bartender contest, but the Sunset Grill remains a popular SouthShore destination to this day, thanks to a tiki bar and waterside location that offers some of the best sunset views in Hillsborough County. (Oh, so that's where the name came from!) Located at the Little Harbor Resort and Club, 611 Destiny Drive, Ruskin; (813) 645-7739, sunsetgrillfl.com
Tampa Tap Room: The strip-mall hangout formerly known as Tank's still has a really nice craft beer selection — on a recent visit, we found Gentlemen's Club, the new collaboration between Cigar City Brewing and Widmer Brothers that's meant to evoke an Old Fashioned. There's also a nice menu of Cajun fare. Blue Crab Beignets, anyone? 13150 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 961-2337.
Tiny Tap: It's comical to think that this ancient, smoky dive — which housed tbt*'s 2010 Ultimate Bartender, Kasey Mitchell — sits right across the street from SideBern's, maybe the swankiest cocktail joint in town. But trust us, plenty of penny-pinching locals prefer the Tiny Tap. 2105 W Morrison Ave., Tampa; (813) 254-3872.
Tryst Gastro Lounge: Tbt*'s 2013 Ultimate Bartender, creative mixologist Logan Owens, still tends the bar at this snazzy downtown St. Pete cocktail joint. The address says Beach Drive, but the sleek interior and open indoor-outdoor bar scream South Beach. 240 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 821-4567, trystgastrolounge.com
Willard's Tap House: A true beer lovers' beer lovers' bar, Willard's Tap House has a frequently rotating selection of taps that includes a nice selection of IPAs (see Page 59) and American pale ales. 12500 Starkey Road, Largo. (727) 581-8600, willardstaphouse.com
Information from Times files was used in this report.