With such an abundance of white, sandy beaches and a long, county-spanning coastline, I often forget that our Tampa friends are relatively beach-deprived. With Tampa Bay comprising the entirety of the city's modest waterfront, Tampa folks have made do with what they have, and much of the result is condensed into a small area on the east end of the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
I have to say, they've done a decent job. In the warmer months, the surrounding bay is filled with jet skis and boats, and bathing-suit-clad drinkers amass in the hundreds on the sandy shores of businesses like Hogan's Beach and Whiskey Joe's. I checked out Hogan's Beach a while back and found it to be a pretty convincing beach bar experience.
This time I paid a visit to Whiskey Joe's, the other mega-bar on the Causeway. Whiskey Joe's has been a Bay area hit for some time now, even gaining enough momentum to spawn a second location in Miami last summer. It's got more beach features than most beach bars: boat and small water craft access directly on the beach, sunbathing on the shore, tiki huts and a tiki bar, fire pits, and popular live music events that draw huge crowds.
I was told that Sunday was the day to check it out, and indeed, the place was hopping. Even with cooler weather, the outdoor Barefoot Bar — aptly named, considering that bikinis and swim trunks are the de facto dress code — is a big draw. On this night, a reggae concert after sundown brought out a new crowd, as well as vendors with booths set up along the shore.
Although the Barefoot Bar is probably the most visible feature of Whiskey Joe's, the interior restaurant and bar is also worth a look. Right past the entrance gift shop is a small lounge area with a fireplace and an adjacent island bar. Several expansive dining areas span the length of the roomy interior, much of which comes with picture window waterfront views. For a happy medium between the Barefoot Bar and the inside Bar & Grill, there's outdoor seating on a patio overlooking the beach.
The combination of stone and wood inside reminds me of an oversized version of a classic Florida tiki bar — the kind of place where you might drink an extremely strong Mai Tai or two. And sure enough, there's a long list of rum-heavy cocktails and tropical drinks that fit the bill nicely.
That's pretty much what I expected the cocktail list to look like. And aside from the fact that Rum Joe's doesn't have quite the same ring to it, I went in wondering how a Florida beach bar would use the very non-beachy spirit in its name.
I found out the answer as soon as I sat down at the indoor bar and saw the giant pot still replica, barrels and jugs displayed overhead, along with a surprisingly good whiskey selection. I had assumed that I would be stuck drinking yet another mish-mash of fruit juices, flavored liquors and sour mix (not that there's anything wrong with that), but instead I had my choice of several impressively affordable (all under $10) high-quality scotches, ryes and bourbons.
Whiskey Joe's also has a lot of fun and quirky drink specials, like a coconut carved to look like a monkey that you can fill with a cocktail for just under $20. You get to keep the monkey. Other keep-the-cup specials include a 21-oz. pilsner glass (actually plastic, but whatever) that will set you back between $10 and $12, but with refills priced at $5 and $6, it's a clear deal if you plan on ordering a few beers throughout the day.
It may be miles from the Gulf, but Whiskey Joe's feels about as close to the beach as you can get. It's got all the tacky and touristy Florida charm that this kind of place thrives on, and with the kind of crowds and spectacle that the Barefoot Bar draws pretty much every weekend, it's easy to forget that you're not in Clearwater, or St. Pete, or any of Tampa's other beach-rich neighbors.