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Zo Lounge in Clearwater is worth the visit, despite unlikely location

From a glance, Zo Lounge looks like the kind of place that's destined for failure. The tiny nightclub is located on an aggressively unattractive, permanently-under-construction stretch of U.S. 19 in Clearwater, and simply pulling in and out of the dirt parking lot — which is also occupied by various construction vehicles — means weaving through neon-orange traffic barriers after taking a mile detour to make a U-turn if approaching from the south.

The neon-blue sign out front looks like a mirror image of another one farther south on U.S. 19; like that business, I had assumed for some time that Zo Lounge was a strip club. To me, the odds seemed heavily stacked against Zo Lounge.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally paid it a visit and found that my preconceived notions were wildly off the mark.

Somehow, Zo Lounge has avoided the curse of 25032 U.S. 19, an address that's hosted a number of short-lived nightclubs and lounges over the past few years. I never made it to any of the previous incarnations — Famous Cigars, Dirty Martini, Votka Gastro Lounge — so I wasn't really sure what to expect. A barren nightclub? A seedy lounge?

Neither, it turns out. As soon as I stepped into Zo Lounge, I was struck by how clean and attractive the place was. A long, winding bar flanked the left side of the main room, backed by a stone- wall façade and more than 100 different backlit spirit bottles arranged neatly along the length of the bar's back. Cool, blue light emanated from a Grey Goose-branded aquarium on one end.

The second thing I noticed was the music. The sound quality was excellent — pro quality — but it was also at a reasonable volume for the early part of the night, so people could mingle, order drinks without shouting and get into the mood before the DJ — positioned in a small booth between the bar and the large center dance floor — started to heat things up.

And heat up, they did. Zo Lounge may look oddly out of place from the street, but once you're inside, it seems like a thriving club. By 10:30 p.m., the dance floor was packed. Much of the crowd was a touch older than you'd find in Ybor — mostly 30-somethings — but the range of clientele was diverse, from young partiers to the girls-night-out crowds to older, suit-wearing guys sipping wine at one of the granite-topped tables at the booths along the wall.

An attached, closed-in room holds a second bar and VIP lounge seating, as well as an exit to an outdoor patio. Despite the apparently diminutive quarters — it's hard to believe this is the site of a legitimate nightclub when looking at it from the street — Zo Lounge feels roomy and very comfortable.

So why is Zo Lounge doing so well in a spot plagued by failed businesses? I think it all boils down to an attention to detail, offering a region with few club options an experience that they would otherwise have to cross the bridge to find. The staff is friendly and attentive; the music — ranging from live bands to DJ King JB from Wild 94.1 — is good and varies nightly; the drink specials are fair and the drinks themselves served strong; and, crucially, the place draws a real crowd.

I was surprised at what I found in that small, neon nightclub surrounded by gray, dusty construction, traffic congestion and shuttered storefronts. Not only is Zo Lounge a quality late-night club option for Clearwater folks who would prefer to stay on their side of the bay, it's a good club in its own right, offering all the frills of the big places over the bridge, even if the surrounding environment is just a little less polished.

Zo Lounge

25032 U.S. 19, Clearwater; (727) 725-3093, zolounge.com

The vibe: A hip, popular nightclub in a location where you'd least expect one.

Booze: Beer, $5.50-$6.75; wine, $5.50; liquor, $5.75-$9.75, although Johnnie Walker Blue Label is an exception at $22.

Specialty: The beer and wine options are basic, but there's plenty to choose from in the spirits department, ranging from imaginatively flavored vodkas and rums to high-end tequilas and single-malt scotch. Ask about the nightly specials, which include deals on a variety of drinks, including beers, sink-or-swim promotions and discounted bottle service, if you're feeling like a VIP.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday, 4 p.m. to midnight Tuesday, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Zo Lounge in Clearwater is worth the visit, despite unlikely location 09/19/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 19, 2013 9:54am]

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