Published Jan. 31, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

For a time, a sign taped to the old refrigerator against the back wall proclaimed a policy of the Tiny Tap Tavern.

"No Fish," it said.

This made for talk among some patrons, who sipped their beers and mused on its meaning. Was it saying there wouldn't be any fish in there if you went looking for it? That you weren't allowed to store your own fish there, should you happen to be carrying some when you stopped in for refreshment?

But the regulars knew the story. Seems the husband of the bartender stopped in with fish to give someone, stuck it in there and it was forgotten, with predictably odorous results.

Hence, the policy.

Such is the way of the Tiny Tap, a yellow concrete-block castle in the shadow of the Crosstown Expressway. In this smallish, unremarkable neighborhood watering hole, they proudly sell only beer (no imports) and big-jug wine. Food comes in bags of Bugles and chips hanging over the cash register, and a black comb (for that last-minute grooming) costs only a dime.

And under the beer logo lights, over the 25-cent pool tables, Miss Lita Hall, blond, bouffanted queen of the bar, reigns supreme.

The youngish crowd of regulars, the ones given to playing The Doors and The Cure on the jukebox _ affectionately recite her edicts like schoolchildren: No arguing. No setting your glasses on the green felt.

"And let me catch you cheating on the pool table," says Miss Lita, her eyes narrowing.

And God forbid, don't use the F-word. Miss Lita hates that, and she has the keenest ears.

"I'm terrible with that word," admits former merchant marine Matthew Ventre. "But I know not to do it in here."

Miss Lita says she doesn't need the paddle she once used to enforce discipline in the bar. They get the message with her voice.

And it's true; one "You've had enough" from her sends men who tower over her sheepishly out the door. People assume she owns the place; truth is, she came in about eight years ago and left with a job.

But newcomers shouldn't be intimidated; there is a soft side to Miss Lita.

"She's our den mother," explains Marco Primavera.

Ventre drives from St. Petersburg for her counsel. Relationships have come and gone, but Miss Lita has always been there.

"She's like my mom," he says.

Afternoons and evenings it's the old-timers watching the news; later the younger crowd takes over. It is an easy place, filled with smoke and conversation and the smell of beer. From the jukebox may roll Dean Martin or Patsy Cline or Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"It has peacefulness," says Scott "Skinny" Haliczer. "I don't come in here to meet anybody or do anything."

Eventually, most of Miss Lita's regulars take off, going away to school, off to jobs. "But they always manage to come back to see me," she says.

Seven nights a week, til 3 a.m., Miss Lita will be there.

The Tiny Tap is at 2105 Morrison Ave.