In the nine years I’ve written this column, I’ve visited a startling number of pubs, speakeasies, dives, clubs, restaurants, biker bars, breweries and everything in between: more than 450 bars. That’s a lot of columns.
This one will be my last.
The best part of this gig has been the need to venture outside of my comfort zone to keep things lively and varied enough to hopefully entertain and inform thirsty Tampa Bay area residents. That has been the plan from the start — my first two columns were on an old-school tiki bar in Sarasota (Bahi Hut) and a Chinese restaurant in Seminole (Zom Hee) that remain two of my favorite spots for a drink to this day.
Venturing off the beaten path has brought me to novel locations such as Gibsonton, a town known for its large residence of traveling carnival workers. I’ve sucked down beers and second-hand smoke at the now-shuttered Tropicana Bar and admired the bizarre murals at Showtown Bar & Grill. Last stop: AJ’s on the River, a sleepy watering hole on the banks of the Alafia River.
Gibsonton’s primary claim to fame is that of a carny town, but AJ’s on the River is more along the lines of your typical sports bar, with cheap and cold beers, a menu of simple meals and bar snacks and a few TVs inside at the bar presenting the various sports du jour.
It’s an Old Florida bar, too, with an indoor-outdoor component that stretches onto a split-level, spacious patio deck, framed by boat ramps and trailer campsites. Flip-flops and tank tops are perfectly appropriate attire here, which makes sense, considering some of its patrons will invariably arrive by water.
Decorations range from dollar bills stuck to the ceiling inside the bar to old outboard motors hanging from the rafters on the patio. There are string lights above the bar that add to the outdoorsy, almost campground-like feel to the site.
In the back of the bar is the kitchen, which is actually a food truck of sorts, built into a pop-out trailer. This means the menu is somewhat limited, consisting primarily of burgers, sandwiches and pizza. There are a handful of beers available, including several local craft options, as well as a small range of wines on draft and wine-based faux spirits.
Longtime readers will know that I don’t mind these faux liquors when prepared correctly, and that’s the case at AJ’s. You can get away with a lot when making faux tequila sunrises, amaretto sours, strawberry daiquiris and Long Island iced teas (all on the menu at AJ’s). If they taste good and have adequate booze in them, I’ll sip some while enjoying a nice riverfront breeze.
There’s not a particularly elaborate setup at AJ’s, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that simple can be great, and showy bars rarely guarantee success. I like the simplicity at AJ’s. It couldn’t possibly be more laid-back or unpretentious, but it’s not a crumbling mess, either. That’s a harder balance to strike than you’d think.
Working the bar beat has been quite a ride, and I’m fortunate to have been able to take it. Now I can spend more time revisiting all those places I’ve been meaning to go back to all these years. If you see me out there, be sure to say hi — the first round’s on me.
— Contact Justin Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @WordsWithJG.
AJ’s on the River
9808 Vaughn St., Gibsonton. (813) 605-4621. facebook.com/ajsontheriver
The vibe: A laid-back bar and grill located on the banks of the Alafia River.
Food: Sandwiches, burgers and pizza, $7.50 to $9.50.
Booze: Beer, wine and liquor. Beer, $3 to $5.50; wine, $5 to $5.50.
Specialty: AJ’s stocks a small but decent beer selection, featuring a variety of craft options, including local brews from places like Cigar City, 3 Daughters, Tampa Bay Brewing Company and Coppertail. There’s no liquor, but that hasn’t stopped the bar from assembling 10 house cocktails, with classics like the Moscow mule, margarita, piña colada all present, just made with wine-based mock spirits. They’re not bad!
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.