Let’s get one thing straight: Beach bars and tiki bars aren’t necessarily the same thing.
A bar can have “tiki” in the name (or “island” or “jungle” or “bamboo”), or it can be stuffed with nautical decor and sweet, fruity rum drinks. But the careful combination of kitschy nostalgia and killer cocktail prep — not every beach bar in Florida can pull that off.
Truth is, a proper tiki bar doesn't have to be anywhere near a beach. Look no further than Sarasota's storied Bahi Hut, which sits off U.S. 41. Or Fort Lauderdale's vaunted Mai-Kai, or San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove, or Portland's Hale Pele, or even Minnesota's Lucky Cricket, an Andrew Zimmern restaurant whose cocktail menu was developed by Tampa mixologist Dean Hurst.
A good tiki bar evokes a sense of whimsy and wonderment as you’re downing Mai Tais and Pain Killers. It should make you feel like you’re waiting out a storm in an exotic port stripped of time and place — grateful for the shelter, but also just a little dark and devious.
The Tampa Bay area doesn’t really have its own version of Trader Vic’s, a single tiki bar that checks all the boxes on a South Seas scoresheet. The city of Tampa, in particular, is lacking in the tiki department — although the Pink Pineapple, which has been staging pop-up events in advance of a forthcoming bar in Seminole Heights, might remedy that later this summer.
Then again, tiki bars come in all shapes, sizes and spirits. Some of them do, in fact, double as laid-back beach bars. Others sneak up and surprise you in sleek restaurants and trendy drinking districts.
Here are six of Tampa Bay's best and most unconventional spins on the traditional tiki bar.
The exotic vibes are strong in this upscale Central Avenue hideaway, presenting its South Pacific imagery through an ominous Kong: Skull Island filter. You might hear Vietnam-era funk or rock as you sip exquisite, aromatic cocktails from a heavy tumbler, such as the Charlie Don’t Surf, made with cachaca and a caramelized banana.
Address: 265 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 827-7577
While Mahuffer’s is a beach bar through and through — you’ll get your plastic-cup Rum Runners and Hurricanes here, no problem — it’s also the bar that comes closest to capturing the spirit of an authentic old-school tiki dive. Every inch of the place is coated with dollar bills, Sharpie’d signatures, nautical bric-a-brac and bras. There are no carved tiki heads or exotic rum drinks served from pineapples carved like monkey skulls, but it’s proof bars that are tiki at heart don’t really need them.
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Address: 19201 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores
Phone: (727) 596-0226
Looking less like a pier shack than a yacht club pool deck, this open-air spot gets several things right, from the bed of white shells lining its tiled walkways to the its Pistachio Mai Tai and mezcal- and absinthe-based Mermaid Water. The fish is fresh and dogs are welcome, and you’ll likely bump into at least one or two interesting characters — the hallmark of any truly great tiki bar.
Address: 2060 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 258-7883
The Mai Tai a little limier than a braddah might expect, but that's probably because the key theme here is vintage Floridiana. There are vintage postcards and motel key rings all over, all deployed in a trendily sleek Miami-chic fashion. The outdoor bar and courtyard are open and inviting on not-too-warm nights, whether you're sipping a frozen Pain Killer or a shareable fishbowl Mai Tai.
Address: 937 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 544-6018
There are two Getaways in St. Petersburg, both with their own charms. The original is tucked away in the mangroves off Gandy Beach, a dockside warren of huts, high-tops and and Adirondack chairs. It’s a total escape from the world — and yet the second location, opened last summer, feels even more like an escape, hidden even farther off the beaten path, down near Maximo Marina The cocktail menu leans Caribbean but gets a little friskier than your average, with zombies, gimlets, rickeys and something rummy called “Boat Drink.” Perfect for watching boaters putter by.
Address: 13090 Gandy Blvd. N, St. Petersburg; and 3769 50th Ave. S, St. Petersburg
Phone: (727) 317-5751, (727) 235-0963
Zom Hee Chinese Restaurant
This old-school eatery in land-locked Seminole is gloriously from another era, with a well-oiled bar and an array of delightful cocktails. While not even the least bit beachy, the bar area is full of Pacific Rim character, and it’s stocked with vintage glassware and ceramic tiki mugs. The menu even features photos of highlights like the Tahitian’s Scorpion, the Confucius Itch and the Hong Kong Bar Gin Sling. You’ll want to try them all. And you’ll be telling friends about this hidden gem forever.
Address: 9015 Park Blvd. N, Seminole
Phone: (727) 391-8393