TAMPA — Regulars remember the old Corner Club Tavern as a place where you could strike up a conversation with anyone, where a bartender would pour you beer and wine, but never liquor. Cigarette smoke and St. Patrick’s Day parties. Boiled peanuts and Budweiser.
Suzanne Crouch had been there once or twice and remembers some of that. But the chef mostly recalls how she was approached about the job. The pitch went something like this:
“We’re going to take one of the worst bathrooms in Tampa and turn it into a professional kitchen — what do you think?” Crouch laughed. “It was just crazy enough that I fell in love with it.”
The woman pitching the new gig was Jeni Armstrong, a Tampa restaurant and bar industry veteran who had recently purchased the iconic Seminole Heights dive bar, which closed last year after a roughly 50-year run. The bar’s longtime owner, Fred Jett, first purchased the red brick building in 1972 and listed it in November 2019.
Though Armstrong hadn’t spent much time in the bar (“I’m allergic to cigarettes,” she explained), the listing piqued her interest. Armstrong saw an opportunity to honor the original Corner Club’s spirit while also giving the space some much-needed cosmetic renovations.
Armstrong, who was the general manager at the Bricks in Ybor City and worked for Starbucks for 15 years, signed the contract for the 2,500-square-foot building and lot at 1502 E Sligh Ave. last spring. March 17, to be exact — the day Florida bars were told to shut down.
But being forced to close wasn’t the worst thing: Armstrong had her work cut out for her. The walls of the building, which dates back to 1945, were caked in cigarette resin. There was water damage and the floors were sticky. Everything leaked — the roof, the sinks and toilets. Armstrong’s team hauled out four dumpsters full of trash, including seven different water heaters. (“Only one of them was working,” she recalled.)
Then, there was the matter of the men’s bathroom. Turning it into a professional kitchen was part of the new Corner Club’s focus, after all.
Crouch was working at Tampa’s Rocca when Armstrong approached her. The idea was for an all-day bar and cafe vibe, where coffee drinks, pastries and breakfast would be served in the morning and small, snackable plates could be shared over drinks as the day wore on. Crouch, a longtime Seminole Heights resident who cut her teeth working at restaurants in the neighborhood, saw an opportunity to create something that might appeal to both the spot’s longtime customers as well as the area’s newer residents.
Before Rocca, Crouch was the executive chef at Cass St. Deli and Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe. She described the Corner Club’s menu as rooted in the techniques she honed in the past with an emphasis on “small plates and Florida cracker food.”
A smoker out back is the genesis for dishes like the smoked fish dip, served with matzo crackers, and the smoked pork sausage link, which is given a hearty, German-style preparation — served with sauerkraut, mustard, cornichons and bread. A lot of the menu feels designed for lingering and sharing over a drink or two, including the buffalo chicken yakitori, served with a miso ranch sauce, and cheese and charcuterie boards.
For breakfast, there are bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, served on honey biscuits; toasts topped with goat cheese, fermented pineapple and radishes; and snacks like biscotti and blueberry pound cakes, which can be grabbed to-go. A weekend brunch features Dutch babies with lemon curd and fresh berries; biscuits with pork gravy; and a decadent-sounding chocolate pound cake with espresso custard.
In a nod to its predecessor — and perhaps a lighthearted attempt to appease to some of the bar’s longtime regulars — there are still boiled peanuts on the menu. And just like the old Corner Club, the revamped version sells only beer and wine. A small selection of reds, whites and bubbly by the glass is coupled with a longer list of beers by the can and bottle, and features several local breweries. Armstrong said she is currently developing a separate menu of wine-based and nonalcoholic cocktails.
Since opening, Armstrong said the response from the neighborhood — and the bar’s longtime regulars — has been mostly curious and positive, if a bit hesitant at times.
“I know I’m not going to make everyone happy,” Armstrong said. “I’ve always just kind of grown the businesses with people in mind.”
The Corner Club is open daily from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
1502 E Sligh Ave., Tampa. 813-231-5010.