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  1. Best Restaurants

Best cocktail list in Tampa Bay

Quench your thirst with these bar programs.
Published Jan. 31, 2019
Updated Jan. 31, 2019

Trophy Fish

The Fin & Tonic cocktail, a Spanish style gin and tonic crafted with Hendricks Gin, Thatcher's Elderflower, citrus peel, juniper berries, cucumber and fresh flowers. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
The Fin & Tonic cocktail, a Spanish style gin and tonic crafted with Hendricks Gin, Thatcher's Elderflower, citrus peel, juniper berries, cucumber and fresh flowers. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

By all rights I should be mad at Trophy Fish. They don’t offer a phone number for the restaurant, so hundreds of Tampa Bay would-be diners try to look it up online, find my review and erroneously call my office phone instead. I’ve toyed with taking reservations. Ryan Griffin and fellow Mandarin Hide partner Blake Thompson and Bill Griffin (Ryan’s dad) had a fairly simple, yet utterly novel, idea: Let’s open a casual, indoor-outdoor fish shack where fish freshness is everything and accessorize it with a seriously cerebral “boat drink” cocktail list. The overall vibe is breezy nautical, the drinks list following suit with goofy (and not precisely helpful) categories: Shipwrecked, I’m on a Yacht, Dockside and such. No matter, because superstar local bartender Morgan Zuch and crew have come up with some humdingers. It pains me somewhat to order a drink called the Banana Hammock or the Grassy Skirt, but drinks, even when full-throttle tiki, are balanced with amari, other bitters and herbs, never verging on cloying. To accompany your libation, crunch across the shell-floor patio and put in an order at the counter for whatever the catch of the day is, maybe as a salad topper or in a pair of tacos, and share an order of fish spread and hush puppies. trophyfishstpete.com

Address: 2060 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

No phone

Price: $$

Saigon Blonde

The "Alpacas Are Awesome" cocktail at Saigon Blonde in St. Petersburg. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
The "Alpacas Are Awesome" cocktail at Saigon Blonde in St. Petersburg. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

It’s a fever dream, like that time you got the flu after watching Apocalypse Now. You’re not going to see Walter Kurtz or Tyrone “Clean” Miller, but the whole vibe of this newish bar takes you to ‘60s-era Vietnam: tiki totems, tropical printed rattan furniture, a dim expat bar overhung by an old airplane wing, bamboo ceilings, reproductions of Vietnam War propaganda posters and photos of lush Vietnamese rice paddies. Is it in any way cultural appropriation for white owner and St. Petersburg native Peri Bandazian to make this the theme of her incredibly hip nightspot? I don’t know. But the design is absolutely gorgeous.

Saigon Blonde is a high-concept bar with a Vietnam War-era theme, design details and exotic cocktails. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
Saigon Blonde is a high-concept bar with a Vietnam War-era theme, design details and exotic cocktails. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

There was some talk of adding food, but for now it’s just cocktails, keenly imagined but not too pricey (most $10 to $12). The beer and wine lists are nothing special, but you’re not here for that. You’re aiming for a Ring of Fire (Street Pumas blended scotch, simple syrup, bitters, house-made “hellfire water” and Korean chile threads) or a Charlie Don’t Surf (Avuá Cachaca, banana liqueur, caramelized banana and lime). saigonblonde.com

Address: 265 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

Phone: (727) 827-7577

Price: $

Hotel Bar

Hotel Bar is a cocktail bar and late-night eatery that specializes in famous cocktails originally created in hotel bars. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES   |   Times]
Hotel Bar is a cocktail bar and late-night eatery that specializes in famous cocktails originally created in hotel bars. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times]

Leslie Shirah was a pioneer in Tampa when she opened the Fly Bar 13 years ago. She sold the building in September and aims to relocate to the Channel District. (The Fly Bar space will become Mole y Abuela in the next weeks, a project of the Franklin Manor folks and celeb chef Fabio Viviani.) Meanwhile, Shirah and co-owner Mark Culbreath have one of Tampa’s other most sophisticated and envelope-pushing bars. It is not in a hotel, but rather the drinks on offer are re-creations of historic signature cocktails from hotels around the world, served in a setting that seems suitably dignified - pressed tin ceilings, huge shimmery crystal chandeliers, enormous librarylike bar with illuminated glass shelves, killer barware. This is primarily a late-night drinking establishment, a place you can order a Sidecar or Sazerac or Vieux Carre and watch it made exactingly by a pro. But it also has remarkably good food, which it serves until midnight. (One quibble: Last time I was there, the check offered helpful tipping amounts of 20, 25 or 30 percent. Really, 30 percent?) At a bare minimum, you’ve got to get the Jamison B. Breadhouse Bakes bread and butter, maybe with a side of marinated olives or an order of deviled eggs and cured salmon. But if you need a little gut-ballast to offset that Queen’s Park Swizzle (see, they even make swizzles! Fancy!), go for the Brie grilled cheese paired with butternut bisque or the house-made tagliatelle with bolognese sauce. hotelbartampa.com

Address: 200 N Tampa St., Tampa

Phone: (813) 533-2650

Price: $-$$

Mandarin Heights

Morgan Zuch mixes up a cocktail at Mandarin Heights in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
Morgan Zuch mixes up a cocktail at Mandarin Heights in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

This is a newcomer owned by the Mandarin Hide and Trophy Fish people. They teamed up with the lovely George and Debbie Sayegh, owners of St. Petersburg’s fiercely beloved Bodega, together taking over the indoor-outdoor Seminole Heights space across from the Refinery that once housed El Rincon Catracho and Viva La Frida before that. On one side it’s a casual, family-friendly spot for lechon plates, Cuban sandwiches and shuffleboard (what is it with hipsters and shuffleboard these days?), and on the other side it’s a super stylish cocktail bar. Have your friends on Facebook changed their profile pic to one of them fully clothed in an empty clawfoot tub in front of a green leafy wall centered by a painting of a flamingo in a crown? Then they’ve been to Mandarin Heights. And you should go, too.

Decor inside of Mandarin Heights in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
Decor inside of Mandarin Heights in Tampa. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

The loosely midcentury modern design is one of the chief draws, with a wall of cool bird cages, great use of neon, more flamingo paintings (I covet all of them), an imposing mounted ram’s head, etc. But you’re there for the drinks. As at Trophy Fish, the cocktail “lab” is overseen by Morgan Zuch, a new menu produced each Tuesday. I’ve had an exceptional French 75 there, as well as a memorable tequila and manzanilla sherry drink called a Suzey Q. mandarinheights.com

Address: 5901 N Florida Ave., Tampa

No phone

Price: $

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