I could smell the cigarette smoke before I even finished parking. What did I expect? I was meeting a friend at a pool hall, and a pack's worth of secondhand smoke is par for the course in these kind of places.
But then I saw the No Smoking sign on the door. The smell was coming from the wraparound patio, where it had combined into a single, dense plume due to a small huddle of smokers banished to the otherwise-fresh outdoor air.
Inside was a surprise, too. Instead of the dark, semi-seedy environment that I expected, the place was clean, attractive and lively. What kind of pool hall did I wander into?
Brewland Bar & Billiards, I learned, is a pretty substantial upgrade in the pool hall department. It started with an original location in Lakeland before branching out into Tampa's Carrollwood neighborhood in November, both locations offering a more polished take on the theme, as well as a full bar and kitchen.
It's possible that I've mostly managed to visit pool halls of a dingier variety in the past, but Brewlands' interior was clean and modern to the point of being jarring. Sure, there's some romantic quality to shooting pool in a smoky dungeon lit only by harsh fluorescents, but Brewlands really makes a case for going against type here.
As a pool hall, Brewlands succeeds handily. There's no shortage of tables, including both full-size and "bar-size" options. As usual, you pay by the hour, though there are specials throughout the week that sweeten the deal substantially, like the $5 all-you-can-play pricing during the afternoon and early evening.
The tables are quality (Brunswick) and new, so it's hard to tell if they're especially well-maintained, or if they just haven't seen too much action yet. All I know is that I had to adjust for some extra rolling, which tells you a bit about the tables I typically play on.
Serious pool players will appreciate the quality of the gear, as well as the options to join leagues: There are American Poolplayers Association events every day except Sunday, as well as TAP events (The Association for Pool) on Sunday and Monday evenings. It's not all serious hobbyists, though; free lessons are available for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.
Here's the real clincher: Brewlands also is a really solid bar. The name comes from a Scottish estate owned by one of the bar's four owners that was once the site of a small brewery. That explains the mountains looming in the background of the bar's logo, which was initially a bit confusing to me, given that flat Florida is home to both its locations.
You wouldn't expect to find much in the way of wine at your average pool hall or sports bar — the 20 TVs positioned throughout the interior put Brewlands in that category, as well — but a selection of 15-odd varieties gives wine drinkers more than just a token handful of house options.
Liquor-wise, you'll find a fully stocked bar with all the usual suspects, as well as some higher-end options, especially in the whisky department. A Laphroaig or Oban with your game of Nine ball? Who's gonna stop you?
It's mostly about the beer, though, with a solid 24 options on draft and at least as many more in the bottle. Of these, a nice chunk were local, which is always appreciated. The pint prices are good, with most beers priced around $6. An upgrade to a 23-ounce glass is only $1 more.
Brewlands is a damn fine pool hall, and a solid bar in its own right. I suppose that explains the fact that it was pretty happening on a Wednesday night. If I were a serious pool player, I'd have no trouble making the trek, as it's a big cut above other options.