What's up with liquor lounges? I can't tell you how many times I've driven by a hole-in-the-wall liquor store and saw a dusty old lounge attached. Based on the look of most of them, I'm guessing this was a common thing in the '70s and '80s, but I wasn't quite legal to drink at that point, so I couldn't tell you.
I often want to check these spots out, but finding a worthwhile liquor lounge is worse than a crapshoot; it's almost inevitable that you'll find yourself in a dingy, boring dive. Even a Big Red 7 craps bet is a better shot.
One I've driven by several hundred times is attached to the Fine Wine & Spirits Warehouse on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. When I got a tip that the lounge was actually a pretty popular neighborhood spot, I figured it was time to take a closer look.
On appearances alone, the name "Fine Wine & Spirits Warehouse" seems improbable. It looks like any other generic booze store, save for some creative murals on the side of the building. And it's far too small to be a warehouse.
Imagine my surprise when I walked into the store and found, yes, a gigantic selection of fine wines and spirits, including a premium wine cellar featuring select vintages, reaching as high as the 100 Parker Point-rated Harlan Estate 1997, a Cab/Merlot blend that normally retails around $1,150 (at Fine Wine & Spirits it's a mere $1,050). Many shelves are crammed into a small space — you'd never believe the selection without actually walking in and seeing it for yourself.
Owner Mike Kwasin and wine buyer Tom McEntee have put together a serious wine shop in a spot that you'd never expect. And while the attached lounge is every bit as divey as you might think, it's got some surprises that distinguish it.
For one, it's impressively roomy. There's a long bar framed with old, stained glass-style panels — the "Zapp's" logo, possibly from a previous incarnation of the lounge, is visible in the Burt Reynolds flick Cop and a Half, which was filmed in Tampa — and the surrounding lounge is split into two rooms, big enough for three pool tables, a claw game, dartboards, video bowling, a couple dozen two-seater booths and even a kitchen.
The décor is very much from the '70s and '80s, with some parts — the floor-to-ceiling mirror panels behind stylized wood latticework, for example — tacky in the best way possible. There's even a thoroughly decrepit cigarette machine lurking in a corner. You couldn't construct a more authentically old-school spot if you tried.
Like all good neighborhood bars, the clientele at the Warehouse Lounge is a cross-section of the surrounding South Tampa neighborhoods. It's not a hipster bar, nor a biker bar. It's just a normal bar, where everyone gets together for drinks and, well, lounging. As my bartender said when I ordered an impressively cheap beer: We're not in SoHo down here.
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The selection is fairly standard, but there are a handful of craft beers available in the bottle, and wine can be brought over from next door for an $8 corkage fee. It might seem strange to sip a nice bottle of wine in a smoky old dive, but with such a great selection next door, why not? There are even free tastings in the lounge every Sunday.
The Fine Wine & Spirits Warehouse Lounge it popular for its pool tournaments, held three times a week. The $6 entry gets you a drink ticket, and $1 goes into the pot; some months, the pot can get into the hundreds. If you like to shoot pool but aren't ready for primetime, you can play for free every day during happy hour.
This place might not be up everyone's alley, but it's a good deal to the right on the liquor-lounge-quality bell curve. The selection's a little better and the atmosphere a little cheerier than you'd expect, and when you throw in the wine and liquor shop next door, you've got a clear winner.