Nearly as elusive as the yeti, the perfect beach bar is first and foremost a good time. It may be toes-in-the-sand, or splintery picnic tables in the sun and opportunistic seagulls poised for incursion. But it can't be too upscale (sorry, Salt Rock, Bon Appetit and other worthy waterside spots), is likely to serve frozen drinks in some approximation of a Solo cup and is certain to cycle through a musical repertoire that will satisfy Parrotheads. St. Pete Beach has a ton of them, Clearwater Beach another big handful. Pinellas County's communities in between tend to fill their beachside bits with residential properties, so beach bars have gotten the heave-ho. After doing some diligent field work (at least SPF 30 at all times!), we determined that, from south to north, here are the 10 beach bars worthy of your summer scrutiny.
You must be of firm resolve in the parking lot (yeesh, only about 20 tight spots; check the pay lot across the street), but keep your eye on the prize: a long bar inset with a winding river upon which floats a cheery rubber ducky, $3 Corona and Corona Lights, and feet-in-the-sand refreshment. Oh, and waitresses and bartenders in very tiny peach-colored bikinis, some with that my-suit-was-mauled-by-a-bear fringe. The menu these days is pretty much wings, but they are solid wings. Legally, there's no drinking on the beach, but this qualifies — that sunset looks even more glorious while sipping on drinks that have the virtue of being both cheap and strong. The decor of this laid-back longtimer is strictly no-frills, but who needs frills when there's corn hole, wall hook (a game that, in its simplicity, can cause homicidal rage), beach volleyball, air hockey, pool table, darts and a couple of grizzled arcade games?
Insider tip: When it gets crowded, there's an upstairs sun deck for quieter vitamin D therapy. Also, the 'Tow has a blue van that gives free beach rides; text (727) 776-7553.
When a place has been open for 38 years, it tends to get a lot of squinty-eyed, "I remember how it used to be." And it's true. The inside downstairs dining room (the original part the Falkenstein family crafted in 1977 out of remnants of the Page's Pavilion bath house) needs a little gussying and maybe some old-fashioned elbow grease. But you're coming here for a few specifics. Exhibit A: the grouper sandwich — still good fried, grilled, broiled, blackened or jerked. Exhibit B: the rooftop sunset watching. And Exhibit C: Fruity tropical drinks that tend to discolor your tongue (and also, on occasion, your judgment). Across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, the Hurricane is a tourist must, a shambling three stories of indoor-outdoor conviviality with live music most evenings. (The second-floor dining room is slightly more date-night appropriate.)
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Insider tip: For breakfast in Pass-A-Grille you head for the Sea Horse, but when you're looking for selfie central, it's the rooftop at the Hurricane, where Voodoo Juice acts as its own kind of Instagram filter. With the menu, you must pick and choose: yes to the Grouper Paradise and scampi lobster, no to the weird calamari logs.
One of six TradeWinds bar options, this is technically two steps from the sand and the water view is currently occluded by a mondo Freestyle Trippo rubber jumpy-slide. Still, it makes the list because it's fun to watch folks maneuvering their pedal boats along the TradeWinds' lazy river and, more important, it actually has good food. There's a covered but open-sided poolside dining room and more umbrella tables on the deck, with an atmosphere that tends toward tame and family-friendly. The all-day menu is a little pricey at lunch but very reasonable for dinner, with the best dishes a lineup of wraps (Mediterranean vegetable and chicken fajita are tops). If you feel like exploring other options at the TradeWinds, Salty's is a tiki-topped poolside bar just a bit north, and the Sandbar is tucked behind some sea grape bushes at the back of Guy Harvey Outpost, with live music nightly.
Insider tip: This may cause brain freeze, but so be it: Fruit daiquiris and piña coladas are the thing, offered during the summer in a souvenir lidded cup 2 1/2 times larger than normal for $17. All the better to not spill when you're on the Freestyle Trippo.
Does anyone miss the grungy old Swigwam? Evidently not. Since the Postcard Inn opened in 2009, it has been attractive young folks' first stop on the Miracle Mile. Jimmy B's lost some of its luster when PCI set up shop, partly on the strength of PCI's initial restaurant, Wildwood BBQ & Burger (an offshoot of a hip barbecue joint in Manhattan), which then morphed into Beachwood BBQ & Burger when the allegiance in NYC faltered, and which more recently became PCI Bar & Grill. Bottom line: The food has gotten more generic as time has passed, but it's still solid, and besides, the party people are here for the scenery. Yes, that includes the rustic covered outdoor bar festooned with license plates and the deck with views of the paddleboard rentals and phalanx of Boucher Brothers beach umbrellas. But the real scenery? Victoria's Secret calls them "flirt bandeaus" and "flounce halters."
Insider tip: Service can get wobbly, but the frozen drinks merit a certain fortitude. Oh, and beware the cannonball contest at the pool. There can be collateral damage.
There are three on this list that are on the water but not precisely on the beach. Each merits inclusion because it brings something new to the table. The rocky little inlet that is Blind Pass was carved out by a hurricane in 1928, the bar itself loosely dating back to 1946 as a little bait shop and gathering spot for burgers and big fish tales. Burgers are still the strongest suit (ultimate Woody burger: mushrooms, fried onions, bacon, cheese), but Woody's has so many other allures. There's always a performer who straddles that is-this-karaoke-or-is-it-live-music space, but they are often fun. Then add to that the dolphins cavorting nearby, often discomfiting the gaggle of paddleboarders, who are then further wobbled by boats kicking up a touch of wake. With high-gloss picnic tables and cheery blue umbrellas, it's family-friendly — my guess is generations of Gulf of Mexico fish have been nourished by Woody's spicy fries tossed into the brink by young diners.
Insider tip: Early in the week there are half-price margaritas and martinis, but probably Woody's best deal is Wednesdays and Thursdays when fish and chips are $8.95 all day. Also, a warning: The restrooms have shower curtains instead of doors. Plan accordingly.
There has always been a slew of slightly salaciously named restaurants clustered at 75th Avenue, their menus nearly identical and their Son of a Son of a Sailor repertoires even more tightly aligned. In the space that was Philthy Phil's (see?), Crab Daddy's debuted last year and I paid it no mind. Readers started writing in: The food is good, very seafood heavy; check out the shrimp especially. Score one, readers. Fried shrimp are sweet and fresh-tasting; crab wontons are a gooey indulgence; there's a rock-star grouper sandwich and meaty steamed clams, plus all-you-can-eat crab legs Monday through Thursday for $27, all served in an indoor-outdoor, upstairs-downstairs ramshackle affair.
Insider tip: Woody's has the advantage of facing out across the channel of Blind Pass onto a strip of beach at the back of Treasure Island's Bayshore Drive that is pet-friendly. I spent about two hours watching a pack of jubilant canines playing Who's Chasing Whom?
The big question: If SFMB Treasure Island Properties (MacDinton's, Yard of Ale) just bought Caddy's (for, gulp, $7.2 million), where am I going to encounter a thong-clad octogenarian with a parrot on her shoulder, both of whom are capable of drinking me under the table? Caddy's is prime sand, prime sun and a gently graduated entry into warm gulf waters. You're drinking out of plastic cups, the food is workhorse serviceable and waitresses need a whole lot of sunblock to cover what's exposed. And really, once you've secured your complimentary beach lounge chair (be generous with those cabana boys; that's a hot job), it's a front-row seat for exactly what UV rays and gravity can do to the human form. Still, live music and housemade brisket can quell most existential ruminations.
Insider tip: The $5 parking is rough stuff; that $5 is applied to your bill, but you have to ask. Worth it, because Sunset Beach is one of the only places where alcoholic drinks are allowed right on the sand. That said, there's a more adult-oriented upstairs bar where sunset views are spectacular.
This is Steve Westphal's (400 Beach, Parkshore, the Hangar) original waterside hangout, with 50 boat slips (boats to 80 feet) on the Intracoastal at channel marker 27 — water, no beach, but it has all the beach-bar elements dialed. There are poodle drinks that look like Windex, frozen fruity coladas, coconut shrimp, fish tacos and hard-working waitresses prone to calling you sweetie. The gray-painted outdoor decks have big old-timey oscillating fans, capacious blue umbrellas and a soundtrack that slides in that narrow window between Taylor Swift and ex John Mayer. Feeling left out because you don't have a boat? Rent a pontoon or whatnot for the day at Island Marine Rentals next door.
Insider tip: This is Malibu rum country, the best deal the punch buckets for $12. Oh, and urge the kitchen to go light on the salad dressings — someone has a lead foot back there.
An admission: The last time I ate at Shephard's was a brunch some months back (monster pile of warm Alaskan snow crab legs, peel-and-eat shrimp and oysters, carved prime rib, biscuits and gravy — it's big), but by the time I wended my way back to Clearwater Beach, it was neither lunchtime nor dinner, so I lavished a little time on liquid refreshments. Even without a rigorous analysis of the food, there's a ton to talk about here. There's an 11,000-square-foot Shephard's Backyard Tiki Bar and beach, with DJs whipping the bikini-clad revelers into a frenzy. There's the new pool and 7,000-square-foot pool deck, SOAK bar and VIP cabanas. And there's SALT, a newish tequila and tap room, plus a gulf-front indoor-outdoor, two-level nightclub called WAVE (they like caps lock). A recent renovation is lovely and has achieved an overall effect that is bustling and loud but very modern and clean.
Insider tip: On Sundays it is thronged with locals. If you aim to get a seat, head over early. Valet parking on the weekends is — breathe — $15, so consider taking the ferry over to the island and walking or cabbing the last mile.
Rockaway boasts a wide swath of white-sand beach, a comfy pastel indoor-outdoor dining room and bands that know their way around '70s and '80s favorites. The largest of the Frenchy's empire (there's also Frenchy's, Frenchy's South Beach Cafe, Frenchy's Saltwater Café and Frenchy's Outpost Bar & Grill), the Rockaway has been a Clearwater Beach stalwart since 1991. Order the justifiably famous lush, velvety she-crab soup, but don't miss out on the grouper sandwich. The small chain benefits from the owner's foresight in buying his own production fishing dock and fishing boats.
Insider tip: The beachfront deck is the place to be, but they don't take reservations, so cool your jets with a rum runner or a "loopy lada" (don't ask, just sip) and listen to local bands like the Trigger City Trio or the SunSetters.