I’m often asked, “What are the best bars in Florida?” To be more precise, I’m never asked, but why split hairs?
Bars hold a special place in our hearts and minds. Probably because they’re places of mystery and intrigue. Bars are usually dark, somewhat exotic and, thanks to the miracle of modern alcohol, just crammed with possibilities. We all have the stories to prove it. Like how about the time you thought you’d found true love, and the next minute you’d had your wallet lifted by a cross-dresser named Tallulah?…I mean, a friend told me about that.
SARASOTA Magazine first approached me in 1979 with the concept of selecting the best bars in the state, and I’ve spent the last 22 years on assignment. They had originally given me four weeks, but I told them I didn’t want to do a shoddy job. Then we lost all contact, and I’m sticking by the kidnapping story. But I’m finally back now, and I have much to report!
There are many criteria in grading prime watering holes: value, service, location, atmosphere, jukebox, gunfire. I’ve applied all of these, plus a few more to arrive at my top 10 list. The choices were so close that I easily could have just listed them alphabetically, but I decided to rank them since that seems to cause more trouble.
1. No Name Pub
This 1930s joint is a Florida classic. It has all the elements. Part of the draw is that it’s so remote and hard to find, which skims off the yo-yos that stumble into great bars on more traveled highways and ruin them. It’s way down in the Keys, tucked along a back road on Big Pine-an overgrown shack almost completely hidden by the foliage. Take Watson Boulevard and look hard on the left just before the Bogie Channel Bridge over to No Name Key. There’s a little hand-painted sign and a screen door. This is the land of the endangered miniature key deer, and over the bar is the mounted head of a regular deer and a plaque claiming it’s the largest miniature deer ever shot. Scribbled-on dollar bills and business cards cover the walls. The staff claims their pizza is the best in the universe, and it just might be. Finally, the No Name defines the perfect level of seediness that every good bar needs: that pitch of human excitement that doesn’t slide off the scale into personal danger and head lice. You’ll find bikers in leather next to grandparents in sweaters.
2. The Hub
This downtown Tampa bar does slide off the seediness scale on certain nights, but it’s one of the few places where this is actually a plus. It’s got the whole spectrum, from day-laborers counting out change for a beer to lawyers and college students. The appeal is it’s frozen in 1949, when it first opened, and remains 100 percent authentic noir. This is a living exhibit of everything Mickey Spillane stood for. It looks like a place you’d more likely find on a busy city corner in Chicago. Catch it before it’s gone. But one warning: Words cannot describe how strong the drinks are. One is more than enough. Two and you’re ready for most surgical incisions.
3. The Flora-Bama Lounge and Package Store
This ramshackle 1962 roadhouse straddles the Florida-Alabama state line on the Gulf of Mexico. Out front, there’s a pay phone at each end of the building, in each state, to avoid long-distance charges. It’s a raucous place, home of the “interstate mullet toss” (throwing fish as far as you can for fun and prizes). Like the No Name, this place is way off the beaten path, and the people who make it here are not in a hurry to get anywhere else. An old peach windsock flaps over the roof to aid customers who arrive by parachute and seaplane. The Flora-Bama looks like it’s falling down and going up at the same time. Old and rickety, but with newer additions built on over the years hodgepodge, like it was hammered together by enemies of the owner. (Personal note: I placed a couple of scenes from my novel “Hammerhead Ranch Motel” in the Flora-Bama, and the owners asked me to come and do a reading. Remember that scene in the Blues Brothers when the band starts playing in that country bar?)
Another oldie, this one from 1933 in Jacksonville. A block from the Atlantic Ocean, Pete’s is one of those great beach bars that’s ultra-dark inside with doors that remain open to let the bright sunlight flood through, reminding you that it’s only 11 a.m. and, yes, you’re a barfly. The celebrity photos on the walls tell you you’re still in Florida, but a world away from Miami: Bobby Bowden, Vince Dooley, Steve Spurrier, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, along with Bear Bryant and Pat Dye walking through the woods with shotguns on their shoulders. Pete’s also has literary connections. Hemingway drank here. John Grisham visited while working on “The Brethren” and even put Pete’s in the book. To commemorate this fact, the bar has placed a sign over the table where Grisham sat. The name of the book is misspelled. That alone makes Pete’s one of my favorites.
5. The Bull
This was a tough call. Many purists give the Green Parrot, a block over on Whitehead Street, the nod as best Key West bar. And with valid reason. The Bull is located on Duval, Key West’s version of Bourbon Street, which means its spacious, open-air windows overlook the throngs from Middle America dragging themselves up and down the sidewalks, wearing straw hats, carrying slushy tropical drinks and otherwise conducting this daily traveling “Gong Show” of amateur-hour drinking that always ends with the horror of a bald accountant from Cincinnati climbing onstage with a reggae band to sing “I Shot the Sheriff.” That’s a mighty steep downside to overcome, but I believe The Bull is up to the challenge. Go during the week, the summer, off-hours, a hurricane-whenever the streets are empty-and you will see the magic. The vaulted first floor of this historic masonry building features a mural wrapping around the room that chronicles the island’s history, and the bar itself is a solid, battle-scarred wooden horseshoe. Plus there’s nude sunbathing on the roof.
6. The Desert Inn
People just like to say Yeehaw Junction. Go ahead and try it. Yeehaw Junction! See what I mean? Yeehaw Junction is the funny name on the map at the crossroads of U.S. 60 and the Florida Turnpike about 50 miles southeast of Orlando’s theme parks. Not much there except a couple of gas stations, a discount travel reservation center in a defunct gas station, and the Desert Inn. The motel and restaurant, on the National Register of Historic Places, have been around for more than a century since Yeehaw was a different kind of crossroads. Cattlemen driving their herds across Florida stopped here, as did Native Americans, railroad people and other assorted rugged individualists. So don’t expect a tiki hut from Daytona. This is the Old Florida of the Crackers, out in the proverbial middle of nowhere accompanied by dust and heat, where whiskey is preferred to a blue drink that comes out of a slushy machine. There’s an entry on the menu called the Florida Combo: “turtle, gator and frog (deep fried) $11.95.” Enough said.
7. The Delano
If there could be an opposite of the Desert Inn, it would be the Delano. This landmark art deco hotel underwent an inspired post-modern renovation several years ago, and the local, division-strength contingent of nightclub-hopping shock troops responded with approval. Go at midnight on a weekend for the full effect, which is like partying in a Calvin Klein ad while on sacred Indian mushrooms. Long, gossamer curtains flutter out the front entrance. Just inside the door, to the left, a bald woman sits at the concierge table in a uniform from the “Star Trek” collection; to the right, a 10-foot-tall Alice in Wonderland chair holds two young models sharing a brown cigarette. Ahead lies a long, dark hallway where more white curtains section off the lobby into “rooms” containing bars, additional furniture of unnatural dimensions and clutches of people in the shadows. “Son of a Preacher Man” is piped in from somewhere, and another super-model-type dances slowly in red light atop an elongated table. Out the back door on the lawn, two people sit on opposite sides of a life-size chess set. Behind them, glimmering under a half moon, is the swimming pool; it becomes shallower and shallower until it is only six inches deep and full of cocktail tables and chairs. A barefoot waiter splashes out into the water to deliver a tray of drinks. Ah, tradition.
8. Pier 66
Okay, I’m busted. I’m a Travis McGee fan. And as any devotee of the John D. MacDonald series can tell you, Travis liked to unwind at Pier 66, which isn’t really a pier but a 17-story hotel in Fort Lauderdale with a revolving bar on top. The late MacDonald, the godfather of Florida crime fiction, was a longtime Sarasota resident, so I presume he decided that if his books were going to draw tourists and ruin a place, it would be far from his backyard. MacDonald had McGee living on a houseboat at the Bahia Mar Marina, an actual place that you can see from the revolving bar. You can also see the beaches, the downtown skyline and the 100-foot yachts from Europe moored behind Mediterranean mansions on the Intracoastal Waterway. Late in the evening, the bar just pounds with the international fast-lane pulse of South Florida. Last time I was there, I was seated near the musicians’ bandstand, next to two big-shouldered men wearing black T-shirts and black sport coats, two black attaché cases on the bar in front of them. Probably mob, I thought, maybe even South American bagmen. The briefcases? Had to be full of laundered cash or disassembled sniper rifles. And I’m sitting right next to them-boy, did I feel cosmo! Then the men opened their briefcases, took out a flute and a soprano sax, climbed onto the bandstand and began playing Kenny G.
9. Seafood Bar
The world-class Breakers defines Palm Beach opulence and history. Built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler in 1896 to accommodate wintering tycoons, the hotel has numerous lounges where a bar tab can quickly put you into Chapter 11. But my favorite is the little place with a low-key name way in the back of the resort. The Seafood Bar faces a row of large picture windows overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. But there’s something besides the awesome decor and location that distinguishes this swank watering hole. There are many bars that have aquariums, but here the bar is an aquarium. Clown fish swim under your napkin and car keys as you raise the art of nursing a drink.
10. The Fox
In the tradition of The Hub, this South Miami bar is a noir museum. Dark red light with red vinyl booths-it looks like the kind of place Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta would walk in. Beer won’t do; you have to order something on the rocks. And smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. It was founded in 1946 and sits at 6030 South Dixie Highway. I don’t remember much else.
o Cabbage Key Inn. Located atop an Indian shell mound in Pine Island Sound (Fort Myers area), this historic island inn is only accessible by boat or plane, keeping it special. It’s also de facto second home of Florida novelist Randy Wayne White and his mafia.
o Trader Jon’s. Lots of bars decorate with memorabilia. This Pensacola bar is literally a museum, bursting at the joists with naval aviation stuff.
o Skipper’s Smokehouse. Live blues, smoked fish, funky decrepitude. What more can you ask from this Tampa joint?
o Crescent Club. Lack of pretension and a 1950s attitude make this place the perfect antidote for the franchise fern bars. And it’s handy for Sarasotans; just head down Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key.
o Everglades Room. Located in the Clewiston Inn on the underside of Lake Okeechobee, the bar features a faded Audubon-like mural of ‘Glades wildlife and takes you back to the politically incorrect days when Big Sugar was king.