A lot of my friends like to go “diving,” and they don’t bring any fins or masks. We’re talking the other diving: hitting the dive bars.
In Florida, this can be an exquisite cultural evening that many people never get to enjoy. Maybe they’re put off by the word “dive.” But down here, there’s a special subset of vintage lounges that transcend the label.
If you’ve lived in the state most of your life, or listen to any of the old-timers, you’re constantly reminded of Florida’s rampant modernization (gleaming condos, office towers and chain big box stores) that has all but wiped out our memorable institutions—the quaint mom-and-pop beach motels, pre-Disney roadside attractions, family-owned restaurants and, yes, venerable bars.
So let’s start by scrapping that dive label, and take a page from the Coca-Cola people: We’ll call them classic bars. These are the last soldiers standing from the ancient days of the space race and Tupperware parties, somehow surviving the attrition to evolve into living museums of a nostalgic time—the kind of places where the cast of Mad Men would order Harvey Wallbangers.
The magic of these joints is enjoying the evening in a time capsule that breathes the bygone essence of where you live, as opposed to spending a cookie-cutter night out in a TGIF or Bennigan’s. In Florida, these places are particularly special because of their scarcity; anything a half-century old is absolutely ancient in this state, and pre-dates a majority of the communities. Heck, only 30 years ago many of the neighborhoods here were still cattle fields.
But you’re in luck. Sarasota is home to a pair of these gems that bookend the city: the Crescent Club on Siesta Key and the Bahi Hut on North Tamiami Trail.
If it’s your cup of tea, you know you’re in the right spot the second you enter the Crescent. It’s noon, and the open front door is a bright rectangle of sunlight streaming in from the Gulf—a stark counterpoint to the ultra-dim interior with the red light bulbs that set the mood of a Mickey Spillane dime novel. The bar itself is solid as a ship’s hull, and around its curved front, up near the door, are pencil-drawn portraits of the club’s past and current stewards.
I first discovered the place back in ’87 when I was a reporter working in the Sarasota bureau of the Tampa Tribune, and in my own time I was trying my hand out at Florida fiction. What better place to soak up the noir vibe than the Crescent? My dad was a traveling salesman from Indiana who used to make trips to Sarasota. Soon after I’d joined the Trib, he paid me a visit and said he wanted to take me to his favorite spot that he’d been coming to since the ’60s. He drove me over to the Crescent. I smiled and pointed out something he hadn’t noticed. On one of the dark wood walls near the back was a 1967 calendar from a Mishawaka, Indiana, machine supply store. Just coincidence.
Now it’s time for round two, so head back across the Stickney Point Bridge and up the Tamiami. Shortly before the airport on the left side—and easily missed if you’re not paying attention—is a squat concrete building with its name written in crooked pieces of wood: Bahi Hut. Grab the giant spoon that serves as the door handle and head inside.
The atmosphere is just as dark as the Crescent, but this time with a Polynesian theme—lots of tiki carving and bamboo and even a surfboard over the horseshoe bar, which makes you feel like you’re drinking in an episode of Hawaii Five-O. Bahi is actually pronounced “Bi-High,” lending to its affectionate nickname, the “Bye-Bye Hut,” because of the wallop of the legendary mai-tais. There seems to be one of the trademark red drinks in front of every other person in the place; tradition says you must order one, but then you must only order two, per the bar’s decades-old rules. You have to love that.
There are always rumors of places like these closing, like the Elbo Room in Fort Lauderdale (saved by the bell), and the Chatterbox and original Hub in Tampa (not so lucky), so go early and go often, and raise a drink in a toast for the past that’s still alive.
The Rod & Reel Pier, Anna Maria Island
Great funky bar on the first floor, tiny as can be, with a constant ocean breeze through the open doors and bright views of water all around. The second floor houses an excellent seafood restaurant with a panorama from the Egmont Key Lighthouse at the mouth of Tampa Bay to the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Fishermen and pelicans fill the weathered wrap-around deck below. A one-time record hammerhead shark was caught from the pier and its jaws used to hang in the bar, but they’re now in the island museum up the street.
Linger Lodge, Bradenton
A wonderfully lazy afternoon joint overhanging the Braden River like the Spanish moss that surrounds it. Quintessential old Florida. We’re talking rattlesnake, black bear and gator hides on the walls, stuffed bobcats and raccoons in glass cases, surrounded by license plates and police badges from everywhere.
Snook Haven, Venice
Another lazy place on another river, this one the Myakka. The remote location began its legacy as a Prohibition-era smugglers’ drop point. Today they serve shrimp po’boys to bikers and sell T-shirts trumpeting the myth of the river’s “killer swooping turtles.” Enough said.
Tampa’s Tim Dorsey, a frequent visitor to Sarasota, is the author of a comic murder mystery series set in Florida. The latest, Tiger Shrimp Tango, comes out in January.