Thanks to a vibrant cross-section of cultures and an increasingly cosmopolitan flair, Tampa Bay has emerged as the next great locus for the inquisitive imbiber.
By Jeremy Brown
Dunedin Brewery (Dunedin, dunedinbrewery.com) is Florida’s oldest continuously run purveyor of top-shelf microbrews, a fact evidenced by scores of loyal locals eager to settle in for the evening, soaking up nightly live music and feeling warm and cozy after a few Pipers Pale Ales. With a titular tip of the hat to the city’s proud Cuban heritage, Cigar City Brewing (Tampa, cigarcitybrewing.com) features what might be deemed more a tasting room than a bar—it’s snug and sparely decorated, though that doesn’t detract a bit from the pleasure of quaffing some of the Bay Area’s finest hops, especially the Jai Alai IPA, which, if you’re not careful, will hit you like a 175 mph pelota to the head. Renowned for its Belgian style ales, Saint Somewhere Brewing (Tarpon Springs, saintsomewherebrewing.com) prides itself on brewing techniques used a century ago. The brewer’s latest time warp, Pays du Soleil, is a delectable, fizzy saison concocted from Saw Palmetto berries and whole hibiscus. A comfortable oasis in the heart of the region’s most debaucherous quarter, Tampa Bay Brewing (Ybor City, tampabaybrew ingcompany.com) employs a dozen serving tanks once used by Britain’s Bass Ale Brewery and routinely offers nine house brews on tap. Pull the trigger on a basket of wings made with Red Eye Ale cider sauce, and if your evening isn’t over, perhaps the One Night Stand Pale Ale will prove auspicious. Jaunt southbound over the Skyway Bridge to Sarasota Brewing (Sarasota, sarasotabrewing.com), where the varnished wood furniture and cobblestone walls wouldn’t seem terribly out of place in some decadent medieval castle until you notice the rather non sequitur design ornaments like team pennants and nautical bric-a-brac. It’s an eclectic scene for what’s essentially a sports pub, but will you really notice anything else once you plop down for the game under one of the two 84-inch flat-screens with a cold micro in hand?
Formerly located somewhere between a Rainbow Apparel and a Body Shop in one of Tampa’s largest malls, Mr. Dunderbak’s (Tampa, dunderbaks.com) has finally decamped and set up shop as the finest Bavarian biergarten around, with more than 400 bottles and 55 on tap, not to mention more succulent sauerbraten, spatzle and schnitzel than you can shake a stein at. The Independent (Downtown St. Petersburg, independentbeer.com) is like a miniature beer garden meets swanky urban lounge and has contributed mightily to the area’s ascendant nightlife scene. Grab a seat outside and mix with the young and good-looking. If you’d rather talk shop with a beery crowd, Oldsmar Tap House (Oldsmar, oldsmartaphouse.com) is precisely the kind of joint where people show up just to discuss beer with the stranger sitting next to them; it doesn’t hurt that there are a couple hundred conversation starters behind the bar. New World Brewery (Ybor City, newworldbrewery.net) may not stew its own suds anymore, but with more than 60 bottles and 25 taps you’re sure to find something to sip on. Besides, the allure of the place is the intimate open-air music venue, frequently graced by regional and national acts that tend to appeal to the hipper set. You could spark a conflagration not seen since ancient Rome with the alcohol content of an ordinary cocktail at The Hub (Downtown Tampa, thehubbartampa.com), where on any given night you’ll find pink-faced septuagenarians, hot-shot lawyers, tattooed pin-up girls, folks with funny accents, hungover artists, grizzled bikers and thirsty scholars weaving precariously on the next barstool. Tucked away in a renovated bungalow a couple blocks from the beach in a sleepy arts community, Peg’s Cantina (Gulfport, pegscantina.com) is the ideal spot to sit outside and watch the afternoon lazily give way to dusk. All the better while savoring a Dancing Cody IPA, one of the house originals.
Devoted to organics and sustainability, Café Dufrain (Harbour Island, cafedufrain.com), languidly nestled on an island waterfront, crafts informally elegant New American cuisine that flirts with Korean, South American and North African culinary traditions. The posh décor is vaguely European, and the outdoor seating promises lovely skyline views. Meanwhile, Guppy’s on the Beach (Indian Rocks Beach, 3bestchefs.com/guppys) dishes out seafood far too distinctive for its flip-flops and tank tops dress code: Sophisticated items like tandoori crusted swordfish belie the unassuming fish shack vibe. The “best burger in town” debate is a never-ending one, though here it’s a good deal less heated thanks to the existence of El Cap (St. Petersburg, 727.521.1314), whose perfectly cooked patties, grilled onions and toasted bun conspire to produce a meal beyond reproach. Here’s a fact: Bern’s Steak House (SoHo, bernssteakhouse.com) boasts the largest wine cellar in the world—about half a million bottles. Think that’s impressive? Wait until you get to the cut-to-order dry-aged steaks, which have fed presidents, dignitaries and other bold-faced names from across the globe. And because no Tampa Bay visit is complete without Cuban fare, sidle up to the no-frills lunch counter at La Teresita (Tampa, lateresitarestaurant.com), where monumental portions of unbelievably tender stewed pork, ox tail and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak) recall the exotic flavors of majestic Old Havana.
South Tampa is the trendiest district in the Bay Area; stay in the middle of it all at the Hyde Park Hotel (South Tampa, hotelinhydepark.com). Located at the mouth of the historic Old Northeast neighborhood, the Beach Drive Inn (Downtown St. Petersburg, beachdriveinn.com), a bed and breakfast built in 1910, features four sunny rooms and two suites combining turn-of-the-century Florida elegance with modern amenities such as Wi-Fi and private jetted tubs. Spend your days sipping cocktails in a private rooftop garden with panoramic views of the bay before an evening out at any of several restaurants and watering holes just steps away. The Don CeSar (St. Pete Beach, loewshotels.com) is enormous, pink, world-famous, supposedly haunted and has accommodated the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Al Capone during its Jazz Age heyday. Plus, it looms imperiously on a tranquil stretch of beach, which you’ll surely enjoy if you can be pried away from the 4,000-square-foot spa or four-diamond restaurants. Mosey on up Gulf Boulevard to the SandPearl Resort (Clearwater Beach, sandpearl.com), the Gulf Coast’s prime mecca of waterfront luxury. Apart from innumerable inclusive perks, arrange for daily excursions to nearby coastal gems, such as immaculate Caladesi Island State Park.
Tampa Bay Downs (Oldsmar, tampabaydowns.com) is the only thoroughbred racetrack on the state’s Gulf Coast and one of the country’s oldest; after the ponies, take advantage of the 22-acre golf facility and bustling poker room. Spend a delightfully cerebral afternoon among 400,000 interactive exhibits at the sprawling Museum of Science and Industry (Tampa, mosi.org), where you can pedal a bicycle across a 30-foot-high steel cable; brave elaborately constructed earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis; or grab a beer and get ready for the singular cinematic experience of the IMAX Dome Theater’s 10,500-square-foot screen. All that empiricism may have you longing for a spot of the surreal; you’ll be pleased to discover that the Salvador Dalí Museum (St. Petersburg, salvadordalimuseum.org), featuring 200-plus paintings and a dizzying collection of photographs, drawings and sculptures, houses the most comprehensive body of the flamboyant Spaniard’s work anywhere on the planet. There are few better places to wile away a long afternoon than at Ft. DeSoto Park (Tierra Verde, pinellascounty.org), lauded as one of the nation’s best beaches. Formed from five interconnected islands, the 1,136-acre paradise is more than just pristine white sand and breathtaking vistas of the sun melting into the Gulf: It’s the perfect locale to sate the outdoorsy spirit with nature trails, boat docks, campgrounds and bike rentals. •
ON THE WATERFRONT: There’s no shortage of outlets for indulging in Tampa Bay’s beaches, lakes and rivers, and since it never gets that cold here, you can enjoy aquatic action year-round. Named for a 19th-century French pirate, John’s Pass (Madeira Beach, johnspass.com) is a cheerfully ersatz little fishing village comprising inexpensive seafood restaurants, surf shops and kitschy art galleries, but it’s also a veritable promised land for the watersporting adventurer. Parasailing, waverunners, powerboats, snorkeling, island tours, dolphin and manatee-watching excursions and deep-sea fishing charters can all be found along the weathered wooden boardwalk overlooking a serene inlet to the Gulf. If you’d rather take things slow, rent a canoe at Hillsborough River State Park (Thonotosassa, floridastateparks.org) and explore the almost totally undeveloped 54-mile-long, spring-fed river that snakes through endless verdant canopies of wild swampforest. Cap off the evening in style with a moonlit meandering around the bay courtesy of Yacht StarShip (Downtown Tampa/Clearwater Beach, yachtstarship.com) luxury cruise lines, which pamper with four-star feasts, live entertainment and unimpeded backdrops of romantic twilit horizons.