Working up a Thirst? No One Concept Fits all in Pinellas Bar Scene

Pinellas County may be called a destination, mecca or candy store for craft brew lovers, but there’s more to what tap houses, bars and other similar establishments in the area have to offer than what meets their customers’ lips

For instance, giving back to the community is a common grain among many pubs, whatever they serve.

Only days after the Thirsty Falcon had opened at 1415 Pinehurst Road, the bar held a fundraiser for the Dunedin Little League. A man broke into the league’s concession stand at Fisher Field and caused about $5,000 in damages and stole cash donations.

Andy Polce, a partner in the business, said the Thirsty Falcon raised nearly $3,000 for the Little League April 25, and the bar was packed.

“It was a lot of people I knew and played ball with over the years. It didn’t take much. We all love the Little League. It means a lot to us and we want to support it,” Polce said. “It was wonderful to see the support. This is a perfect place for something like that.”

Polce is a familiar face in the local brewing business. He and partner Rick Clemo opened the Dunedin House of Beer on Broadway about 10 years ago. They offer numerous craft beers, including their own brews.

But Polce and the other business partners, his wife, Kim Polce, and Jeff and Hollie Parker, had a different vision for their new venture. Hollie Parker is an owner of Caledonia Brewing on Main Street and Jeff also is involved in that business.

“This is a pure neighborhood bar. Ninety-five percent of our customers live within a half mile,” Polce said.

The Thirsty Falcon is a place where patrons can watch sports on television and also enjoy craft beer as well as domestic brands from the major distributors.

“A lot of games and things for people to do,” he said.

Examples of neighborhood bars flourishing are evident throughout the county, whether they serve many craft beers or cater to patrons who prefer traditional domestic brands.

A longtime food and spirits establishment, the Sports Bar and Grille, at 9658 Bay Pines Blvd., is celebrating its 30th anniversary June 22.

Chris Lonardo, who has owned the bar for 12 years, caters to sports fans, many of them die-hard lovers of the football, baseball, hockey teams and mixed martial arts aired on the bar’s 36 televisions. Of course, he draws a lot of Tampa Bay Rays and Buccaneers fans.

Giving back to the community is also important to Lonardo.

“I love sports, and I love kids, too, so we sponsor a lot of Little League teams,” he said. “We do a lot of advertising with the schools and try to help them out anyway we can.”

The Sports Bar has some craft beer in cans, but most of his taps are domestic brands. Sticking to what the bar has offered for years apparently works.

“We have great homemade food. They watch all the sports they can,” he said, “because we’re open late night. We have full liquor. We are open seven days a week until 2 a.m., 3 a.m. on the weekends. We make a lot of homemade food. We have good prices,” Lonardo said.

Now he’s taken his concept to his new location, called “The Deck Bar and Grille,” 5901 Sun Blvd., on the Pinellas Bayway. The difference being the Deck has a beach atmosphere and offers more seafood.

Another popular establishment, Eddies Bar and Grill, 1283 Bayshore Blvd., made changes after Tom George bought it in October 2016, said Jason Ray, Eddies manager.

“We had to find an identity,” he said

Under consideration was whether to convert Eddie’s to a nightclub, bistro or some other type of establishment. It first opened in 1984.

“Tom came over and we decided to become a family sports bar that you could bring Little League kids in after games. Watch sports. Beer, wings. Games for the kids to be occupied,” Ray said.

He said there were plenty of sports bars but not many family-style sports bars in the area, he said.

“Tom George went to Dunedin High School so he was a local here. And really start to give back to the community and wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “First thing we did was reach out to the Little Leagues, bringing the kids and families back in. Once we got them in here, we got the TVs up and the sports bar thing going. It was about getting the service and the staff together. Once we got that it all kind of fell in place. It started at the top with him. He set us up for success,” he said.

The average person may not realize how much bars invest in the community.

“At least once a week I have somebody coming in who has some kind of charity event going on,” he said. “A golf tournament or it’s a cornhole tournament. An event for someone who is sick and they are doing charity events and ask for gift cards, even money,” he said.

As far as craft beers, the staff has scaled back on the taps Eddie’s had.

Again, not one size fits all in the beer business.

“You find out you can have too many beers. They are not selling, and we are wasting the beer. You find the ones that work and you designate one or two taps you move out and bring in different taps. That seems to work out best for us,” Ray said.

George also recently acquired the Red Lion, a longtime establishment on Gulf Boulevard in Indian Rocks Beach, telling city commissioners in early April that the staff won’t tolerate rowdiness. He added “that we are all about the community sports teams and so on.”

Different concepts pertaining to food service have emerged, too.

The Swigwam, which Rob Williams opened at 336 Corey Avenue nine years ago, has a limited selection of chips, peanuts, pretzels, beef jerky and similar snacks.

“But people can order pizza and have it ordered here. They can bring their food if they like,” he said.

The bar benefits from street festivals and other events held just yards away from the bar.

“Every now and again, Corey Avenue will have a food truck night. We do have a Sunday market from 9 to 2 half the year, where they have a big vegetable stand out there,” Williams said. “Four times a year they do a big arts and crafts weekend event. And we also have a seafood festival once a year. We are trying to do a crafts festival this year.”

Beyond that, a vendor offers chicken, ribs and pulled pork on Friday and Saturday nights.

At the Thirsty Falcon, Polce said, patrons can bring in their own food or have it delivered.

Also coming soon is an expansion of the House of Beer to include a patio bar just east of the Pinellas Trail.

Years ago, Polce and Clemo dubbed the area surrounding the House of Beer “The Bermuda Triangle.” It continues to grow as a destination and there’s a camaraderie among the different bar operators.

“Seven breweries within a mile that you can walk to,” Polce said.

From dive bars, to pubs, to restaurants, to brew pubs, the lines are blurred when trying to classify the different types of places involved in the sale of craft beers. They are hybrids of each other, Polce said.

“Everybody has a different philosophy of what they want in a place. There’s really no wrong answer. You do what you feel is right. I’ve learned a lot over the last 10 years to help the viability of bars.”

Clearwater Beach is known for having a wide variety of restaurants, but tap houses and similar establishments also reap the benefits of tourism.

Amanda Payne, president/CEO of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, said that the North Beach Pub, 600 Mandalay Ave., has been remodeled recently.

“It’s truly a little hole-in-one type of place. It’s your classic pub so to speak,” she said. “It’s also another very popular place for your locals to hang out with a variety of options there for tourists and longstanding patrons.”

Surfside Taphouse, 395 Mandalay Ave., is another popular spot, she said, for enjoying craft beers, watching sports and looking out at the beach and the Gulf.

A lot of tourists want to enjoy a meal or snacks quickly and get back to the beach. Catering to such guests is a good option, she said.

“It all depends on the type of person you are marketing to, and I think the great thing about our area is — especially because of the tourism aspect that it brings to our business owners — there are a lot of niches to be met. There’s a lot of different types of folks who are looking for different options at a variety of times throughout the year. You typically can find that niche or group that you serve well,” Payne said.

In Tampa Bay Newspapers circulation area, at the risk of speaking the obvious, there’s countless more such establishments from Tierra Verde, to Seminole, Largo, the beach communities, Clearwater, Dunedin and Palm Harbor. So many places; how do they all survive?

“I don’t know. It’s definitely a beach community out here,” said Swigwam’s owner Williams. “You have downtown St. Pete that’s going absolutely crazy as well now.”

Great prices, pool tables, dart boards, sports on television are staples for his establishment, Williams said. He called it “a regular old bar” with a lot of history when it was located on St. Pete Beach. He worked at the Swigwam on the beach for 23 years before it changed ownership, and his establishment on Corey Avenue still attracts locals.

“We have a lot of retired people down here which makes our day business real successful,” he said. “We get the younger crowd. Not kids.”

He also has 45 beers to choose from along with wine and cocktails.

Asked what his favorite beer is, Williams told a story about what a regular, an ex-Navy SEAL, who comes into his bar. The customer had this to say:

“The worst beer I had tasted pretty darn good.”