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Bars big on friendly, not much for fancy

Published September 7, 2007


Drive down South Howard, past the hot spot Irish pubs and the French cuisine restaurant draped in pink.

Skip past Panera Bread, Starbucks and the trendy eateries where you might run into a Devil Rays coach, a public relations executive or a group of sporty developers. Keep going.

Then, just past the fitness center and before the city's most famous steak house, hang a left.

Before the elevated expressway and the VFW hall sits the Tiny Tap Tavern - an oasis of "real" in the upper crust valley known as SoHo.

I arrive here to capture the flavor of South Tampa's more down-to-earth establishments. My job is to balance the high society stories in this week's City Times edition with a blue collar chronicle.

But you know what? High society also hangs at the Tiny Tap and the Hub, just two of the disappearing bars that cater to people tired of running with the Joneses.

Sooner or later, everyone finds their way.

At the Tiny Tap, you shelve your problems. You can pull them out and place them behind the bar, next to the jar full of reading glasses and behind the black-framed sign that says "Best Dive Bar in Tampa."

You just can't leave them there.

"If You Drink To Forget, Pay Before You Drink," the sign cautions.

The Tiny Tap rolls out the welcome mat for everyone, except the pretentious.

A group of 30-something women - one with a turquoise tank top, the other bearing her midriff - play pool with two guys wearing baseball caps. Lynyrd Skynyrd's Gimee Three Steps plays on the jukebox, and they sing every word.

Pool, by the way, is 25 cents a game, and the regulars keep their cues on a shelf above a picture of Wade Boggs as a Boston Red Sox rookie. The Plant High graduate came in after his first year in the majors, signed the photo and asked the owners to put it up to help him generate some publicity.

Now he's in the Hall of Fame.

To the far left of the bar, two guys watching the big-screen TV root for the Devil Rays. Above them is a smoke eater that snaps and crackles every once in a while. Next to me sit two other businessmen, talking about "their clients" as they drink $1.75 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I didn't even know they still make Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Behind the bar, Kelly Chandler wears a peach guayabera, and if you ask, she'll explain that the tattoos on her arms all have meaning. One is a tribute to her grandfather Spud Chandler, who once played for the Yankees.

Owner Casey Powell credits Kelly's easy smile and pleasant demeanor for bringing in business. After a 20-year career with the Sheriff's Office, he took over for his 77-year-old mother, who ran the Tiny Tap after his father died a few years back.

The tavern opens at 9 a.m. every day, and Powell says by 10 a.m., seven or eight people have strolled in. Some come to start their day, others come to end it after working all night.

Later, I move on to the Hub, parking behind a Porsche Cayenne on Polk Street. Inside, the smell of a stogie mixes with ambient smoke and dimly lit views. A guy plays the video bowling game while his girlfriend admirably watches, and I wonder if my wife would watch me play with such a gleamin her eye.

I find a spot at the bar next to a scruffy looking guy in a tank top. He explains to the bartender he'll be in every two weeks because he comes to town from Lakeland to see his daughter. My guess is he came in on the Greyhound bus, but he leaves before I can ask.

Meanwhile, Jordanna Boodhoo tries to read Chris Sommer. It's their first date, and after starting at swank Fly, they mosey down to the Hub because Jordanna has never experienced the legendary watering hole.

"Do you think he likes me?" she asks.

She's an account executive for a local television station. He's a real estate investor longing for the market to bounce back. A year from now I may be writing about their marriage. Or a week from now they may ask to have their picture taken off the Times' Web site.

You never know.

What you do know is that conversations flow freely at these dive bars - dive being a compliment of course.

My only complaint is that these places seem to be a dying breed, as the South Tampa night scene gives way to the young and hip. (Do kids still use the word "hip?") Panera Bread sits where the Chatterbox once did. Pedro's is but a memory. A church converted the Magnolia into a substance abuse treatment center.

I guess that's a good thing.

But hopefully, this city always will need bars where simple surroundings are accentuated with stories only time can craft, and where character ferments and characters live.

If not, where will I go?

That's all I'm saying.

[Last modified September 7, 2007, 07:46:03]

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