What to Drink in Tampa? 5 Local Bartenders Dish on Their Go-To CocktailsBy Terry Ward
Year-round warmth and plenty of palm trees on Florida’s Gulf Coast can have you dreaming of a drink long before happy hour. And in Tampa Bay and nearby Sarasota, the cocktail scene goes beyond beachside daiquiri shacks to entirely more elevated experiences. (Rest assured, we’ve got you covered on waterfront and classic dive bars, too.)
To ensure we’re sending you to the most beloved local spots, we tapped into five bartenders at buzzworthy addresses for their intel on what to drink in this booming stretch of the Sunshine State.
Daniel Bareswilt, Beverage Director, CW’s Gin Joint
Daniel Bareswilt is a walking encyclopedia of gin, and his beautiful bar in downtown Tampa has the goods to prove it. “I’m constantly looking for gin from everywhere,” he says, “Right now, I have gin from five continents. We’re just missing Antarctica and Africa.”
Come to CW’s Gin Joint for Tampa’s best version of a classic gin and tonic and let your personal palate guide you through the bar’s Gin Matrix — a menu that points north for juniper gins, east for more savory ones, south for citrus and west for floral flavors.
Splurgeworthy: Bern’s Steak House
Tampa’s legendary steak house, Bern’s Steak House, opened in 1956 and is known for its vast wine cellar, reportedly the largest in the world. It can be a challenge to land a table on short notice, but the sleeper is the bar at the front, says Daniel. Order a house red by the glass (usually something exquisite they’ve opened in the restaurant and are finishing up at the bar) and the steak sandwich, which isn’t on the menu but has a cult following.
Local and Authentic: Tiny Tap Tavern
In a converted gas station next to Tampa’s most famous steak house, Tiny Tap is where Bern’s servers go after work to relax with a round of pool and some jukebox tunes. The selection is limited to beer and wine, and it’s cash only, but you’re here for something you can’t put a price on. “You come because everyone you know is there, you’re not going to spend much and you’re going to have a great time,” says Bareswilt.
Waterfront: Rick’s on the River
Boats (including the Pirate Water Taxi) come and go at the dock in front of Rick’s on the River, which fronts the Hillsborough River and has the liveliest oyster bar in town. Keep it simple and slurp them raw with a frosty local tap beer, like Jai Alai.
Scooby Olivier, Bartender, Rock Brothers Brewing
There are plenty of places to party in Ybor City, Tampa’s historic nightlife district. But for a brewery with a rock ‘n’ roll heart, there’s nowhere like Rock Brothers Brewing, where Scooby Olivier pulls pints and talks music.
The bar brews beers inspired by rockers like 311 and Sister Hazel and hosts concerts in a hideaway upstairs venue, The Attic. To branch out from craft beer, Olivier recommends trying his favorite “hoptail,” the Smoky Mosaic — a gin and mezcal based cocktail that uses mosaic hops for smoky and floral notes.
Known for exquisite charcuterie and cheese boards, Haven is also a mecca for whisk(e)y lovers, with a global selection that pulls from as far away as Tasmania to keep guests intrigued. “It’s a great place to mingle and meet people at the bar or sit down at a table for a total sensory culinary experience,” says Olivier.
Local and Authentic: Columbia Restaurant
Florida’s oldest continually operated restaurant, Columbia dates to 1905 and is located in a historic Ybor City building. Olivier points to the sangria and mojitos, prepared tableside in pitchers, as a must. “It’s a Tampa institution,” he says of the restaurant. “If you’re from here, you grew up going there. And if you’re from out of town, it rings true to where the heart of Tampa came from.”
On a rooftop in Tampa’s favorite food hall (Armature Works), overlooking the Hillsborough River, M.Bird draws rum drinkers upstairs for creative cocktails with a sense of place. Try the I Left My Wallet at La Segunda, a rum-based drink with guava-coconut cream that pays homage to Tampa’s famed Cuban bakery.
Alex Artishenko, Beverage Director, Counter Culture
Alex Artishenko has worked at some of Tampa’s most progressive bars and restaurants, including Edison:food+drink lab and Swigamajig. What’s most exciting about the city right now, he says, is that it’s full of “young and well-traveled inspiration likely to be found behind every door you open.”
That holds true at the brand-new Counter Culture in tony South Tampa, a small-plates restaurant and bar that tips a hat to Tampa’s love of tequila and nickname (The Big Guava) with a must-try drink. The Floor Is Guava! is mixed with mezcal and guava puree and served up with sparkling bay views.
Spurgeworthy: Meat Market
New in Tampa’s posh Hyde Park Village (a pedestrian-friendly zone near downtown), Meat Market is meatcentric and 100 percent “sceney.” Alex points to the Tangerine Dream (gin, kiwi, yuzu, orange) as the cocktail to try.
Local and Authentic: The Anchor Bar
Locals sidle up to the U-shaped bar at this downtown Tampa staple known for having a great Florida craft beer selection. Artishenko points to the Angry Chair as his go-to Tampa beer at The Anchor Bar.
Waterfront: The Getaway
There’s a Key West feel to this bar that’s technically in St. Pete, where picnic tables sit in the sand facing the mangroves and people arrive on boats or paddle by on SUPs. Any Tiki drink will do you right. Try washing The Getaway’s tasty mahi-mahi tacos down with a jalapeño margarita.
Brenda Terry: President of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, Tampa Bay Chapter
Most recently a bartender at Steelbach, Brenda Terry has been one of the most creative and admired fixtures on Tampa’s cocktail scene for years. “Tampa’s a fast growing city with a small town feel; everyone has a sense of community here,” she says, “The bars are popping up everywhere, but we’re all still really connected. And bartenders are really challenging themselves out of the classics range.”
Newly opened in Ybor City in late 2019, this intimate restaurant and cocktail bar “knows how to marry flavors in a really perfect way,” says Brenda. Sit beneath large warehouse windows at the bar with white marble accents and prepare to be wowed by Barterhouse’s offerings like octopus gyoza, Florida hog snapper and cocktails that nod to the Sunshine State (think citrus accents and honey syrups).
Local and Authentic: The Hub Bar
A true downtown dive joint a few blocks from the river, The Hub Bar is where many of the city’s craft mixologists earned their chops. It’s evolved into a place where you can get a whiskey on the rocks or a cheap beer, but also a great Aperol spritz, says Brenda.
Waterfront: Stones Throw
Right on the downtown Tampa Riverwalk, overlooking the Hillsborough River, this open-air oyster and raw bar is a sweet perch to tip back a Ze Crazy Eyes cocktail — Stones Throw’s spicy, basil-spiked and entirely memorable take on a margarita.
Katrina Gorman, Bartender, Michael’s on East
Venture south an hour from Tampa to the bayside town of Sarasota where Katrina Gorman helped design the new craft cocktail menu at Michael’s on East, the city’s only AAA Four Diamond restaurant.
South African wines abound (the owner’s favorite). Cocktail lovers applaud Gorman’s Fu Lang Chang, which blends mezquila, espresso and chocolate bitters to magical, smoky effect.
Katrina’s Sarasota picks:
Splurgeworthy: Jack Dusty
Inside The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, with outdoor tables overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, Jack Dusty is “always on the cutting edge of craft cocktails,” says Gorman, who usually opts for a Know the Ropes, which blends Plymouth gin, sweet vermouth and orange bitters.
Local and Authentic: Made Restaurant
Loaded Bloody Marys (“like a meal in a glass,” says Gorman) with over-the-top presentations are a brunch staple at Made Restaurant, with outdoor seating off Main Street. Count on interesting cocktail ingredients a la truffle honey and ginger syrup.
Waterfront: O’Leary’s Tiki Bar & Grill
Entirely outdoors and fronting the water near Bayfront Park, O’Leary’s Tiki Bar & Grill is a fun hybrid of Irish bar and Tiki palace. The Pacifico beer on tap is a treat on a sultry Sarasota day.