So that’s it kids, it is officially the end of jumping on your bike and roaming drunkenly around the city without donning 48 goddamn layers. It’s the end of stoop bar-b-ques and sleeping comfortably on the sidewalk 12 blocks from your house you couldn’t find. It’s for real friggin’ winter in Philadelphia; and that means it is time for visiting Grandpa Sal and his third wife, Bunny, in sunny Boca Raton or Miami proper OR….. TIERRA FUCKING VERDE, and if you are lucky enough to have an Auntie Ethel in that area then we have a GEM to share with you.
Now everyone writes about dive bars and their cantankerous barmaids, slime riddled taps and tar stained ceilings; that capturing sensation of muck and art that makes the underbelly so soft and comforting. And it’s an easy find for Philly where there’s at least a mediocre “special” on every third block, but Florida? Good luck.
Sometimes though, the universe aligns, the gods prevail and you stumble unwittingly into what you think is a “liquor store” but is really the byproduct of what happens when you begin selling shots to your customers, (i.e. the bar eats the liquor store).
It all began with a booze hunt to accompany us while searching for snakes and alligators (the whole reason Florida exists in the first place). This did not turn out to be as easy as one would have thought. 10 people suggested 50 places to buy beer, 7 of them stared blankly at us when we negated the offer and continued to prod for liquor. Finally, an older gent with a fissured face, thought quietly, put up a gnarled finger and with a sparkle in his eye sent us to the joie de vivre known as THE SMUGGLERS TAVERN.
On the side of a stretch of coastline, below Tampa and St Petersburg, out where the wild things roam you will find a jello shot, a liquor store “cabinet” and a bartender named Jace. He is a handsome man with a warm but gruff smile and a disposition that makes you want to carve your name on one of his barstools and batten down the hatches until the reaper comes (this is Florida after all). Call it luck, or fate, but two drunkard’s dreams were met when we wandered into this unassuming strip mall. We were looking for a bottle of vodka and a bottle of whiskey, simple one, two, thr—-. The moment our eyes adjusted and the glimmering taps came into focus we knew we were somewhere special. The spasm’s of the pinball machine flirted with us as the bar top rolled out like a yellow brick road. We were in a deer stunned silence. I suddenly found myself wearing a blue and white checkered dress holding a basket, hay fell from my friend, but my “little dog” was outside…. What? Mutts are welcome? Without speaking, we spun on our heels and promptly walked back outside to tell our third party we would have to be staying, if only for one, it would be sacrilege otherwise. You have to know your religion.
And it did not come naturally, but one (or maybe two) was all we had and then it was off to the “wilderness”.
After a disappointing flock of cranes, ridiculous aerialphilic fish and a couple of mini stingrays we headed back to town. As we approached the strip mall housing the shell of the old bank which became a lonely liquor store and then morphed itself into a bar we wavered. It was our last night in town, we had other things to do, other…. the car veered into the parking lot, apparently it knew something we didn’t; Smugglers Tavern wasn’t shit, without the patrons.
Here’s some news, smoking still happens outside of Ray’s and McGlinchy’s. And is, in fact, encouraged. After all, these are fellas that remember better times, when men were men and women were happy to cook them dinner. By my second drink I was starting to realize what all of the regulars already knew, this place was a fucking oasis. And it wasn’t just because my drink was cheap and their logo has drug runners throwing bales over the side of a speed boat as a DEA helicopter swoops down on them; it was the company. In the short hour or two since we had been gone the place had turned into a character zoo, a colorful, raucous, bubbling zoo of drinking and joyfulness. We decided it was only right, others, like ourselves, needed to know about this gold mine sandwiched in between dry cleaners and pizza shops.
I started talking to Tom. A tender older gentleman who may, or may not, flick you in the arm if he feels you aren’t listening. He is a writer, an arguer, a charmer and he introduced us to (as Tom put it) “The Cock Smith of Tierra Verde”. A slender fella otherwise known as the ‘playboy of the island’ or the ‘Big Tipper’, as his license plate (AND JACE) confirms. His warm smile only made warmer when he dipped out for a moment in his silver Hummer to run to his house and change into a Hawaiian special that would have made Jimmy Buffet jealous. The other residents are a peppering of amazing self employeds, retirees and drifters. They have seen wars, had children who’ve had children who’ve had children, published internationally and played guitar on the “Son of a Preacher Man” recording we have all come to love. They go by titles such as Dancing David, Newspaper Tom and Captain Kirk. They are real people with real imagined and unimagined pasts. They are jovial, entertaining and happy to exist in the four walls of Tierra Verde’s town hall. It is fair to say, all walks, history’s and points of view are welcome at Smuggler’s.
And I must apologize now because everything is about to go blurry. Tom advocates Wong Lee (across the parking lot of course) as the “BEST CHINESE” food around and he should know being the expert on Korea/Japanese/German (my notes say something like that). And I cannot deny the cuisine of the lovely Wang. A 20 year immigrant turned local who has been pleasing the Smuggler’s regulars and some famished travelers ever since; hats off to your Cashew Chicken and Crab Rangoo. My only concern would be the jello shots… lovely, but disturbing, is a whipped cream vodka.
So bar lovers, judgers and general travelling drunkards you’re welcome. You are welcome we happened to find this Diamond. You are welcome that we went back. And you are welcome we stayed long enough to get perfectly wobbly and had the fortitude to eventually write about it 5 months later. Go. Go love on these folks, their bartenders, their energy. Go drink with them and celebrate lives lived and living. For those of us who love the real, the unmanufactured, the dirt beneath the fingernails, the story untold, you can finally go to the sunshine state because there is a real reason to (besides snakes & gators of course) and that reason is in Tierra Verde (1120 S. Pinellas Bayway to be exact).