Watering holes. Community gathering places. Destinations. Oases. Rest stops. Refreshment Stands. Meeting Spots. Whatever you call them, neighborhood bars serve many purposes. They are safe havens in life’s tempest and places where we can be comfortable and relax in happy surroundings, away from outside influences.
Gulf Coast bars are even more than that. They are reflections and definitions. These eclectic and convivial places are microcosms of their communities – spots where natives and visitors alike can gather, share, discuss and become the best of friends, even if only for a little while.
These bars actually define their communities. No pretense. No put-on. They await, with a refreshing beverage, maybe a quick snack, fellowship, conversation, and a non-judgmental demeanor, the weary traveler.
Each of the following establishments has brought joy and, yes, culture to their respective communities. All, in their area, are well-known and worthy of your attention when you’re in the neighborhood. You won’t regret time well-spent in their midst. (We can’t guarantee that same sentiment will be true the morning after your visit.)
We’ll begin our journey in the east and slowly move towards the west, following the path of the sun.
Bud & Alley’s. Highway 30A, Seaside, Fla. Originally named for a dog and cat, this second-story, open-air bar sits over an excellent restaurant of the same name. Sweeping vistas of the Gulf and the incredibly charming town are the hallmarks of B&A’s, which is also known as the necessary place to be during sunsets. Jimmy Buffett on the sound system. Festive bartenders are happy in their work – and why not? With an office like this one, they are the envy of every patron who longs to flip-flop their way through life at the beach.
The Whale’s Tail Beach Bar & Grill. Seascape Resort, Destin, Fla. Walk off the sugar sand beach right into the bar. Sit down on one of the rickety stools and tell the mixologists what you want with your rum. Or what kind of beer you want, and from where. Or whatever. This is a quintessential beach bar. Upstairs, there’s a small café serving pretty good beach food (e.g. hamburgers and hot dogs) but downstairs you’re among the well-tanned, well-served, very Southern, cognoscenti. License plates from all over adorn the clapboard walls – of which there are very few. The place is wide open to the azure blue waters of the Gulf, which provide the ideal backdrop to the bleached white sands of the beach.
McGuire’s Irish Pub. 600 E. Gregory St., Pensacola, Fla.; 33 Highway 98, Destin, Fla. A highly entertaining and whimsical emulation of a New York Irish bar at the turn of the 20th century, McGuire’s prepares excellent brews and good grub. McGuire’s serves hearty stews and thick steaks alongside Buffalo wings and nachos. Dining in the bar area is quite informal.
For those craving a white tablecloth experience – which there aren’t many of on this list – both McGuire’s locations have that too. There really is a guy named McGuire, and he really is serious about his heritage – pipe band and all.
The Break. 65 Via de Luna, Pensacola Beach, Fla. It’s all about the Rock-n-Roll, not so much about the beach. In fact, it’s tough to see the beach from here. But it’s a great, rockin’ place. Southern Beach bars (real ones, of which this is most certainly one) entice patrons who have no quarrel with pinkish, punkish, gothic hair styles and “tats” in the darndest places. Cool beer and loud music from local bands provide all the entertainment – in addition to fellow patron-watching.
Flora-Bama. 17401 Perdido Key Dr., Pensacola, Fla. This legendary watering hole bills itself as “The Last Great American Road House” – and who’s to argue? Despite its name, the building is fully located in Florida – that is, after a bridge dispute between Florida and Alabama was settled and Alabama gave the land to Florida.
This multi-purpose bar/entertainment facility/package liquor store was partially dismantled by a direct hit from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. It has returned with great gusto, now boasting a boardwalk over the beach leading down to the Gulf’s waterline. Trying to incorporate all the Southern cultures, the Flora-Bama stages mullet tosses, polar bear dips, chili cook-offs, Cajun-theme parties, Mardi Gras events, triathlons, golf tournaments, and pirate celebrations. Florabama attracts beach visitors, college students, Air Force personnel, good ole boys and bikers. ’Nuff said.
Gabbie’s. 119 Main St., Bay St. Louis, Miss. The eponymous Gabbie, owner, named this bar after the nickname she’s had since the age of five. Renovated after Hurricane Katrina, the new Gabbie’s is just as unique as the old one, now featuring a kitschy, French Quarter/Mississippi look. There are no strangers here, just like the set of a television sitcom, with a cast of characters more interesting than those loved on “Cheers.” Guests can sit down, play darts, play pool, pour their hearts out to Gabbie, or sip on a beer. There are interesting shops in the neighborhood, too, so this is a great spot to park a husband while his significant other goes shopping.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. 941 Bourbon St., New Orleans, La. Away from the bulk of the Bourbon Street madness, this quintessential French Quarter bar is very dark inside and features a patio. Due to age, the building gives the appearance that it could collapse into a pile of rubble at any second; but, it has been standing for more than 230 years, through hurricanes, fires, torrential rains, countless college parties, and some out-of-control bachelorette drinking bouts.
Some legends say that in the 1700s, the Lafitte brothers operated a legitimate blacksmith shop at the location. Some claim the brothers used the building as a front for illegal doings, and that their ill-gotten pirate booty is buried in the back. Neither story can be substantiated, but it makes for great conversation.
Fleur de Lis Cocktail Lounge. 5655 Government Blvd., Baton Rouge, La. The name on the pink (yes, pink) building is not the bar’s most prominent feature; it’s the big letters that read “Cocktail Lounge” in weird, art-deco-like font, adjacent to a slanted “Roman Pizza” designation. Established in 1946, this capital city landmark attracts all types, from college guys and girls to state senators, bow-tie to pierced ear. These days it’s primarily a restaurant, but the drinks are honest and well-made and the beer is cold. The pizzas are easily the best in the state.
Grant Street Dance Hall. 133 W. Grant St., Lafayette, La. Any listing of Southern watering holes has to include at least one honky-tonk dance hall. In the middle of Cajun country, this one rates near the top. The 100-year-old brick and cypress structure, originally a fruit warehouse, has been featuring zydeco, blues, rock ’n’ roll and country music for nearly 40 years. Acts including Clifton Chenier, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ray Charles, Dr. John, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Dizzy Gillespie have all “blown the doors off” this place. Try to keep your feet still and a smile off your face – it can’t be done.
The joy of a Southern bar is contained in the friendliness of the patrons and the openness of the professionals tending the bar. It’s about the atmosphere and the history. So sit back. Relax. Enjoy. Refresh. Rejuvenate. And tell your friends. Or bring ’em along.