Obscure Bar Tour

If you think that door is the entrance to Mona's, think again.
Colby Katz

You could live your whole life in Broward County and, if you never made a wrong turn or let yourself get lost, overlook the most aged, authentic bars around. You could complain about crowds, parking, and unvarying personalities until your tongue dried out. Then again, if you indulged your adventurous side, you might find comfortable stools, vacant parking spaces, and challenging personalities.

So last week, I embarked on my First Annual Obscure Bar Tour. Here's the official report:

About midnight on Monday, I pulled up to the Hut Lounge and Package Store, a neighborhood gin joint located on a dead end across the street from the Galleria Mall, right behind a CVS pharmacy in Fort Lauderdale. On the outside is just a set of double doors with a small sign stuck on the side of a generic South Florida strip mall, but the interior is a classic. There are inflatable beer signs hanging from the slightly vaulted ceiling, photo collages of feathered hair fillies, a back wall lined with dart competition trophies and paperback novels, and a jukebox loaded with classic rock. All in all: whimsical good times and cheap drinks.

The inhabitants, however, were testy.

Take Michael, for instance. The middle-aged man with sharp features seemed like a nice enough guy. He and his friend even offered me a shot. Woo hoo!

But when we were interrupted by Peter, a corpulent, big-cheeked, 38-year-old man with black-framed glasses, things turned ugly.

"Excuse me," Peter said to me. "I have someone on the phone I want you to talk to."

We moved down the bar. No one was on his phone. "What are you doing?" he condescended. "Do you really think that anyone in this bar is going to tell you anything different than you'd hear in any other dive bar? This isn't South Beach. Look at this," he held up a sheet of paper with a list of regulars' names. "This is the kind of bar where they laminate peoples' birthdays."

Michael, cutting on my reporting style, attacked me for, yipes, drinking on the job. "You have made a mockery of me and this bar... Try acting like a human being."

Wondering what wormhole of logic these insults crawled out of, I told Peter what happened.

"That's the way it is in these places," he responded. "You intruded on his family."

On my fourth visit, I finally touched down with Terry Hicks, a tall, clean-cut, gray-mustachioed fellow who has been Hut owner since 1979. After forcing me to justify my existence and career choice for 30 minutes, he delivered the Hut 411. Originally opened in 1956 by Frank Fontaine, who later entertained on the Jackie Gleason Show, it was at first a piano bar called Frank Fontaine's. The original wall, which was long ago covered by wood paneling, has elaborate paintings of dancers, he explained. In 1959, Joe Flanigan, who died earlier this year, bought the place, and it was one stop in his South Florida empire of casual culture.

One day, Hicks says, he plans to strip the wall back down to the original. He offers cheap drinks, won't allow confrontations to escalate into fights, and keeps his bar pure neighborhood.

Obscure Bar Tour grade: A-

Would you ever try to pick up a quarter from the track of a roller coaster? Probably not. Nor would you aim to do so on any of the roads around Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport and I-95. Crazy drivers. But I did a tour stop there at Flossie's Bar and Grill on Ravenswood Road. I found it with only a little help from a heavily tattooed Poor House bartender named Tommy Sheridan. Tommy has an easy, almost giddy laugh but talks tougher than nails, and he said this was a biker hangout, so I was happy to have him along.

Outside, a large wooden deck hosted a swarm of leather-jacketed folks enjoying the rock music coming from three bearded men standing on a stage that surrounds a big tree. Oh wait! Four men, the drummer was playing his set behind the tree. Inside, Flossie's was like an old-time diner. Tommy and I grabbed a coupla drinks and headed to the outside tiki bar, which has the area's best view of an airport runway, for sure. The place was full of big American dudes, some kinda hot, drinking domestic beer.

At the bar, I talked to this huge hunk of a boat mechanic who told me, while he and a friend worked their way through a bucket of beer, that he went to St. Thomas Aquinas High School. "All of my friends who went to public school are scared of me. They're all white collar, and when we went to the beach recently, I tried to get them to go down to the water's edge with me. None of them would. I said, 'Come on, I'm just a St. Thomas kid. '"  

Yeah, just a St. Thomas kid who looks like he could rip somebody's head off with his bare hands.

Tommy and I parked it at a wooden table with our drinks, and I observed two couples dancing in the carefree nature of old-time rock 'n' roll. "It's so vertical," I commented.

Tommy explained, "They're dancing to the guitar."

"I never thought of that."

"It's like on the Dave Chapelle show. White people dance to the guitar. Black people dance to the drums. And Hispanic people dance to the keyboards."

Obscure Bar Tour grade: B+

Next, Tommy and I cruised down to Federal Highway and cut east on Dania Beach Boulevard to Hurricane Sports Bar, an out-of-the-way place that's a maelstrom of fun. It was about 11:30 p.m. when we pulled into a quotidian shopping center with a grocery store and found the place. The people at this huge bar with a pool table and plenty of games were friendly as hell. The barkeeps and regulars cheered Tommy and me on as we took turns trying our strength on the punching machine.

My punches were more powerful than T. the tough talker's, who explained that he's a wrestler and likes to pin his victims, then bite them. Holy mother of God in heaven. But then, bartender Joe Dirt served up another round.

Next, a gentler Tommy approached -- a big, brown-haired man who drank a pitcher of Bud at a time. He was a Hurricane regular named Tommy the Toe -- so-called for the six-inch-long, curly toenails he used to sport before he heeded the advice of his friends and got a pedicure.

"Tommy, what was up with the feet?" I asked.

"It was the drinking," he said. "I didn't have time to think about my feet."

Bartender Dirt, of long, brown hair and skinny-rocker build, was manning the taps behind the bar. He was in his early 50s, and the crowd claimed he has a way with women. "It's not me; it's the ladies," he responded.

Owner Evan Kleiman, a University of Miami alumnus, said he renamed the bar after his alma mater when he took it over last year. He wanted to separate the venue, formerly known as Players, from its reputation for fights and drugs. "This place was opened by jai alai players around 1983, when about 10,000 people a day went through Dania Jai-Alai," he explained. "Now, you're lucky if there are 300 people there." There was a steak house and restaurant bar here owned by a guy named Frank Tiberio, he said. But after ten years, Tiberio sold it, and over the course of six months, the new owner ran it into the ground. "When I took it over," Kleiman said, "the only place to go was up."

And up it's come. Money's streaming in, and things may improve. "When [the county and Dania Jai-Alai] finally get their shit together with the slots, we're looking forward to the increased traffic."

Obscure Bar Tour Grade: B+

Back in Fort Lauderdale, Tommy and I capped off our hidden bar night around 1:30 a.m. at Mona's, just a few miles north. The façade blended into its train-track-side location on Sunrise Boulevard near NE Third Avenue. Outside were oversized tire planters, It was like a meticulously tended auto parts yard. A painted sign on the side of the building read Mona's, and a doggy head popped out of the "o." For years, when I passed here, I thought it was a pet-grooming shop. Then, I noticed the sign for karaoke, which the bar has every Wednesday night.

I'd already stopped into Mona's at noon the same day asking for the owner and got some stares and the cold shoulder from the daytime bartender. So I stepped tentatively inside. Past the pool table by the door, the dim bar had a festive décor, red booth-like seats surrounding the centered bar, which had fringe all around the top.

A (male) shirtless bartender told me the gay bar is about 7 years old and is named after the owner's deceased dog. Another barkeep, a tall, affable fellow, was cute by any standard. When I suggested I might know a cute guy for him, an equally cute Latino guy interjected that the bartender was his boyfriend.

"You two make a cute couple," I commented.

The bartender laughed and denied their status.

Perplexed, I turned to the short, gruff doorman named Don, who had an ever-present stogie plugged in his mug. He eyed me suspiciously. I liked him anyway.  

"Am I welcome here?" I asked the man pouring my drinks.

"Do you have money?" he asked sarcastically.

"Yes," I answered.

"Then you're fine."

But Don's silent presence still divided me between discomfort and intrigue.

In fact, I was taken with the dusky lighting and the campy vibe, but I was on borrowed time. So, what's behind this camouflaged nook of fabu? The owner, who put me off on the phone, didn't seem to have the time or inclination to talk to me, but that was in keeping with out-of-the-way bars.

Obscure Bar Tour grade: B

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