Buzzed in Paradise 2009 | Nightlife | South Florida

It's one of the strangest things I've ever seen at a bar. Here I am, sitting down enjoying a vodka tonic with an extra lime and waiting for the evening's entertainment to start (a cover band named Pyro) when I catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. There is a man behind the far end of the bar with long curly hair, a headband, and an executive chef outfit on. Seriously, an executive chef coat at a small bar in downtown Hollywood. I focus my eyes at other things around the bar to make sure I'm not hallucinating. There's the typical array of liquor bottles lined up behind the bar, a touch-screen videogame at the smaller bar at the opposite end, a small stage set up for Pyro, and a gaggle of buzzed patrons on either side of the pass-through window overlooking Hollywood Boulevard. I turn back around, and the executive chef introduces himself.

I immediately voice my skepticism: "Why would a bar have an executive chef?" He tells me a quick story about his plans to make the finest bar food in South Florida and runs back to the kitchen to cook up a specialty of his. While I'm on a specialty kick, I ask Justine, the beautiful bartender who's been putting up with me this particular evening, to make me her favorite drink. She comes back a minute later with a strong lime-green concoction that tastes like melon-flavored candy without a hint of alcohol. At the same time, the chef brings out a delicious plate of Polynesian-style chicken fingers to help soak up the booze. I fill my belly as I realize Octopus's Garden is really onto something here.

Normally if a bar or club has no cover charge and an open bar for 90 minutes, it's because the club is seriously lacking, but not Gryphon. During the Summer Spin Series DJ contest (August 21, September 18, and October 16), Gryphon will waive the cover fee and continue the open bar while DJs compete from 10:30 p.m. to midnight. Then, resident DJ Matt Spector takes over until 4 a.m., leaving plenty of time to burn off the open-bar calories. The recessed, European-style dance floor is surrounded by comfortable couch-style seating, perfect for bottle service with a close-up view of scantily clad patrons gyrating to nonstop house music. The two bars surrounding the dance floor are packed for the first few hours after the club opens, but shortly after midnight, they clear out as people do less drinking and more dancing. The sound system is capable of handling subsonic sounds with enough volume to shake your clothes without hurting your ears.

Buzzed in Paradise: Dania Beach Bar and Gril

The aptly named Dania Beach Bar and Grill has a certain no-frills charm that's hard to find in South Florida. The owners clearly didn't spend a lot of time and money coming up with an elaborate theme, an intricate menu, or a host of "themed" nights in a bid to bring in different crowds. Instead, they put together a bar that feels like you're hanging out in a friend's backyard. The seating is simple: wooden tables, chairs, and benches. The menu features Chicago-style hot dogs, burgers, and boiled peanuts, and the bar serves a handful of bottled and draft beers, wine, and soft drinks. No liquor, no drink-till-you-drop college nights, and most important, no people who make you feel uncomfortable just being yourself. Strike up a conversation with a stranger watching a baseball game on one of the bar's small television sets, or be left alone to watch the waves break over a mostly unpopulated stretch of Dania Beach.

Buzzed in Paradise: Pirate Republic Seafood Bar and Grill

I've been at Pirate Republic Seafood Bar and Grill for a few hours now. Since it's late on a weeknight, there aren't many people sitting around me. I shut my eyes for a moment and I'm transported to a different world. Thanks to the bevy of strong rum drinks weaving their way through my bloodstream, the thick scent of seawater in the air, and the 30 or so pirate flags hanging from the ceiling, it's hard to remember I'm in downtown Fort Lauderdale. I'm getting an almost uncontrollable urge to snap on an eye patch, grab the nearest stuffed parrot, and try to commandeer the water taxi docked just a few feet away. Before I'm able to spring my plan into action, the bartender slides another drink my way. As I take in the various pirate paraphernalia hanging from the walls, I can't help but wonder how pirates got anything done with so much rum around. n

Buzzed in Paradise: Stratford's Bar

Stratford's Bar is the oldest, diveyest bar in Hollywood. Don't take that as a knock on the place, though. Stratford's is a place where you can proudly wear your faded Hypercolor shirt. Stratford's has been serving good, cheap drinks since 1938, and not much has changed since its doors opened. There's a jukebox, some pool tables, dartboards, a table for shuffleboard, and, most important, $3 imported beers any time. There's plenty of parking for your designated driver in the adjoining lot, or you can stumble your way to and from the Tri-Rail, only about a hundred yards west.

Buzzed in Paradise: The Whale Raw Bar and Fish House

The decorations on the walls of the Whale Raw Bar and Fish House are a strange mix of surf and turf. I sit at a long bar near the open kitchen and scan the room. An orca whale hangs just above the entrance, license plates from across the nation dot the walls, and faux stuffed fish and harpoons fill in the gaps. It's just enough kitschy charm to put a smile on my face as the bartender asks for my order. I ask for a tall, stiff drink and watch as she saunters off to the far end of the bar to prepare it. She's dressed in a sort of cheerleading/sailor getup: short ruffled skirt with long stockings and a navy-blue top with matching scarf. The only thing missing is a little sailor's cap. She hands me the drink and lets me know there is plenty of seating outside, which I take offense to. Why is she so quick to point me out the door? Is she reading my mind or feeling my eyes scanning her outfit? When I notice I've left my cigarettes on the bar in front of me, I sheepishly grab my drink, walk out the side door, and take a seat next to the fountains. By the time I finish my drink, the Whale is packed with regulars gathered to watch the Marlins on the televisions above the bar. I order my second drink and settle in for a night of trying to force puns about the Marlins and the house décor.

Buzzed in Paradise: Whiskey Tango All American Bar and Grill

Whiskey Tango is a common term in military circles to describe white trash, and the owners of the all-American bar and grill bearing the same name revel in that fact. Advertised as redneck cool, trailer-park fabulous, and white-trash chic, WT is clearly aiming for a clientele more concerned about good food and drink than paying attention to the labels on their clothing. Two pool tables, an electronic touch poker table, a boxing machine, steel-tipped darts, a basketball hoop, and more than a dozen high-definition televisions prove WT is the sports mecca of downtown Hollywood. After checking out the games, I decided to forgo the high-top tables spread across the bar and sit in a large leather booth clearly left over from the previous occupant (Mix Ultra Lounge). I settled in with a tall drink and some chicken bites coated in Captain Crunch while I tried to remember which fantasy football players I was supposed to root for. Turned out these semicircular booths were the perfect place to relax, with a view of every television in the house.

Throughout fall and winter, Sunday afternoons at your local watering hole are rowdy. Champps Americana, for better or worse, bucks that trend. Yes, Champps shows every football game on huge projection televisions that circle the restaurant, but the atmosphere isn't that of a hard-core sports bar. Instead, it has a family-friendly, subdued, sometimes even quiet vibe. This is especially surprising when you realize that pints of imported and domestic beer run just $2.50 and are served by a wait staff that is so attentive, you might have to ask them to back off. There's a full menu ranging from massive salads to burgers and steaks, and you can take the family to watch the games without teaching the kids a slew of four-letter words. n

If you've seen Killer Klowns From Outer Space, especially that scene in which they drink human blood through cotton-candy cocoons, you know there's something inherently freaky about clowns. No offense to the clowns of the world: Honestly, we know you gotta make a buck. But c'mon. The excessive makeup? The baggy, multicolored clothing? The canoe-sized shoes and red-ball noses? The weird gimmicks and inhuman amounts of energy? Clowns are just an uncomfortable social violation.

Unreliable sources tell me that coulrophobia is the fear of clowns, and you know what my prescribed remedy is? Beer, of course. And at the Circus Bar, I may have found a remedy for clowns, no matter how many squirting plastic flowers they have.

Ambiance: The Circus Bar is situated in a quiet industrial area, with creepy, old-fashioned, circus-style lettering, blacked-out windows, and a vault-like front door. Not sure whether to expect a mob of circus rejects or a mafia of cutthroat criminals, I mustered up the courage, dragged the heavy door open, and stood blinking in the low-lit, smoky doorway. To the right, an open space with pool tables. To the left and center, a thick, trapezoid-shaped bar. My companion led me over to a spot on the far right side of the bar, beside a dusty DJ booth and slightly elevated stage with a stripper pole, which had been decorated and labeled "The North Pole" for Christmas. On the walls, faded, curling posters chronicle the rise of circuses, from Buffalo Bill to Barnum & Bailey. Photos and paintings depict a motley assortment of circus freaks. Photos and paintings of clowns cover every wall. Chipped wooden clown masks and clown dolls hide amid beer posters. It didn't take me long to realize that this bar is Bozo's bitch.

Basically, this bar is the bastard child of a horror movie and an antiques store. I shifted on my barstool and tried not to look at the creepy painting staring right at me: In old-fashioned paint strokes, a clown was depicted dancing near a rainbow. A nearby orange-and-white stained-glass picture of a mime-like clown twice distracted me from conversation. He was the absolute vision of a perfect nightmare: His intent to cause bloodshed by way of balloon animals was all too apparent. I decided to keep an eye on him.

To make things even more unnerving, between all the white-faced clowns were more caricatures of strangers than you could shake a flying trapeze at, staring out from the walls with their big heads and exaggerated teeth.

With Barry White playing in the background and The Simpsons and sports flashing intermittently across the flat-screen TVs surrounding the bar, I began to relax a little. What I really needed to do was get a beverage from the ringmaster of sorts and find out more about this little hole in the wall. I felt like I'd wandered into some time-warp or late great-aunt's clown collection.

Bartender: Sara wore a T-shirt that said "99% nice, 1% naughty" and a fringed skirt that was slightly too short in the back. She was pleasant and warm, and when I hesitantly asked about the place, she delivered a rapid-fire burst of information: The bar is 30 years old, has both pool and dart leagues, and it's one of the oldest bars that no one's ever heard of. She also told me that they host "Kill the Keg" nights (all the draft you can drink for $7) — certainly guaranteed to be better than watching a man put his head in a lion's mouth.

She paused to deliver me a Beck's.

"At any given time, most of the people in here are regulars," she told me. "I've been hanging out here for about ten years. I've heard some people say it's like a black hole in here."

I pointed upward toward the names and phone numbers that adorned the ceiling and asked, "What are these advertisements doing on the ceiling?"

"Oh, those have been here for years," she said. "The panel over the DJ booth actually was an ad for the guy who used to be our DJ."

" 'Mark Luis Mortgage,' " I read aloud.

"The psychologist's panel is over where he used to sit at the bar," she continued. How endearing — just like Frasier Crane but with a clown theme.

Patrons: Sara passed me around the bar like a half-smoked joint. First she introduced me to Torrence, who was broad with a booming voice, and Carlos, who was slight and straight-backed and wore a green polo. Dara, Torrence's dainty wife, wore purple stone jewelry and sat silently, absorbed in a mystery novel.

"You'll see all kinds of people in here," Torrence said. He pointed at an elderly gentleman who had just wandered in. "That guy's rich. And last week, we had the guy in here who owns all the jukeboxes in the bars around here."

"Wow," I said. "Why do you come here?"

"We followed Sara here," Torrence said, indicating the bartender.

"Where'd she work before here?" I asked.

"Doesn't matter. It's shit without her," he said.

I believed it: Just then, Sara came by with shots for all. Torrence and I swigged down Crackhouse shots — cranberry juice and Blackhouse — while Carlos had a Jäger shot.

"You know, back when Swap Shop had a circus, someone called up here asking if this was the Swap Shop circus," Carlos said. "The bartender had to tell them, 'Uh, no. This is a bar.' "

Clowns: Glowing with a sugar-sweet buzz, I turned to Dara. "How does anyone get over all these pictures of the clowns?" I asked. "They make me never wanna come back here."

"I almost didn't," Dara looked up from her book. "I hate them. But that's why they keep the lights low in here. Besides, you have a few more of those Crackhouse shots and you won't even see the clowns."

"I'm going to need a lot more shots before I don't notice those creepy bastards," I said.

"You know, they did a contest here once: count the clowns," Dara said. "People counted 200-something clowns on the wall."

Holy shit. That's a creepy curio-cabinet nightmare come true.

"Which is the creepiest clown here?" I asked.

"That one," Dara pointed immediately in the direction of my companion. Fortunately, she wasn't talking about him: Rather, the clown over his shoulder. The same orange, stained-glass abomination I'd noticed earlier. I shuddered in response.

"Still, though, they're not so bad," Dara said thoughtfully. "You come here on a Friday night, you'll see the real clowns. At least the ones on the wall don't talk."

Clown shoes: Dara was damned right. The bar had its fair share of really cool folks who made the clowns completely tolerable. But it had enough clowns that I wondered where they'd parked their tiny car.

As I stood in the pool area, gawking at a photograph taken of no fewer than ten Technicolor-headed, white-faced, creepy-ass clowns, I was interrupted by James, the bar's owner. He introduced me to Louie, a short, dark-haired man who had worked at the bar many years ago.

"Oh, you work for New Times, eh? What would you like to know about this place?" By now, Carlos had wandered over to listen.

"What about these caricatures?" I asked. "Where'd they come from?"

"The old owner, Phil, was friends with an artist," Louie said. "The guy would come once a week and draw all the regulars." Wow. Now that's a friendly neighborhood bar.

He was soon distracted by Garth Brooks' "Low Places," playing loudly from the bar's speakers.

"I hate this song," Carlos said.

"Everything's all right," Louie sang, putting his arm around Carlos. "Your asshole is tight/And I'll show myself to the do-o-or."

Since I know better than to interrupt clowns during a mating call, I turned and tried to walk away. I was pursued by a strange and severely inebriated gentleman, and when my face gave away my annoyance, Sara came to my aid. "Stop scaring the new people!" she shouted.

Now that's a respectable ringmaster who keeps her clowns in line. After a brief conversation with Sara (not only does she boss around clowns and tend the Circus bar but she also sings opera!), I bade a hasty farewell to the clowns — both two- and three-dimensional — all of whom the alcohol had made slightly more tolerable. Though I still don't like clowns, I liked the rusty nostalgia of the Circus Bar and its regular cast of characters. I guess I could get used to a couple of harmless clown pictures, right?

Mystic Water Kava Bar might not actually be based on a Tolkien novel, but as soon as you walk through the front door, you're transported to an unfamiliar and strangely relaxing land. I've never seen a bar so meticulously decorated to look like it's located in the middle of a jungle: huge trees crawl over the bar and stretch across the ceiling, vines and multi-colored lights dot the walls and hang from the tree branches, and Aztec-looking stone covers portions of the walls. The decorations aren't all that set Mystic Water apart from the rest of the watering holes in Hollywood: There is not a drop of alcohol served here, only drinks made with kava root. The thick, almost muddy drink isn't the tastiest thing on the planet, but they say the mild numbing sensation it provides makes the whole experience worth a little discomfort of the taste buds.

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