It seems as though the quaint little archway at the front of Hibiscus House serves as a magic portal that lands visitors squarely in Key West.
It was early evening when I wandered up to the wraparound porch of the yellow Victorian-style house (complete with white picket fence!). I checked around for signs of Jimmy Buffett, a Hemingway six-toed cat, or a slice of tangy pie. Slowly, the realization dawned that I had not been transported to Key West; I was, in fact, still in downtown West Palm Beach at a charming little bed and breakfast with a gorgeous outdoor bar/patio area. Located comfortably close to bustling Clematis Street and a slew of newly built condos near CityPlace, the laid-back Hibiscus House lounge has become an oasis for city-dwelling locals who flip-flop their way over for rum-soaked happy hours.
Key West and Hibiscus House (known as the "Hibi" to regulars) both have their fair shares of tropical beauty and booze, but let's face it: Both places also draw a crowd of hard-drinkin' eccentrics. I'd like to see the Key West crowd engage in a drinking contest with the Hibiscus House gang, because I'm pretty sure that Greg (a local who refills his personal three-beer-holding stein several times a night) or Becca (a woman who gets drunk before heading over to her bartending job) could kick some serious Conch Republican ass.
Ambiance: From somewhere in the tropical hideaway, I could hear a thumping trance remix of "The Phantom of the Opera." I followed along the pathway to the wooden stairs leading up to the tiki bar and staked out a barstool. The white-canopied, wooden bar area overlooks the patio and a handful of tables, all of which sport vibrant, floral tablecloths. Well-placed palm trees sprout up through the white sitting area, and haphazardly placed tiki torches and fairy lights glitter through lush greenery. Pink, yellow, purple, and white flowers spill over the rims of their plant pots; broad-leafed plants drape lazily over small, bubbling ponds. At the center of the courtyard sits a majestic, weather-worn stone fountain with plastic lily pads floating in it. Well-fed felines — including Grayson, the bar's official mascot — dart in and out of sight, hiding in the thick plants and humid air.
Bartender: Bartender Keith is a slim man with a shaved head and two rows of model-perfect pearly whites.
"This is a laid-back, Key West-type place," Keith said. "We get a lot of locals, some of whom even have their own cups." He lifted a glass with the letter J printed on it. "We keep big German beer mugs in the freezer for Greg. When he shows up — and he does, every day — I bring him his mug and three beers." As though those kind of beer-ordering skills weren't impressive enough, Keith spoke even more reverentially of this Greg: "The mug holds three beers at once," Keith explained. "And he always gets a couple of refills." Wow, I thought. A legend.
"So, can anyone have special mugs and cups?" I asked.
"No, you have to earn that privilege," Keith said slyly.
Mere talk of that many beers in this humidity made me spontaneously dehydrated, so I ordered water for the moment. Keith was cool with that. He said that when someone gets really drunk at the bar and orders another round, he'll slip them water in a fancy glass; "I call it an 'aquatini,' " he said, smiling. "Sometimes they don't realize." A bartender with creativity and a conscience? I loved him already.
A few seats down, a blond girl let out the kind of laugh that registered quickly on my shitfaced-o-meter. Not even 5:30 and already drunk? Definitely someone I needed to meet.
Patrons: Becca, a Midwesterner with tousled blond hair, and her dark-haired male companion, Pedro, were downing drinks at an impressive — alarmingly impressive — rate. Clearly, these were no amateurs.
When I sidled up beside them, Becca, apparently in an alcohol-induced argumentative state, had just baited Keith by asking him to guess their ages. He guessed Becca was 26, Pedro 24.
Becca took offense. "Dude... it's his black eyes," she moaned, slurring a little. "They make him look younger. I'm 27. He's a year older than me."
"Are you guys regulars?" I asked, changing the subject.
"No — but we will be," Becca said. "Keith is fabulous — my favorite bartender ever — and I've been to a lot of bars."
"Shocking," I teased her. Becca cackled in response.
Suddenly, we were fast friends. "Let's buy her a shot," she said. "Can we?"
Pedro nodded without looking at either of us.
After a brief argument over shot concoction (Becca is — surprise! — a bartender), Keith loaded up three Washington apple shots and slid them in front of us.
"To a beautiful day," Becca said sweetly, and we touched glasses and chugged. She swallowed hers rapidly — I won't lie; I had to double-sip — and quickly went back to her original mixed drink.
Keith seemed slightly uncomfortable with having just pumped more booze into her, so he fiddled with his iPhone, which, as it turned out, was responsible for the music. "I'm the bartender and DJ," he said. He'd played a few remixes, some ABBA, Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," the new Flo Rida song, and was clearly looking for something good when Becca pulled the iPhone away from him.
"Oh, this song is gay," she said, glancing down at it. There was a brief, uncomfortable pause.
"So are you a gay boy or a straight boy?" she asked, realizing her error even in her hazy, alcohol-soaked state.
"Gay," Keith said. There was another awkward pause before Keith smiled and Becca handed his iPhone back.
"Is this a gay bar?" she asked cautiously.
"No," piped in Kevin, a bigger guy in the corner. "It used to be real gay, but now it's a pretty good mix."
She seemed satisfied by that and turned to face in Kevin's direction. "So, how old do you think I am?"
When Kevin's companion John guessed 24, Becca squealed in delight and offered to marry him.
"Don't you have to go to work soon?" Pedro asked her.
"Oh, I've got at least another hour," Becca responded. Keith, finally in control of his iPhone, played another song.
"Is this the Cure?" Kevin asked Keith a few minutes later.
"What's the cure?" asked John, clearly not familiar with the band.
"Alcohol!" Becca squealed gleefully.
Locals: Most of the Hibi House crowd was similarly fun, easygoing, and in search of a nice cocktail. A few minutes later, I was talking to other friendly folks when I noticed Becca and Pedro stumble out of the bar without saying goodbye.
"They just walked out on their tab," Keith said.
"Maybe they didn't realize. She was, if you caught that, quite drunk," I said. "I could — "
"No," Keith said generously. "They're gone, and let's leave it at that."
The bar had definitely picked up — large groups of elderly folks were now hanging around the patio and sipping wine at the bar. A few hotel guests had cautiously crept up to order drinks and soon found themselves quite comfortable amid all the locals. A scruffy young guy with stubble and earrings greeted Keith, took a seat beside me, and ordered wine.
"How'd you meet Keith?" I asked.
"Oh, we met on an airplane," said Sean, originally from Canada. "We had the same laptop and were reading the same book — which neither of us finished — so we decided we needed to be friends."
At that point, Greg — the regular I'd heard so much about — made his way up to the bar. Keith dashed off and was back in a flash with three bottles of beer and a big, frosted beer stein.
Greg, who was a bit older and dressed in a clean, casual buttoned-down, took a seat in front of the mug, ceremoniously unrolled a small carpet — yes, a beer carpet! — and placed the beer stein on top of it. He then carefully emptied all three beers in there.
"What's so great about this place?" I asked him as I watched in awe.
"It's a diamond in the rough," he said. "I come here to unwind."
I stared at his full mug, wondering what he did that would require that much unwinding.
"I test-drive helicopters," he said.
With a stressful job like that, he deserved the ability to kick any Key West drinker's ass at a booze-swigging contest.
On that happy note, I decided to find my way out — and as I approached my car, I thought I detected a parking ticket on the windshield. The worst thing about Hibiscus House? Leaving and finding yourself back in the real world — a little less boozy and a lot less fun.