I’ve driven past the bar twice a day for years, once on my commute into downtown Tampa, once on the ride home.
Until recently, I had not paid it much attention. I stopped in years ago and, finding the place dark and dingy and me not on probation or hiding from collection agencies, I decided not to return.
Plus, it wasn’t in the most attractive location. On the front of the strip mall in which it sits on Bloomingdale Avenue, its sign, which reads “PUB” sits next to one that reads “SMOOTH ACTION GUNS”.
Then a couple of months ago, Richard Thomson, who bartends at Pane Rustica in South Tampa, told me I absolutely had to stop in there.
“Be sure to get the loaded Tater Tots,” he said. “They have chili and cheese on them. They’re ridiculously great.”
A bar. With tots. Loaded tots at that.
Oh, twist my arm, why don’t you.
I left him immediately, got in my truck and drove directly to the bar called The Stein & Vine on Bloomingdale Avenue.
When I walked in, I let out one of those nervous laughs you get when you feel like someone is pulling a prank on you.
Gone was the skeevy, two-packs-a-day feel. In its place was something that looked like… a gastropub?
Reclaimed Ybor City brick on the wall. Twenty-seven beer taps. A wine list with 30 labels on it. Chalkboards with the daily specials and a craft brew list.
The bar was bright and decorated with wood tones. It smelled like cheeseburgers and beer. Customers were smiling. Pennies were embedded into the top of the bar.
It felt like I had found a home.
I sat down and ordered four things on the menu immediately. The tots, of course, loaded with chili and a fried egg. Yes, a fried egg.
Then there were the Pig Wings, small pork shanks fried to a crisp but moist golden brown. I also asked for an order of Cajun Fried Corn on the Cob. Mostly because it was served with a Latin Lime sauce. That had to be good. Had to be.
To wash it down, I ordered a Cigar City Jai Alai IPA that had been aged in a white-oak barrel.
Later, I met the owner, Ty Mathis, and found out he worked 15 years for Pepin Distributing in Tampa. If there was a Gasparilla or a Super Bowl and you had a beer during it, you can thank Ty. His first job at Pepin: Taking the old beer taps out of Tampa Stadium and installing new ones in Raymond James Stadium.
Mathis noticed three years ago that the craft beer market in Tampa was exploding, in part due to Cigar City Brewing’s growing reputation. Craft beer now accounts for up to 10 percent of the market.
He was a cook before his stint with beer – including at River Hills Country Club in Valrico - so when he felt he needed a change from slaking South Tampa’s thirst, he decided to open The Stein & Vine.
“You could see the excitement,” Mathis said. “Tampa is one of the most desired markets to be in for craft beer. I threatened my wife Lacey for years that I was going to buy this bar.”
He had a vision that it needed to be an independent bar, so he cashed in his retirement and put it into renovating the space himself with a few friends. They installed three tons of tile. In the meantime, he experimented with the menu at home before opening in November.
“I spent my own money,” Mathis said. “I don’t owe anyone. The 27 beers I have on tap (are) ones I want. I know I make good food. And I have a lot of friends in the area.”
I ate the Pig Wings. I murdered the loaded tots. The Cajun Corn didn’t stand a chance. The beer was a perfect pairing.
When I was done, I had this ridiculous grin.
Here I was, only a short drive from home. I didn’t have to drive into Tampa for great brews and fun and delicious food.
Life was, for a moment, at a perfect peace.
The lesson to be learned here: Stop every now and then instead of driving by. There might be fried pork as a reward.