ST. PETE BEACH — A crowd gathers on the rooftop at the Hotel Zamora as the sun begins to set over the Gulf of Mexico.
It starts as a trickle. A couple holding hands. A group on a girls night out. A foursome dressed casually in shorts and maxi dresses stroll toward the glass-front railing that overlooks Gulf Boulevard. A few blocks to the south, the Loews Don CeSar Resort sits like a pink sandcastle on the shoreline.
Then a wave of humanity emerges from the elevator and stairwell as the sun drops toward the horizon and diners from the Castile restaurant a few floors below come up top for the sunset. It’s a cloudy evening, so there’s no promise of a grand payoff. But right before dropping out of sight, a tangerine beam of light peeks through the clouds and gives visitors what they came for.
Nights like this are why rooftop bars and restaurants are so popular in the Tampa Bay area.
Danny Guess, bartender at Fly Bar & Restaurant in Tampa says the obvious appeal of (slightly) higher-altitude consumption comes from just being outdoors. He also thinks perspective might have something to do with it.
“[On the roof] you get a cool new view that you don’t normally experience when eating and drinking,” he said. “There’s also a bit of exclusivity that comes with it, I imagine.”
Several new local hotels and bars have created new lofty spots for eating and drinking. Even the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater has a Frenchy’s rooftop bar. The Zamora’s rooftop was so popular, the owner is installing a retractable roof and a full kitchen that overlooks Big McPherson Bayou and Boca Ciega Bay. A section of the rooftop is still available for private receptions and catering events, but it won’t open completely for several weeks.
Until then, check out these other spots that offer unique eating and drinking views:
1207 S. Howard Ave., Tampa
This is the proverbial cherry on top of the swanky food-themed Epicurean Hotel. Offering views of South Tampa and downtown Tampa’s skyline, Edge features craft cocktails, beers and sodas.
Tops to Try: The Aubergine will set you back $13, but the bold, blackberry cocktail with cognac is well worth nursing at sunset. The five-cheese tasting board is a great snick-snack to enjoy with a group during happy hour.
340 Beach Drive N.E., St. Petersburg
Perched four stories atop The Birchwood boutique hotel, the views of the Vinoy basin, The Pier, Straub Park and Tampa Bay from the Canopy are exquisite. Opened in 2013 as part of an extensive hotel remodel, the bar features fire pits, private cabanas, high-top tables and couches.
Tops to Try: The Extra-Spicy Bloody Mary and an order of cheesy tots (with aged cheddar, queso fresco, tomato, bacon, creme fraiche, scallions and truffle salt).
1202 N. Franklin St., Tampa
Follow the long metal staircase on the north side of the building to find Guess and his talented bartending colleagues making outstanding drinks at this hipster version of a tiki bar. The only complaint: that the rooftop isn’t bigger. The place gets crowded during cooler weather, and getting a drink can be a bit of a struggle.
Tops to Try: The Reverse Manhattan — a play on the classic with rye whiskey, Bonal aperitif and orange bitters — is one to savor. So is another classic: the Bees Knees, made with gin, orange blossom honey, lemon and lavender.
5137 N. Florida Ave., Tampa
The view isn’t much to write home about, unless a bakery and a secondhand store is your idea of ambiance. But what The Refinery lacks in waterfront vistas, it makes up for in copious amounts of cool. The award-winning restaurant turned its second-floor rooftop into a covered outdoor patio that makes for a relaxed late-night hang.
Tops to Try: Who knows? We’d suggest the jalapeno boiled peanuts, but 90 percent of the menu changes weekly. You’ll have to play it by ear on the food side and go with your gut. On the drink side, always, always, always order a tall boy Pabst Blue Ribbon. At least to start.
2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa
On the 14th floor of the Grand Hyatt, the hotel restaurant’s early-evening views of a shimmering Tampa Bay are breathtaking. Especially for acrophobes. Once you acclimate to the height, you’ll be ready to eat and drink. The restaurant is lovely; so is the outdoor terrace. But the bar is sleek and stylish, so order accordingly.
Tops to Try: This is one of the few places to include tobacco products on a menu. Allow me to suggest pairing an Arturo Fuente Short Story Reserve cigar with an Armanitini, made with Stolichnaya blueberry vodka, Godiva white chocolate liqueur and a splash of Curacao. If you can accurately pronounce Armanitini after drinking the first one, you’ve earned the right to order a second. If not, call a cab for a ride home.
809 Gulf Way, St. Pete Beach
This is the granddaddy of local rooftop bars. No discussion of rooftop anything in Tampa Bay is complete without a mention of this spot. Overlooking the Gulf on the west side of the roof and Tierra Verde on the east, The Hurricane became a destination point for sunset lovers and those who love beach drinks 30 years ago. On a clear night, you can see the lighthouse at Egmont Key to the south and the condo towers in Indian Rocks Beach to the north. (Disclaimer: The writer is not only related to the owners, he was the first busboy.)
Tops to Try: Anything with rum in it. (You’re at the beach, after all.) And if you leave without eating one of the Hurricane’s signature grouper sandwiches, go back and do it again until you get it right.