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Birthday bash: 33 reasons to love Skipper's Smokehouse


Published:   |   Updated: September 19, 2013 at 12:52 PM

Under some century-old oaks in North Tampa is a ramshackle place that is like no other in the country — or possibly the world.

Skipper's Smokehouse and Oyster Bar is more than a seafood shack, quaint little bar and outdoor music venue.

It's a Tampa landmark, an institution, a culture unto itself, and a gathering place for people who march to the beat of their own drummers.

Nothing fancy on the menu here. Onion rings to die for. Smoked mullet. Grouper sandwiches. Barbecued alligator ribs. And tangy jerk chicken that falls off the bone.

On any given night out under that oak canopy and the stars, you can find aging hippies dancing next to 20somethings; swing dancers grooving next to rockers; bikers swaying next to National Public Radio fans; and blue collars sharing space with white collars.

Showcasing local, regional and national artists, Skipper's is home to the blues, reggae, bluegrass, zydeco, ska, jazz, folk and anything that is an alternative to the mainstream.

“We've got three generations of families coming here now. It's like a big family,” says owner Tom White.

Once voted the “best blues club” in America, the place hits its 33rd birthday on Sept. 23, but the party is Saturday night.

To celebrate, here are 33 facts about Skipper's:

33. The place is named for its location — on Skipper Road, named for landowner John Skipper.

32. A small café opened on the site in 1977, housed in what had been the office of a rundown trailer park. Remnants of that shabby office make up part of the current Oyster Bar.

31. In 1980, three Air Force buddies, White, Vince McGilvra and Andy Bastman, bought the place. Bastman sold his share in the '80s. McGilvra retired in 2008.

30. In the early years, the only music was a free hippie jam session on Sunday nights, featuring local bands paid in free beer tickets. Beer sold for $1 a can.

29. The three biggest things on the first menu were smoked mullet, smoked chicken and smoked ribs, cooked on a “cracker smoker” made of chicken wire and wood (that kept catching fire).

28. The original kitchen was 150-square-foot room with no windows, one steam table, a microwave and a fryer.

27. White recalls the first less-than-favorable review in The Tampa Tribune that slammed the Styrofoam plates and fried artichoke hearts.

26. By the mid-1980s, Skipper's grew to include an outdoor stage area, the Skipperdome, where music is featured Tuesday through Sunday nights.

25. The first concert with a cover charge was Tom Gribbon and the Saltwater Cowboys, for $2.

24. White, who is a notary, has performed numerous weddings at Skipper's and elsewhere. Some were married on the dance floor where they met.

23. White says he presided over a lesbian wedding 20 years ago (not legal, but symbolic). He's seen pirate, Goth and ska weddings, and one where he dressed as Friar Tuck.

22. For more than 20 years, each Thursday night has been devoted to music of The Grateful Dead and tie-dyed T-shirts.

21. This year marks the 15th year that local Grateful Dead cover group Uncle John's Band has played Thursday nights.

20. A portrait of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia adorns one Skipperdome wall. One night, artist Judy Eidge projected Garcia's face, and patrons painted in the colors.

19. For 23 years, Skipper's has showcased reggae music and Red Stripe Jamaican beer (Island Night Wednesdays with Impulse).

18. The largest concerts in Skipper's history were reggae. “It put us on the map in the 1980s,” says White. “We'd have a thousand people a night.”

17. Blues also put Skipper's on the map. In 2001, the International Blues Federation in Memphis named it “Best Blues Club” in America.

16. Among the celebrated artists who have played Skippers are Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Buckwheat Zydeco, Drive-by Truckers, Leon Russell, Wanda Jackson, Ralph Stanley, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Diamond Teeth Mary McClain, Blind Boys of Alabama, Canned Heat and the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

15. Singer/songwriter Rob Thomas, of Matchbox Twenty fame, got his start as an opening act at Skipper's.

14. The first major event at Skipper's was The Freaker's Ball in 1980, a Halloween tradition that has continued with clever and outlandish costumes. The theme this year is Grave Situations (music by Uncle John's Band).

13. Skipper's used to sell more than 100 pounds of smoked mullet a week. It's down to about 25 pounds as other items have been added to the menu.

12. Employees are called Mullets, and two of them, caterer and kitchen manager Vicki Dodds and staffer Bonnie O'Connor, have been with Skipper's more than 30 years.

11. The place is filled with weird stuff donated by patrons, such as a large plastic horse that keeps getting redecorated, and a real moonshine still from Dade City (hanging over the bar).

10. In 2011, Skipper's was featured on the Travel Channel's “Man v. Food.” Host Adam Richman loved the blackened grouper Reuben so much, he featured it again on his “Best Sandwich in America” series.

9. Skipper's grouper Reuben finished in the top 20 on that series. National exposure brings in foodies from throughout the world. Every rerun brings a new wave.

8. Skipper's has a symbiotic relationship with community radio station WMNF (88.5 FM), serving as host to numerous WMNF-sponsored concerts, such as the station's annual birthday party.

7. Before a wooden dance floor was built, concertgoers danced on sand brought in from Lake Wales to make “the world's largest litter box.”

6. Through Skipper's talent agency, White books performers for other venues, including the Hard Rock Café, The House of Blues, the City of Dunedin and others.

5. Alligator has always been on the menu: deep fried gator tail, barbecued gator ribs and gator black bean chili. Mike Fagan, a gator trapper from Dade City, supplies the meat.

4. Much of the Skipperdome was tacked together from salvaged wood and is decorated with donated signs and objects of art. Look for the Mona Lisa with a reefer dangling from her smile.

3. Over the years, Skipper's has held many benefit concerts for musicians and worthy causes. White estimates more than $1 million dollars has been raised.

2. Near the narrow, cozy Oyster Bar, which appears to be held together by posters and bumper stickers, is the tiny Tahiti Room. It used to be a music lounge. Today it's an eating area where diners scribble notes on the walls.

1. Skipper's is a place with character and a place for characters. Many regulars get nicknames, such as Dancin' Paul (O'Byrne), a longtime regular who almost lives at the place.

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