Of all the bars and restaurants along Safety Harbor's picturesque Main Street, the Whistle Stop Grill & Bar — so named because of its proximity to the train tracks — has long stood as the town's go-to option.
Opened as an ice cream shop in the 1960s, Whistle Stop transitioned into its current incarnation more than 20 years ago. Although Safety Harbor has its fair share of cocktail spots, beer bars and even a brewery during that period, the daily full house at the Whistle Stop tells you all you need to know about where the locals go.
The tagline at the Whistle Stop is "Old Florida, New Vibe," but of course, "new" is subject to change over time, especially when we're talking a couple of decades. As such, it's reasonable to expect a few artifacts of the recent past — a martini-heavy cocktail menu, for example — mixed in with the laid-back, distinctly Old Florida flavor.
Although Safety Harbor is on the water, it's not a beach town. The vibe at Whistle Stop, however, is absolutely beachy. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a patch of sand somewhere in the sprawling, open-air patio, but the closest thing to it is a small mulched area in the corner, which is where I sat and had a look at the drink list.
There are 18 beers on draft, most of which are local. While I perused the selection, I noticed that there was a beer dinner in progress, pairing a four-course meal with five selections from Largo's Barley Mow Brewing. That explained the multiple Barley Mow options on the menu, but there was no shortage of additional options from the bay area and beyond, from South Florida's Funky Buddha to Crooked Thumb, which is just a short stroll down the street.
The remainder of the drink menu consists of a varied wine selection, as well as a fairly extensive cocktail list. About half are of the martini-style variety, including the ubiquitous Cosmo (as well as a Crystal Cosmo version made with white cranberry) and a variety of fruit-forward, primarily vodka-based options.
I tried the White Orchid, which blends Stoli blueberry vodka with Bauchant orange liqueur, mixed in with white cranberry and peach juices. This is the kind of concoction that doesn't tend to factor in heavily in modern cocktail menus, but sometimes a sweet, unapologetically fruity vodkatini isn't such a bad thing to sip during a cool breeze on a Safety Harbor afternoon.
Ditto the Pink Flamingo, which certainly has some Old Florida in the name. This one combines Stoli vanilla vodka with lime and grapefruit juice, complete with a sugared rim. While the sugared rim may be a bit much, the flavor combo was fantastic.
There are some more in-season cocktails, so to speak — stuff that you'd expect to find at your average modern cocktail bar. For example, there are a few cocktails made with certified-organic spirits, including a margarita, a Southside and a cucumber cooler, garnished with mint from the Whistle Stop's garden. There are also a few mule drinks available, including a scotch-based one made with the smartly selected Monkey Shoulder blend.
There's live music on the weekends, a weekly open mic night and even a monthly book club.
Safety Harbor has a lot of great drinking options, and I'm always glad to take the occasional trip to try something new. Of course, you also need an appreciation for the classics, and from its long tenure and neighborhood-favorite status, Whistle Stop Grill & Bar easily qualifies.
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