It's Thursday, the New Friday as everyone calls it these days, and late afternoon. While there's winter weather everywhere else, on Florida's Gulf Coast it's still hot and sunny. You wouldn't know it here, though, because the air conditioning is blasting and tinted windows cut the glare in Clearwater's Back Bar. Behind me sits a foosball table; on the other side of the bar is a pool table and an old jukebox blasting classic rock. Each wall has a flat-screen TV, the one over the bar tuned to a local news channel. The rest, to ESPN.
General manager and part-owner Karen Lawler flits about behind the bar, pouring drinks and setting up for the happy hour rush that's about to hit. She's thin, with neck-length blonde hair, wearing skin-tight black pants with a silver chain around her waist and a black scoop top that shows off the requisite Florida chest freckles.
"People can't believe you can actually smoke here, you know what I mean?" Lawler says. "People come from Boston, New York, Ireland, and they can't believe it." Yes, while parka-clad people huddle outside in Manhattan's 20-degree weather, the clientele smoke inside wearing Floridian business attire: short-sleeve, button-collar shirts and khaki pants.
Now, most of the men dress that way. Three seats away from me a man with a gimme cap and a shirt with torn-off sleeves, a dead ringer for Larry The Cable Guy, puffs on a Padrón Londres in natural wrapper. Three seats from him sits a woman in business attire nursing an appletini. Another woman, this one with long curly blonde hair and wearing a wife beater and short black shorts, plops on a stool between Larry and I and announces that she's been playing tennis. She's sweating lightly and lifts her shirt to show me her abs. "See? I'm fat," she says.
Yeah, sure. The Back Bar, which bills itself as "The Sexiest New Martini and Cigar Bar" lives up to its motto.
While setting up the bar, Lawler points out that they offer only name brand liquor—there are no well drinks in this place; hell, there's not even a well. Then she ticks off the martini menu on her fingers. "We got every martini. We got double espresso martinis, Gray Goose martinis, blueberry martinis, pomegranate martinis. They knock you on your ass," she adds. "It's all good."
Then she leads me on a quick tour. Against the wall rests a case of wooden lockers; a few of them have golden name plates. One reads "Is That Smoke?"
"He wants to remain anonymous," she says.
In the glass humidor beside the locker case she points out a nearly empty box of Arturo Fuente 8-5-8s and a half-full box of Fuente Hemingway Signatures. "They're customer favorites," she says. On a nearby coffee table she puts out fresh cigar menus beside copies of Cigar Aficionado. "They're for people who like to read the reviews," she explains. All told, Back Bar offers 37 types of cigars, from the $17 C.A.O. The Sopranos Edition Soldier to the $3 Acid Krush Blue. Larry spent $4 on his.
We continue upstairs, where a hand-railed cubbyhole with intimate seating for four overlooks the bar. Tinsel and artificial tree limbs lay on the couches. "Without my Christmas stuff it's really nice up here," Lawler says. Next to it is the small office where she takes care of business. Two years ago, Lawler and former NBA center Matt Geiger bought the place; as the minority shareholder, Lawler runs it. Seven days a week, until 2 a.m.
Back down on the first floor, Jay Chandler walks in the door, dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and khakis. He heads straight for the humidor and picks out a Fuente. "I just started smoking them the other day," he says. While Lawler guillotines its end with a cutter, Chandler says that he walked in from the Courtside Grille next door.
"When they close we get lots of people," Lawler adds. "It's all good."
Back Bar Martini & Cigar Bar
110 Fountain Parkway North
Clearwater, Florida 33716