So good it breaks the scale. It’s probably a 12, honestly.
I’m going to be clear right from the jump. Mahuffer’s is the best dive bar I’ve ever set foot in and it made me reconsider every rating I’ve ever given. Monet once painted the same church façade at different light over and over again to show how the same space can change by season and by light. I’m not Monet, but I love Mahuffer’s so much that my first urge was to drink there at every hour of the day across every possible season to experience all it has to offer. It is no understatement to say that Mahuffer’s is the best Tampa dive bar and perhaps the best American dive bar.
It’s hard to know where to start with the space. Adjacent grass lot parking provides the best start to a visit, funneling visitors into a corner entrance that, at night, hardly looks like a door, more a mooring spot for a rundown tugboat, let alone the portal to dive bar paradise. That first view of the space is…impressive. The ceilings are ornate with all manner of hanging material, from bras to underwear to dollar bills to signs to you-name-it.
Every possible firm (and not so firm) surface is adorned with something. Often times, that means dollar bills, but the bar space is so thick with content that a Highlights-style ‘you find it’ photo would be impossible to decipher. And the ceiling is low. Like, at times, uncomfortably low for a reasonably tall person, and with bra straps (or license plates) peeling off the ceiling, the space is certainly cozy and would be suffocating if it wasn’t so visually stimulating.
It’s tempting to use the word ‘room’ to orient a visitor to the space, but in all reality, the space is one circular track that ebbs and flows through visual landmark after visual landmark. The ceiling extends throughout much of the space, but opens up into a quasi-porch that sits opposite an open-air stage and associated seating area. It was dark, so all bets are off, but the outdoor space even features a cage that looks to harbor some manner of animal, though I cannot confirm a sighting.
The bar creeps inside through rooms that feature such aggressive seating choices as plush leather couches in the open Florida air (ballsy choice). The tour continues past a painted table adorned with the Mahuffer’s name and a ‘do not write on this table’ message that has, miraculously, been heeded. A narrow corridor filled with even more upholstered seating and a broken-down jukebox opens up into a circular “room” that includes a faux fireplace. Beyond, yet another bar space, that on the night of our visit included a one-man-band and a packed room of drunks singing along.
Not keeping up with this description? Now you know what it’s like to physically stand within the space.
The furniture carries the theme. Beyond a classic bottle cap table (impressive as it is), the beach theme is played up with the tip of a ship oriented to look like it’s crashing into the dive bar emerging from one of the walls. And it sits under a stained-glass lamp, covered with graffiti, the type of Tampa dive bar decoration that serves as one of many examples of how Mahuffer’s ups the game.
Out back (yes, we’re not done yet) sits a bit of a land of forgotten toys, including things like piled-up lumber, a broken arrow light-up sign, a handful of discarded signs and so many layers of “stuff” that it would take an archeological dig to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Mahuffer’s backyard. And I could keep going. There’s a half of a boat in the front yard, there’s some impressive neon signage, we found a Hocus Pocus-themed painting, even the bathroom divider between urinals is some kind of corrugated plastic. The place is wild. A dive bar seed was planted somewhere in Indian Shores, Florida, and over the eons, Mahuffer’s grew up. That’s the feel of the place. It’s as organic a dive bar space as I’ve ever visited.
And, at the end of the night, I was charged $13 for a handful of drinks.
There is no stronger recommendation on this site, in this review, in my life, than to recommend a visit to Mahuffer’s. It’s worth a drive across the Tampa causeway, hell, it’s worth a flight to Tampa in the first place. And it’s worth a Monet-style treatment, as no doubt the intense labyrinth that is Mahuffer’s reveals new and different layers in spring, in summer, in daytime, at night. Bring a handful of dollar bills to add to the ambiance and, worry not, Mahuffer’s keeps a staple gun behind the bar.