Beach shack vibe without sand or tourists.
Our trip to Swigwam Beach Bar came as a bit of an accident, a word-of-mouth recommendation during an afternoon of drinking down the street at local St. Pete dive bar king Shadracks. Though the space wouldn’t jump out as a must-visit dive given its pleasant-looking, middle-of-a-retail-block location, it came as no shock to learn that Swigwam is actually a relocated beach shack moved off the beach after a change in ownership at the attached hotel. The beach bar’s former manager took the opportunity to associate the old name with a new spot, giving birth to today’s Swigwam Beach Bar. The vibe inside replicates the beach dynamic to the extent that an off-beach location allows.
St. Pete Beach is a maze of natural and man made island outputs connected by a series of causeways. Swigwam sits in the Brightwater portion of that quasi-archipelago, itself a stretch of beach bars opposite beach public access and surrounded by touristy timeshares and condos. If there was such thing as a downtown for an island three blocks wide, the Corey Avenue area that houses Swigwam would qualify, a hub of must-haves that clearly includes a place to day drink.
Outside, there may be no more Florida a siren song than a set of bright blue Adirondack chairs offering a scenic view of the bar’s parking lot. This present-day incarnation of Swigwam opens up into a space that could have been a basic rectangular room with walls but instead brings that kind of dive bar chime we hope for with with stapled dollar bills and a thick set of locals that, on our visit, showed no sign of vacating their seating.
The front room is pleasantly cramped, offering just enough space between seats to be comfortable while still retaining that dive bar liveliness that comes from drinking among packed-in strangers. The walls are satisfyingly thick with eye candy, ranging from the aforementioned dollar bills to soccer scarves along the ceiling to just enough Yankees memorabilia to annoy even a passing baseball fan.
The bar itself is a simple L-shaped construction, beer cooler behind it and, noteworthy given Florida dive bar laws, a full complement of liquor that comes with a bar license that allows it (not always standard). A back game room includes a pool table, foosball and a Golden Tee machine, otherwise known as the dive bar gaming trifecta.
But a Florida dive bar like Swigwam Beach Bar isn’t built off the attributes of the space. This is a neighborhood bar with beach bar roots, a traveling community of regulars packing into a simple space and creating a unique vibe where otherwise this country’s one millionth Subway might have stood. Preventing that kind of atrocity is achievement enough, but the success of the bar in creating a hint of dive bar authenticity is a profound accomplishment worth a visit to the island’s historic center.
Editor’s Note: This review was updated in March 2022 to remedy a handful of misrepresented facts about the history of Swigwam Beach Bar.