Ybor City, 11 p.m.
A legendary night out in Tampa’s legendary Latin Quarter
Here I am, standing at the corner of 7th Ave. and Calle Angel Oliva, in a rented tux. Not so keen on wearing someone else’s pants, but I look good. When we arrived at The Italian Club a couple of hours ago, the street wasn’t hopping like this. There were a few people strolling around Tampa’s historic district, cast in a warm rusty hue left over from the sunset. We parked right up front. But now, this place is wall-to-wall people.
I’m taking a quick break from the gala. From the outside, The Italian Club looks like a perfectly square wedding cake. Inside, it shows its age—in a good way—with a worn marble staircase enveloped in wrought-iron scrollwork winding up three floors. And the bathrooms! The urinals look like porcelain phone booths.
The buddies I’m visiting are working the fundraiser, so will likely be the last ones out. I survey the lay of the land. In the historic Latin Quarter, century-old social clubs line the street alongside brick storefronts with ornate facades—cool old walk-ups that sprung up around what was once the world’s largest cigar industry.
He carries his hair in one hand and parts the crowd with strong strides.
Across the street, a group of hot chicks head toward Coyote Ugly. On the other corner, the patio of a drinking place called Gaspar’s Grotto starts to cackle. Food first. If the boys want to go out after the gala, I’ll need something more substantial than the hors d’oeuvres served at the party.
I buy a Cubano wrapped in white paper and a can of Coke from a window vendor, and park it on a bench at the curb. The paper helps collect the juice, but it’s still a balancing act to get through the pork-and-pickle sandwich without making a mess on my patent-leather rentals.
This street attracts all kinds. The college crowd seems to like a bar called Green Iguana. A fun mix heads into Hamburger Mary’s. Live classic rock bellows from biker bars, and it seems like every third storefront is a tattoo parlor. People everywhere smoke in public. Men and women, kicked back on sidewalk benches puff on huge stogies. It’s got to be a smell unique to Ybor City, this mix of tobacco and salty humidity.
Four blocks in, I pass a six-foot-tall drag queen in six-inch heels. His face is made up in silver-sparkle and blue that matches his sequined mini dress. He carries his hair in one hand and parts the crowd with strong strides. I figure the hair was too tall to fit in the car on the drive over.
I’m picking up momentum. The Coke has washed down most of the mustard funk. Backup mint? Check. Time for a drink? I check texts to see if the boys are looking for me. All clear.
It’s getting boozy out here. A few of the clubs flying the rainbow flag have long lines to get in. The tux might move me to the front of the line, I think, but then note the prevailing Abercrombie theme in the queue…better find something more my speed.
Partygoers congregate on the wrought-iron balconies above 7th Ave. and send catcalls over the crowd. I find a bar with no line and step in. I work through the crowd toward the bar, get to about three deep, and the place erupts. Spotlights hit the bar and the house music goes way up for a go-go-boy version of Coyote Ugly. Good timing.
Most of my cohorts are distracted by the show, so I slip in closer to the bar, get the bartender’s attention and grab a beer. If this is the entertainment at the slow bar, I wonder, what the heck is going on in the places lined out around the block?
I’m about halfway through the beer and deeply invested in the show when my phone vibrates. Six ounces in three gulps, and I’m back on the crowded sidewalk. Many people have spilled into the streets. It seems like anyone driving down 7th Ave. at midnight wants their car to be seen, so crawling a few feet at a time isn’t an issue. It’s quite a site: glowing streetlamps, hot rods and an exhilarating mix of humanity. As I approach The Italian Club, I see my friends mingling outside.
“Everyone came out tonight,” I surprise them from behind.
“There you are,” says Ben. “You ready to go?”
“No, no, no!” says Eric. “Let’s have a nightcap.”
“I’m in,” I say. “How do we get up to those balconies?”