Skipper’s Smokehouse, off the main road, shaded beneath a thick canopy of century-old oaks and hidden in the suburbs of Tampa, is not a place visitors usually just stumble upon.
But this island-style roadhouse, serving up blues, funk and rock alongside grouper and gator, still is usually packed on weekend nights, when guitars wail and the dance floor fills with flip-flopped locals and travelers fortunate to have found this place.
Skipper’s Smokehouse has served up seafood and live music since 1980, when three U.S. Air Force buddies purchased the young mom-and-pop seafood restaurant. For years, the restaurant drew locals through word of mouth, and since 2011, the crowd has grown larger, thanks to two features on the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food and news clips from as far as China.
But some things do not change, and others evolve ever so slowly, with time.
The handwritten notes on the bar’s wall contain a growing record of patrons’ musings. An oak tree branch has emerged from the purple-painted front of Skipper’s. Colorfully painted wood benches near the outdoor stage have weathered over time and settled into the ground at peculiar angles.
Defining Skipper’s is difficult. It’s a restaurant, bar, top-notch music venue and hangout spot. It feels like a combination of a seaside joint and old, rural Florida.
Once, back in the ‘80s, blues musician Lonnie Mack called Skipper’s the “club that washed ashore,” says owner Tom White.
Around Skipper’s, visitors will find hand-painted murals, concert posters, framed pictures and florescent-lit beer signs. In the bar, a still that once produced moonshine hangs on the wall.
“It looks like flotsam and jetsam,” White says.
Lonnie Mack’s description of Skipper’s fit, so it stuck – just like the name for the outdoors venue where musicians play six days a week. That’s the “Skipperdome,” shaded by the oak trees that twinkle with lights at night.
Music goes on in the Skipperdome on Tuesdays through Sundays, rain or shine.
“We don’t cancel,” White says. “Unless there’s a hurricane – then we might cancel. Or we might have a hurricane party,” he adds, laughing.
White never meant for Skipper’s to happen like this. He and his buddies thought they would work the restaurant for a while and then sell it. But making people happy and getting to know the regulars drew White in, over the years, he says.
The restaurant also forged a relationship with local radio station WMNF 88.5, which interviews and helps promote some of the acts visiting Skipper’s.
White also loves focusing on the food. A Florida boy, he fished off the piers of Miami. He knows good seafood and buys fresh, briny oysters from Louisiana, Texas and Florida – but mostly Florida, whenever possible.
On Man v. Food, host Adam Richman praise the blackened grouper Reuben, Skipper’s unique take on the traditional corned beef Reuben. Rickman also tried the pressure-smoked alligator ribs, sourced directly from a gator trapper White knows.
Other popular items on the menu include conch fritters and crispy hush puppies that rival any in the South. There are also several distinctly bayou-based offerings, such as crawfish and a Cajun po’ boy sandwich.
When White and his partners bought Skipper’s in 1980, Skipper’s was more of a biker and hippie hangout, he says. The restaurant soon started drawing students from the University of South Florida with popular reggae nights each Wednesday, which visitors will still find at Skipper’s. Thursdays are Grateful Dead night, featuring Uncle John’s Band.
On weekend nights, visitors can hear a variety of musical genres, including rock, blues, funk, bluegrass, worldbeat, Americana, rockabilly and swing. “Generally stuff you don’t hear on mainstream radio,” White says.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not popular acts. On a warm October night, Langhorne Slim & The Law packed the house and delivered solid guitar work and melodic rock ‘n roll vocals. Concert-goers finished their crawfish and took to the dance floor with plastic cups of draft beer in hand.
Skipper’s offers a wide selection of draft beer and when concerts are going, drinks can be ordered at several spots, including inside the restaurant and out in the Skipperdome.
Though shows are 21-plus, children are allowed with their parents and White prides himself in providing a family-friendly environment. Over the years, he says, he has seen children grow up and come back as adults with their own children in tow.
“I’ve seen three and four generations of families,” White says.
What’s the future of Skipper’s, the bar that outlasts hurricanes and the march of three decades?
Maybe a few more “creature comforts,” White says, and more experimental menu items. But, otherwise, visitors can expect many more years of the same Skipper’s Smokehouse.
“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. I think we have a good business model,” White says. “And we’re going to keep that funky, original feel.”